January 26, 2012
The Republican voters of South Carolina turned the race for President on its head last Saturday by turning themselves on their heads. In the space of less than a week, Mitt Romney's double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich in the polls became a double-digit deficit in the voting booth. The candidate deemed most electable was unelected.
For Mitt, it was the perfect storm; for Newt, it was the perfect wave.
The PAC ads may have had something to do with it, but moistly it was the debates. Pressed to disclose his tax returns as his dad George had done in his own bid for the nomination in 1968, Romney the Junior got that deer-in-the-headlights look and finally blurted out, "Maybe." Asked to estimate his tax rate, he stammered, "It's probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything because my last ten years, my income comes overwhelmingly from some investments," immediately evoking in his listeners the "Buffet Rule," Barack Obama's tax-the-rich proposal based on billionaire Warren Buffet's critique of a tax code that gives investors like him a lower rate than wage-earners like his secretary. Then there was that remark calling the $374,000 he'd earned in speaking fees last year "not very much," which opponents quickly pointed out is around ten times South Carolinians' average yearly income. Add to all that the millions he's stashed in tax shelters in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere, and you've got a little income-inequality problem here.
Suddenly Romney was transformed — or rather, transformed himself — from Horatio Alger to Jay Gould, from boot-strapper to robber-baron. Suddenly it looked like he just might do to the country what he did in his years at Bain Capital, his private equity firm: take it over, milk it for a few years, and flip it to the Chinese for a tidy profit. His flustered responses to these questions made a lot of people think that he was not the solution to the nation's problems but a primary cause.
For Gingrich, it was the same, only opposite. Pressed to comment on his second wife's allegation that he'd asked her for an "open marriage" so he could consort with Callista without having to move out, he took the lash to the media, his choice whipping-boy, for their petty preoccupation with the personal. Asked about his own tax return, he trotted it out the next day, revealing he'd payed over 30 percent, looking by comparison like a middle-class schoolteacher instead of the guy that got $300,000 a year from Freddie Mac to serve as their historian. As the debating progressed, he got that tiger-in-the-headlights look, yellow eyes burning brightly in the night, confident of forcing the Romney victory van to a screeching halt. At every turn, his rhetoric buried his reality.
The ironies are dizzying. Romney's tax rate — actually 14 percent, based on the returns that he grudgingly released on Tuesday — makes him Exhibit A for Obama's Buffet Rule and renders laughable his own proposals to eliminate estate taxes (yes, one day he too will die) and to "hold the line on individual income tax rates," most especially his own. Gingrich's self-serving repentance for his marital compromises — no dust-and-ashes there — must surely be suspect among Evangelical voters; leopards, especially of the political breed, are unlikely to change their spots. Nor could voters in general consider trivial his financial shenanigans and reputation as an erratic tyrant as Speaker of the House; those spots are even less likely to change. Yet they swallowed their suspicions and flocked to him in the final hour, demonstrating that the supposedly hard-core principles of family values and personal integrity turn to mush in the desperate desire for someone to unseat Obama. Even the squeaky-clean, up- from-the-working-class Santorum, acceptable to them in every principled way, they rejected as too much of a niche-candidate.
Now the ever-hopefuls are blanketing Florida with ads and debates in anticipation of the next showdown, January 31. But somewhere down there, in the swamps and on the beaches and amidst the foreclosed homes, an unexpected threat lies in wait. After spending millions on ads and bloodying one another in debates, they face a specter lurking in the mists who may wrest the nomination from their grasp as dissatisfaction and deadlock loom down the line — an apparition, a Burning Bush.