Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Playing With Matches

Finally, we're going to hear from a real state. I mean no offense to my friends in Iowa and New Hampshire, but if you went out of your way to find the two most unrepresentative states in our union, you might well end up with these two. Disproportionately rural and overwhelmingly white, Iowa and New Hampshire lack both ethnic and economic diversity. The largest city in either state, Des Moines, boasts a population that ranks below such obscure suburbs as San Bernardino, California, Yonkers, New York, and North Las Vegas Nevada.

Michigan, on the other hand, looks like America. It has rural and farming interests in the north and west, large college towns (Ann Arbor) and small metropolises (Grand Rapids and Flint), and significant mining and tourist industries in the Upper Peninsula. And of course, there's also that huge urban center on the Canadian border known as Detroit, an economically devastated city with a significant African American population. You want to talk about diversity: the state is home to both Michael Moore and Ted Nugent.

In a perfect world, Michigan would provide us with our first glimpse of how a diverse, multi-ethnic state feels about the current crop of presidential candidates. Of course, if this were a perfect world, George W. Bush would be mismanaging a McDonald's in Midland and testing his unitary executive theories on drive-thru cashiers and fry cooks. As it turns out, the Democrats have decided to punish the state for jumping ahead of South Carolina and Nevada (two more paragons of unrepresentativeness) by refusing to honor its selection of delegates. As a result, none of the Big Three Democratic candidates will be appearing in the home of the Big Three automakers. The Republicans, on the other hand, will feature a genuine election today, though it will not be contested by either Right Dead Fred or the phantom Mayor of 9/11.

So today's Michigan GOP primary has become a showdown between John McCain, who won there in 2000, Mitt Romney, whose father once governed the state, and Mike Huckabee, who hopes to score with fundamentalists in the west and survivalists in the north. The polls suggest a very tight race, with Huckabee in third place. A loss by Romney, after blowing tens of millions of dollars in futile combat in Iowa and New Hampshire, would likely conclude the meaningful portion of his candidacy. Victory by McCain would cement his position as frontrunner and put the campaigns of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani in serious jeopardy.

As long as there have been states that allow crossover voting, there have been fears that one party's supporters might choose to cast ballots in the other party's primary in order to do harm to their opponents. There is little indication that this sort of thing ever happens, at least to any meaningful extent, but if there could ever be a perfect situation for such an occurrence, it would exist today in Michigan. The Democratic race has been boycotted by the national party and its candidates; the GOP contest is heated, publicized, and significant. Since nobody registers by party in Michigan, there is no way to stop committed Democrats from voting in the only meaningful election in town: the Republican primary.

Enter Markos Moulitsas, proprietor of the highly influential pro-Democratic blog, Daily Kos. Moulitsas, or Kos as he is known to his fans, has organized a little movement he calls "Democrats for Mitt". Very simply, he is urging his allies in the Wolverine State not only to participate in the GOP primary, but to cast their ballots for Mitt Romney. He has been joined in this call by a number of likeminded bloggers.

The argument behind Democrats for Mitt is compelling. If Romney wins in Michigan, it is possible that we could reach February 5, Super Duper Tuesday, with five Republican candidates each having won a least one competitive primary election or caucus. This assumes a Thompson upset in South Carolina and a Giuliani victory in Florida, but it is not all that far fetched of a scenario. Even without Thompson, a four-man race would be unprecedented. Kos and the gang reason that every dollar spent by the Republicans attacking one another is a buck that they won't have on hand to take on Hillary or Barack in November. Further, such a logjam would guarantee at least another few weeks of back and forth bickering between the contenders, providing more negative material for the Democrats in the general election. A McCain win in Michigan, on the other hand, might give the GOP an unstoppable frontrunner and bring things to a quick conclusion; a Romney victory would assure a contentious and inconclusive race into the foreseeable future, and perhaps even—one can dream—a bitterly divided convention this summer.

The British have a saying about people being too clever by half, and I worry that it applies here. It takes big crystal balls to think you know what outcome will be most damaging the other side ten months into the future. Four years ago, the Democratic electorate—though notably not Kos—decided that John Kerry was the party's most electable candidate. Perhaps he was, but he certainly didn't win. In 1976, I remember pulling for Ronald Reagan to wrestle the nomination from Gerald Ford, convinced that an extremist like the ol' Gipper would be far easier to defeat in November. The first rule of politics, as in life, is simple: you never know.

This, of course, means that I don't know, either. But I have my concerns. I think a good argument can be made that the Mittster would be the strongest Republican nominee to come out of the GOP convention. First, governors have certain advantages going up against senators, namely proven executive experience. Just as important, unlike members of Congress, a former governor has not cast dozens of floor votes that can be dissected and exploited. Romney can say whatever he wants about the Iraq War because he never had to vote on the authorization to use force nor on any of the subsequent funding resolutions.

Second, there should be little doubt that the moderate Mitt will make a comeback on Labor Day should he be the GOP standard bearer. Gone will be the firebreathing Romney of the primaries, and in his place will be the successful blue state Republican governor, the man who worked effectively with Democrats, flourished in business, and saved the Salt Lake City Olympics. He'll still be a Mormon, of course, but the Christian conservative base will likely hold their noses and flock to him if the alternative is either Barack Obama or, especially, Hillary Clinton.

Most importantly, Mitt Romney is, in fact, the only serious candidate for president today who has successfully negotiated a comprehensive health care program for his constituents. You might not consider it ideal, and neither do I, but the fact is that it drew the support of an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature and the approval of Ted the Kennedy. The contrast to Barack Obama would highlight the experience issue as never before. The contrast to Hillary Clinton would, of course, be devastating.

Yeah, I know Romney has his negatives, and they are considerable. He remains the reigning gold medalist in the free style ideological flip flop. His speeches sound as though they were written by committee. His look is synthetic and his speaking style is, to be kind, uncharismatic. His foreign policy experience consists of finding housing for the Russian hockey team in Utah.

Still, I would not be unhappy to see Mitt Romney extinguished as a threat to advance to the White House. Of all the serious GOP candidates, only Mike Huckabee has a stronger claim on being an outsider untarnished by Bushism. The prospect of Romney rising from the floor in Michigan should chill any Democrat who has thought this through. The possibility that this rise might be aided by the liberal blogosphere could end up redefining the word irony, and not in a happy way.

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