Mitt Romney the “vulture capitalist” and the Rest of the Republican Clowns Who Have Presidential Fantasies
“I say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentleman! Hello, South Carolina!” Jon Huntsman shouted to a room of people in New Hampshire. He repeated the ticket-to-ride phrase a few times; assuming that there was some reason for it, beyond a fondness for the Beatles, one has to ask: Who is issuing these tickets, for what conceivable reason, and what is the fare? In Huntsman’s case, the stationmaster may have been relatively easy to spot: his father, whose money might make many things possible, was in the audience. But why spend it; why, at this point, keep going?
When the New Hampshire results came in, with Mitt Romney winning—he got about thirty-nine per cent of the vote—commentators offered two immediate, somewhat contradictory conclusions: the outcome could hardly be better for Romney, and nobody else was leaving the race. Everyone got a ticket to South Carolina. Perhaps New Hampshire’s transformative powers have been exaggerated, and the primary is now so early that most voters aren’t even awake yet. Or Romney’s victories may simply seem less compelling to his opponents than his liabilities; this week has brought a sustained, and arguably belated, interrogation of Romney’s history at Bain Capital. (Alex Koppelman has more on that.) Perhaps none of the not-Romneys want to leave before he’s got the worst of it.
There is a why-not quality to the attacks on Romney, from Newt Gingrich’s involvement in the airing of an anti-Bain documentary to Rick Perry’s characterization of Romney as a “vulture capitalist.” (“That almost sounds like Occupy Wall Street, not someone who is governing the state of Texas as a conservative,” Sean Hannity said to Perry.) One suspects that the “vulture capitalist” line resonates because it serves, for many, not only as a description of Romney’s career but of his personality. It captures something about him—the way he seems to embody the least attractive qualities of both the animal and the automaton. Listening to Romney, one sometimes feels trapped in a science-fiction story that has been written to explore the question of whether robots can lie, or be greedy.
And yet the possibility of a Mitt implosion doesn’t seem like enough of an explanation for why so many improbable candidates are still in it. Most generously, there may be sound, or at least plausible, ideological or tactical reasons to stay: Ron Paul can influence the Party platform, Huntsman can set himself up for 2016. (Last night, Huntsman got seventeen per cent of the vote.) There also seems to be a strong strain of irrationality, though. What we’ve learned after the first caucus and primary is that the casting of actual votes is not enough to dispel the fundamental oddness of this race. It is a contest in which the sitting governor of Texas has become a figure of ridicule, while a Congressman from Texas who has, for years, almost defined the term fringe, has become a collector of delegates: Ron Paul was the second-place finisher in New Hampshire, and a strong one, with about a quarter of the votes. Perry got about one per cent. According to exit polls, Paul was first among young voters.
Is what’s keeping at least some of the candidates in the race—or “the hunt,” as Huntsman called it—not the illusion of victory but the sheer joy of knocking things down? Grown men don’t have as many opportunities as they might to act like toddlers. This isn’t a train going to South Carolina or to anywhere in particular. It’s a set of careening bumper cars. The question, and not just for the Republican Party, is when it becomes a demolition derby. Also, one of the few points to emerge clearly in the debates this past weekend was that the candidates really don’t like each other. (Santorum, who ended up with nine per cent of the vote, would have done well to hide that a little better.) Grudges are great motivators.
Does any of that explain why almost all of the six remaining candidates sounded improbably pleased with how they’d done? Ron Paul was unfakeably gleeful. “I still have to chuckle when they describe you and me as dangerous,” he told his supporters, even though the sound he made was more like a happy cackle. He glowed; for a man who hates government, Paul managed, for a moment, to make politics look fun. And maybe it is fun; there are the balloons to consider, and the cold pizza, and the adulation. (That feeling passed as soon as Santorum began speaking.) Gingrich, with nine per cent of the vote, made politics sound beside the point. Before invoking Thomas Edison, he brought up an eminently practical question the candidates were asked in a debate over the weekend, about whether their vision of no government included doing away with a program that helped low-income people afford heating oil in the winter. He dismissed the premise—Washington thinking. Why not just create whole new energy sources? Gingrich talks as if he’s running for the job of alchemist in chief.
Or maybe Newt is just thinking about money. He wouldn’t be alone. Money, in this case, is a shorthand for a whole set of factors that keep candidates in: the money that they might make more easily for themselves, now that more people know who they are (speech-selling, book-writing, Fox News anchoring); and the money that, thanks to Super PACs, they don’t have to work particularly hard to raise.
Conservatives felt no shame at sending over 4,000 Americans to their deaths based on a pack of lies. Conservatives felt no shame at wrecking the economy. Conservative fell no shame in doing everything they can to keep the economy from recovering just to make Democrats look bad. So why feel shame in staying in a political race - in which PACs play a large role, but conservatives are taking millions from gullible Main Street conservatives - the same gullible rubes who also bought the lies about Iraq, think liberals somehow caused the economic collapse. OK wait a minute, maybe these rubes should keep sending their money to clowns who will just screw them over again. Politics has turned into some kind of sick game in which conservative Americans appear to like being treated like trash.