Monday, January 2, 2012

Chasing Shadows

For 36 years now (my God, how could I possibly be this old?) I have been predicting the major party presidential nominees before the caucuses and primaries begin.  Through some inexplicable confluence of luck, gut hunches (or maybe that was just something I ate) and complex planetary alignment, I'm 9-for-9 picking the GOP nominee.  I'm only 7-for-9 on the Democrats - and I've got a two-race losing streak (yeah yeah, still living down that Howard Dean pick in '04 and smarting from that Hillary guess last time).

Past results are no guarantee of future success.  The more "expert" I supposedly become, the less I seem to know - although I did predict John McCain's nomination while the rest of the punditocracy was still planning Rudy Giuliani's inauguration, so some of my fading instincts remain intact.

At any rate, it is the eve of the 2012 Iowa Caucus, which means it's time to resurrect the blog just in time to crawl out on a very shaky limb and make my quadrennial prognostications, whether I want to or not.

This time, the Democrats are easy.  Despite those mystifying robocalls touting Hillary Clinton as a replacement candidate for Barack Obama, I will boldly and confidently predict that President Obama will win the Democratic primaries and be nominated for a second term.  There.  Snapped that losing streak on the donkey side (and I don't buy that Clinton-and-Biden-job swap rumor for a second, either.  Sorry, Robert Reich, your trial balloon has just been popped).

As for the Republicans...well, the last 12 months might as well have never happened.  A year ago, Mitt Romney was the frontrunner and the nominee apparent, and I've seen nothing to change that calculus.  The most conservative GOP voters still don't trust him.  Most of the evangelicals will never support him.  But I still don't see a viable alternative for the Republican Party.  Each of the more conservative candidates has taken a turn as the Not Romney, and each has faded as fast as he or she has risen.  I'm puzzled by why it's taken this long for Rick Santorum to get his chance, and perhaps since his surge is coming last, he can actually parlay it into an Iowa caucus victory and a sustained spell as the Anyone But Romney candidate.  Santorum's always been the longest of long shots - ultra-conservative, he couldn't even get re-elected in Pennsylvania so how could he win the presidency? - but he comes across as smart, sincere and committed.  No one can question his conservative principles or his knowledge of the issues, which you'd think would endear him to the voters who matter most in an Iowa GOP caucus.  Through every spasm of excitement about Trump, Perry, Bachmann, Cain, I wondered why Santorum wasn't catching fire with the right, and if he ever would.  Finally, he is, and just in time for him to emerge from Iowa, improbably, in the top tier.

But even if Santorum or Ron Paul wins in Iowa tomorrow, it won't be enough to deny Mitt Romney the nomination.  Neither of them can broaden his appeal beyond the party's right wing, and neither can plausibly move enough to the middle to defeat President Obama in November.  The Republicans remain torn in the way that the out party always is: when the Democrats aren't in control, there's a fight between its liberal wing and the pragmatists who want to nominate a centrist who can win the White House (read: Bill Clinton).  When the GOP is on the outs, it squabbles between the conservative purists and the nominate-an-electable-moderate crowd.  In California, the conservatives consistently outnumber the pragmatists, which is why the Republican Party here is sliding towards irrelevance.  The conservatives dominate the process in Iowa, too.  But the national GOP establishment desperately wants to deny Obama a second term, so it is rallying around Romney now, trying to consolidate his support and present his nomination as inevitable.  It probably is.

Romney, Paul and Santorum will all declare victory of sorts in Iowa, no matter who wins the most votes (or the most delegates, which won't be decided until much later in Iowa's nominating process). Either Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann probably will too - whichever of them runs fourth will pronounce him/herself this cycle's "comeback kid" and live, briefly, to fight on in New Hampshire and South Carolina.  But the rest will be mortally wounded and will bow out, followed soon enough by Jon Huntsman after he gets blasted back to Utah by Romney in the New Hampshire primary.

That will leave Romney as the mainstream establishment frontrunner, and Paul and Santorum to slug it out for the conservative mantle.  When the campaign shifts to Florida at the end of the month, Romney's superior organization and financial firepower will win that state's winner-take-all retail TV ad war, and he will win again in Nevada a month from now to essentially end the race.  The campaign to actually clinch the nomination will slog on, now that the GOP has changed its rules so that most states award delegates proportionally, but it will become a formality, and the Obama-Romney general election sniping will begin in earnest by Groundhog Day.

Which is apropos, since Mitt Romney has been looking over his shoulder at the shape-shifting shadow of "the conservative candidate" for more than a year now.  Within a month, the sun will be shining brightly enough on his candidacy to spring him forward, into a fall fight with President Obama.

Tune to KCBS (740AM/106.9FM/cbssf.com) for returns from Iowa, with attendant analysis, and from New Hampshire next week.  I will be blogging on a regular basis again now that 2012 is here and my Twitter novel is in the rear view mirror.

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