February 21, 2012 A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2012

Political Rule Number One: there is no such thing as a slow news week in a presidential election year anymore.

It now seems ages ago that we were discussing Mitt Romney's narrow win over Ron Paul in the Maine caucuses on February 11, and the dust has surely settled on all those theories about Rick Santorum's huge wins in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado on February 7. Remember Romney's huge comeback in Florida and Nevada? Ancient history.

Now, with less than one week to go before Republicans in Michigan and Arizona vote in their respective primaries, almost everyone is hedging their bets on how all this will turn out.

Polls released Monday by several major news organizations--including CNN, Fox News and Gallup--all show Rick Santorum opening up a wider lead over Mitt Romney among Republicans nationally. Santorum now stands a better-than-average chance at winning Michigan, the state where Romney was born, and where his father served as governor.

Monday's Gallup data shows Santorum leading Romney nationally by ten percent (36% to 26%) with Newt Gingrich stuck at 13%. Santorum's gains in the especially crucial upcoming Super Tuesday primary states (Ohio and Virginia, among others) have come almost exclusively at the expense of Romney. Once again Romney seems trapped under his glass ceiling, loved by some Republicans, deeply distrusted by others. The Republican Party, normally a model of decorum, unity and genteel cohesion, seems on the verge of fragmentation.

There are plenty of prognosticators out there trying to explain what this all means, and over the course of the "slow news" weekend, and Monday, a consensus seemed to be building among the analysts and the talking heads. The term brokered convention has been tossed around a lot. And, more remarkably, talk persists about the deadlines for candidates to register in places like California. Republicans, it seems, are profoundly unhappy with their choice of candidates. Or so the pundits say.

Normally this kind of talk in late February amounts to nonsense, and the kind of thing that self-generates in the absence of other major domestic political news. When the political combat over the last ten days seemed to turn toward the Culture Wars--birth control and its relationship to health care and insurance, women's health issues, and arguments about religion and theology--it seemed that the pressing issues of the economy, jobs, Middle East tensions and gas prices lost all traction among the candidates.

What started as a misfire by the Obama administration on the issue of birth control and employer insurance, a proposed mandate that particularly outraged Catholics, seemed briefly to give the GOP a remarkable advantage in the public square. But when a Republican-controlled committee convened a hearing to debate the issue, women's groups and women in Congress were outraged that the entire panel of experts and witnesses called to testify were men. In the media frenzy that followed, the fracas seemed to backfire on the Congressional GOP.

The recent brouhaha over the funding relationship between the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood suggests a heightened degree of sensitivity on both sides of the newly ignited battleground.

A few days ago, Santorum had called Obama's spiritual vision "misguided" and a "phony theology." When the President's spokesmen cried foul, Santorum explained that he was not calling into doubt Obama's Christianity, but was instead referring to the President's secular belief system of a government as deliverer, a sort of proxy deity into which people pour faith. Also, Santorum clarified, the reference was to Obama's environmental policies, which Santorum says subjugate human needs (and especially American needs) for the sake of ecological priorities.

Liberals were outraged, accusing the former Pennsylvania senator of using barely-disguised language to bait evangelicals and social conservatives into more Main Street discussions of Obama's religion. But Santorum did not back down from his characterization of an Obama administration seeking to replace spiritual faith with loyalty to a benevolent government, all at the expense of taxpayers and the generations who must pay for this vision.

Then in an interview today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Franklin Graham, a reverend and the son of evangelist Billy Graham, went several steps further than Santorum seems willing to go. When asked directly whether Graham suspects Obama of being Muslim, Graham said that he "can't say categorically." Graham expanded his answer by explaining that under Sharia (Islamic Law) Obama is Muslim because his father and grandfather were Muslims.

"Islam has had a free pass under Obama," Graham added. Graham's comments on MSNBC became instant fodder for a barrage of media discussion, including his potshot at Romney's Mormonism, which he said is not regarded by theologians as mainstream Christianity.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, who has been injecting into his stump speeches and interviews the view that Judeo-Christian values, and by extension Christianity itself, have been under direct attack by liberals, jumped into the fray on CBS by accusing Obama of being unable to "talk accurately about radical Islam," and suggested that the President was creating a dangerous environment for Americans.

As if that weren't enough, Santorum told an audience today in Arizona that American liberals were out to shred the Constitution. Referring to an unconfirmed report quoting Ruth Bader Ginsburg as saying that other nations have better guiding documents, Santorum drew a line directly to Obama, suggesting that Obama and his allies are willing "to run roughshod over the Constitution" to facilitate progressive social change.

Later in the day Mitt Romney weighed in, calling for an end to religious intolerance and positing that it is a liberal media and cultural establishment-not conservatives-who engage in the widespread cultural bigotry by attempting to quash religious traditions.

