In that moment just before New Hampshire, when it was briefly possible to imagine Jon Huntsman fighting deep into the primaries, New York magazine’s John Heilemann made an astute observation. He pointed out that Huntsman’s real audience on election night wouldn’t be the country or the voters in other early states or even the political media. It would consist of exactly one person: Jon Huntsman Sr., the billionaire chemical magnate who, if the mood struck him, could take out his checkbook and completely upend the race. “An investment of, say, $10 million — a rounding error on the Huntsman Sr.
This wasn’t the most exciting debate of the campaign. But it was the debate that best illustrated the underlying dynamic: Romney’s going to win, but he’ll be one of the most flawed candidates either party has nominated in recent memory. To see this, look no further than last night’s installment of the recurring Freddie Mac dustup. Gingrich opened by lazily accusing Romney of investing in Freddie; Romney effortlessly parried the charge, explaining that he’d only invested in a mutual fund that bought shares in the company.
Ever since last fall, when Obama began honing the more confrontational style he displayed in the State of the Union speech, his advisers have insisted that populism has always been part of the president's political persona, not something he only groped for after two-and-a-half years of Republican intransigence. As David Axelrod told Politico, “The viability of the middle class, and the opportunity to get ahead, has been a central cause of Obama’s life.” It’s not that statements like this are untrue. It’s that they’re incomplete.
It’s not quite right to say that the hundreds of millions of dollars Mitt Romney amassed as a private equity baron were the cause of his South Carolina drubbing. But they didn’t exactly help, either. Newt Gingrich trounced the former Massachusetts governor among just about every demographic group that might nurse a grudge against a slick quarter-billionaire.
Two quick thoughts about the Florida debate. First, while it was generally too flat and plodding to change any momentum, I think Romney learned something important tonight: He learned that he can provoke Gingrich into spouting all manner of nonsense—what a certain former House Speaker once called “pious baloney”—pretty much at will, just by pressing Newt on his influence-peddling days. No doubt the lobbying/Freddie Mac albatross will continue to weigh down Gingrich, just like the tax-return issue dogged Romney.
The story of 2011 was that Republicans had a frontrunner they weren’t in love with. Mitt Romney spent the entire year below 25 percent in national polls; a new Mitt alternative surged ahead of him every few weeks, only to collapse when it turned out he or she couldn’t pass an eighth grade civics class. The pundits concluded from this that Romney’s grip on the nomination was tenuous and that, even after his (apparent) Iowa win, the race was a lot less stable than it looked.
So no question that Rick Santorum had an objectively good debate last night. He leveled what was easily the toughest critique against the Massachusetts health care plan that Mitt Romney has faced to date. And he’d clearly done his homework on Newt Gingrich, too—nailing him on his decade-long sympathy for individual mandates and for being AWOL during the House banking scandal, when congressmen routinely overdrew their checking accounts without penalty.
Has there ever been a bigger gap between a party’s enthusiasm for its presumptive nominee (very low in this case) and the ease of his path to the nomination? Romney emerges from New Hampshire with a win that won’t impress anyone, given his ties to the state and the relentlessness he showed in courting it.
Speaking of the free passes Romney may be getting—and, for that matter, of financial engineering—there’s another slightly-dodgy Romney formulation that hasn’t gotten much pushback so far: the distinction between “venture capital” and “private equity.” Venture capitalists typically provide money to very young firms to help them get off the ground in exchange for an ownership stake. Private equity firms typically provide money to more established firms, often those that have run into problems, also in exchange for an ownership stake.
Just wanted to follow-up on yesterday’s Jack Lew post to clarify the point I was making: One common reaction to the Lew announcement, voiced by liberals like Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, is to groan that Obama has just replaced one former banker (Bill Daley) with another, as Lew spent two years at Citigroup before joining the administration in late 2008. My feeling about this is twofold: First, liberals aren’t wrong to groan.