Some conservative commentators and analysts, like Rush Limbaugh, have gone so far as to suggest that the current dust-ups over birth control, and social and religious issues are nothing more than traps by liberals, a poisonous bait-and-switch planted by culture radicals and perpetuated in the daily news cycle by like-minded reporters.

The Culture Wars, smoldering and dormant perhaps, seemed in the course of ten days to reignite. And for some conservatives, that means red meat is on the menu again.

But is this good policy for Republicans? Will such overt plays toward the Right prove to be strategically sound in November?

The GOP only weeks ago had a set of salient themes which, on the whole, looked like promising weapons for general election deployment: jobs, the economy, gas and oil prices, government spending and debt. Now, with signs of an economy perhaps--just maybe--showing signs of a rebound (the stock market reached a record high today, with the Dow rising past 13,000) across several indexes, such as jobs, consumer spending and consumer confidence, the Republican candidates seem almost too happy to strap on their flamethrowers for some cultural carnage..

Tonight in Arizona the four candidates will face off in what may be the last official televised debate of the primary and caucus season. (Several candidates have demurred on offers from Georgia and other locales for still more debates, so the general consensus is that CNN will host the final TV showdown).

A reasonable question to be posed for all four candidates--and we can predict what Ron Paul's libertarian perspective will be--is in light of this current frenzy of cultural and religious animosity (some would call it knife-fighting), is there in fact a non-level playing field for America's religious adherents? Are Muslims being coddled or given a free pass in the name of political-correctness, and are Christians under a concerted attack by the presumably atheistic moguls of Hollywood, and the savants of New York and the mass media?

The case can certainly be made, soundly and reasonably, that the answer is yes. For many Americans, the values associated with family, church or synagogue, and the notions of moral certainty, marital fidelity and sexual restraint have been for decades under continuous assault by the mass media, the cultural and literary mavens, and an influential liberal political establishment. Public schools have become battlegrounds over language and curriculum, student dress codes, religious expression and even birth control. Parents groups and schools and administrators skirmish over vaccinations for children. In the face of political correctness and in the name of inclusiveness, Christians grieve for the loss of simple public expressions of religious holidays and Christmas displays. A monument or display of the Ten Commandments triggers high-stakes court cases. Super Bowl half-time shows offer wardrobe and language malfunctions many deem offensive. Even spiritually-reflective moments by athletes are scrutinized with a cynical eye by sports writers and commentators.

The result was, predictably, a pushback and a backlash as many voters abandoned loyalty to a Democratic Party seen as more hospitable to moral relativism and stringent secularism. Some political historians would argue that the movement of evangelicals and Christian conservatives into the ranks of the GOP has in fact been pivotal in much of the Republican success of the last 25 years. The Republican electoral template was a reliable fact for both parties. And within that template was an energetic subset of support for candidates from Pat Robertson to Mike Huckabee to Rick Santorum, a broad section of Red States with a growing adherence to socially conservative values.

So, have Republicans simply found their newest strategic weapon? If the issue is not the economy, can they gain political ground nonetheless by portraying the President and the Washington establishment as spiritual charlatans, or worse, as cynical anti-religionists?

Questions like this most often turn toward that elusive and often hard-to-spot creature of the American landscape--the independent voter. Younger voters, especially, see themselves as unaligned to the two major parties, though many whom define themselves along progressive ideological lines identify with Obama just as those for whom Ron Paul's message resonates see themselves, to a degree, as libertarian Republicans. Then there is the always vague boundary placed on the words "younger voters," variously described as 18 to 24 year olds, but sometimes by the wider range of 18 to 35.

The hot button issue of birth control and women's health will also certainly create a wedge, with the potential to solidify the support of women of socially conservative values behind the GOP (perhaps an unnecessary step) but pushing independent women and non-aligned women sharply away.

But in any of these frameworks, a Republican appeal which imbeds evangelical religious arguments into the mainstream of political debate seems unlikely to sway independents, younger voters or large numbers of Democrats of marginal party loyalty. So then the question turns strategic: if by seeking to solidify support from the powerful conservative constituencies--Tea Partiers, social and religious conservatives, evangelicals, and the fanatically anti-Obama groups--are the principal Republican candidates pushing the GOP footprint too far to the Right to recover by the general election?

In contemporary times both major parties have experienced this paradox. In order to rally support from the base elements of a party's constituencies during the delegate selection contests, candidates sometimes engage in rhetorical appeals which can push intra-party debate away from the center of the party itself, and, in some cases demonstrably out of the mainstream of voter consensus.

Republicans faced this most notably in 1964, when Barry Goldwater ran as a staunch, hardline conservative at a time when the majority of the electorate still held high regard for the liberal progressions of New Deal and Great Society programs. And perhaps more importantly, Goldwater's Cold War campaign rhetoric was seen as dangerously reactionary at a time when most Americans placed greater confidence in the tools of statesmanship and negotiation when it came to U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. Goldwater won the fight with his moderate GOP rivals, but Lyndon Johnson was able to easily use Goldwater's own words as a blunt but effective tool for portraying the conservative Arizonan as an extremist.

The Democratic Party faced a similar challenge through much of the 1970s and 1980s. Party reforms begun after 1968 opened up internal processes to facilitate more diverse representation, but this soon facilitated an environment in which liberal and sometimes quasi-radical components of the party's base began vigorously shaping Democratic policy and platform--to such a degree that the party found itself significantly to the left of the mainstream political footprint. When these liberal components of the party became the dominant force, left-leaning activists and interest groups began to exert disproportionate sway over candidate selection and much of the language of the intra-party debate. As a result, Democratic conventions produced candidates who, in some cases (George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis) were simply too liberal to the majority of Americans.

Beginning in the late 1980s and early 90s parties--especially the Democratic Party--began seeking systemic ways to moderate the activist components and interest groups which often produced the atmosphere of strident debate during caucuses and primaries. For Democrats, the creation of so-called Super Delegates and the bundling of primaries in demographically diverse and strategically important states into single voting days, such as Super Tuesday, met with marginal success in some election years, producing pragmatic and generally centrist candidates like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

But as a result of these counter-reforms, many left-leaning and progressive interest groups within the Democratic Party found that their message was getting lost or ignored. Over time many of these progressive voters migrated toward third party candidates such as Ralph Nader. Republicans, too, felt the effects of some of this out-migration when voters moved in large numbers to support Reform Party candidates such as Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan.

Candidates are allowed a small degree of elasticity over the course of running for President. But what is said on the campaign trail in the pursuit of delegates must be brought into harmony with a strategic plan for communicating with voters in a general election. A party's nominee must be able to bring the discussion back toward the center in a general election. Demagoguery during primaries and caucuses can often push voters away, rather than attract them into the fold. And national conventions, rarely the source of drama since the end of the 1960s, have become increasingly choreographed events designed to project unity and cohesion, but more importantly, maximum outreach to the independent and non-aligned viewers. If the central message of the party is too far to the left or the right, undecided voters will walk away.

So, Republicans now face a dilemma. The choices seem laden with baggage or infused with complexity. Rick Santorum seems to have found the sweet spot among social and religious conservatives, but his message may repel some independents, some women voters and unaligned Democrats. Santorum will be an easy target for the well-funded Democratic campaign in the fall. Mitt Romney, once the front-runner and presumptive nominee, seems maddeningly unable to break the glass ceiling. Worse, he too will become target practice for liberals who will portray him as a member of the fraternity of the super-rich, a One Percenter, and a serial flip-flopper. Newt Gingrich, who is sometimes the most statesmanlike of the group, remains a cypher and potential loose cannon. He can be expected to go the distance in direct debate performances against Obama, but an erratic past and pesky ethics problems from his days as House Speaker will haunt him and almost certainly damage the GOP in the fall.

All three of these candidates have been forced (or have forced themselves) into an ever-rightward set of dance steps beginning last summer. The presence of other overtly conservative candidates, Tea Party favorites such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, helped greatly to facilitate this shift. Ron Paul's libertarian values have kept his message consistent over time, allowing him the ability to avoid this rightward progression, though Paul makes little attempt to court or appease the social conservatives.

Romney, accused often by most of his opponents as being a closet moderate, or worse, a crypto-liberal, has travelled so far to the right since running for governor of Massachusetts that direct comparisons of his statements from those days with his avowed positions now create an almost comic contrast. Santorum has been labeled by his opponents as a Senate tax-and-spender, and a king of the earmarks and pork. Santorum and Romney each attempt to finesse their way out of entrapment by pointing out--reasonably so--that that they each served at the behest of voters in decidedly liberal states, and that they had to sometimes make political accommodations.

But in the process of wooing voters in the primary and caucus states so far, both Romney and Santorum seem to have crossed a threshold close to the point of no return--or, at least, a point of diminishing return. Romney remains stuck in the mid-30s in terms of support, and Santorum, likewise, may soon discover that without the backing of traditional Republicans, he too has reached a glass ceiling. And at this point, despite the enormous energy that flowed his way after South Carolina, Newt Gingrich seems stuck permanently in the lower teens.

So that brings us back to the B-word. Talk of a brokered convention is typically the result of too many reporters and analysts with too much time on their hands. Four years ago this sort of talk went on around the clock, all winter and spring and right into June. Hillary Clinton eventually conceded, and Barack Obama was nominated in Denver at a conventional notable for its remarkable stagecraft unity.

But, for Republicans these days that pesky B-word remains so persistent a part of the language now that it has transcended being a parlor game, and rumors swirl daily among journalists who watch the every movement of people like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal.

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review