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Sunday, April 24, 2011


A century ago, when many Americans still used a pot-bellied wood-burning stove both for heat and for cooking, people would cluster for warmth around the stove in winter time and while away the hours by speculating on what the next baseball season might bring. This was in the depth of the winter, when the World Series was just a memory, and before Spring Training gave more hope even than the miracle of Easter for a blessed rebirth. Thus was coined the phrase "hot stove league," which refers to any group of amateur fans sitting around and chewing the fat about an upcoming competition.

[I might add, as an irrelevant aside, that in the early eighties, during the spike in energy prices, when my first wife was a new member of the Literature Section of the Humanities Department at MIT, she and I attended a dinner party at the rather large home of a member of the Section, A. R. Gurney, who has since become a very famous American playwright. Drama buffs will know, that "Pete" Gurney, as he was called, is the chronicler of WASP social mores in the American theater. The house was completely unlit, save for the room in which we sat, and was heated only by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove that served as the principal source of warmth for the entire house. It was an echo of my graduate student introduction to New England WASP culture at the Parsons family Thanksgiving dinner in Belmont, MA.]

As an inveterate politics buff, I spend way too much time speculating about future presidential campaigns, and in this unusually loony pre-nomination off-season, the temptation is irresistible. Herewith my musings about what is happening over the fields and in the woods on the Republican side of town. I apologize to my overseas readers, for whom much of this will seem utterly incomprehensible. All I can plead in self-defense is that I am sure you have your own versions of the hot stove league in Israel, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, or wherever else you may happen to be. Bear with me. I promise to return shortly to the contemplation of eternal truths sub specie aeternitatis.

I begin with a premise that, while not necessary a priori, is as close as one can come in this corrupt and imperfect world: Someone will get the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 2012. This is not a certainty. When all is said and done, the Republicans may decide to take a pass this cycle and allow Obama to be reelected by acclamation. Not logically impossible, at least not to a philosopher with a passport well stamped with entry visas to possible worlds, but we may, as Aristotle says in the opening pages of the Physics, assume the existence of the objects and phenomena about which we wish to reason. So, who will it be? Who will be the standard-bearer for what has become of the Grand Old Party?

At the current time, there are at least twelve men and women who have given some signs of wanting the presidency enough to compete for it. They are, in alphabetical order [I am nothing if not scrupulously fair]: Michelle Bachman, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, John Huntsman, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Donald Trump. Seven of these twelve are present or former state governors -- Barbour, Daniels, Huckabee, Huntsman, Palin, Pawlenty, and Romney. One, Santorum, is a former senator. Two are present or former members of the House of Representatives -- Bachman and Gingrich. And Two, Cain and Trump, are businessmen with no previous electoral experience. We may usefully divide this dozen into two groups. Following my predilection for Biblical allusions, familiar to readers of this blog, I shall call them the Pharisees and the Generation of Vipers.

Barbour, Daniels, Hunstman, Pawlenty, and Romney are the Pharisees -- upstanding men of the community, keepers of the conventional verities -- what in a different sort of analysis would be called "suits." These are the names usually mentioned by deep thinkers in the conservative ranks, such as George Will, who want nothing more than a safe, predictable servant of the corporate boardrooms. They differ from one another, of course, but all five are "clubable," which is to say they could comfortably be invited to a golf course or country club without any risk that they would embarrass their hosts.

Romney, having been round the track once, is widely viewed as the front-runner of the group.. Mitt Romney and John Huntsman, of course, are Mormons. Now, as an atheist, I do not usually draw distinctions among those suffering from religious faith. One mistake in that line is much like another to me. But among Born Again, Fundamentalist, Creationist, Inerrantist, Young Earth Christians, who have found a home in the ranks of the Republican Party, Mormonism is not viewed as any kind of acceptable religion, and some unknown fraction of the crazy wing of the party may refuse to support Romney or Huntsman for that reason. Barbour is a throwback, a genuine old fashioned racist segregationist of the sort that I mistakenly believed had gone into hiding. Daniels is the favorite of the inside dopesters in the GOP, though I have been unable to discern why. Pawlenty suffers from an apparently genetic lack of charisma, which resists either stimulants or implants. Huntsman, in addition to being a Mormon, made the very unwise career decision to serve honorably as this country's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China in the Obama Administration He currently scores so low in Republican popularity polls that he is completely ensconced within the margin of error.

The Generation of Vipers is truly a wicker basket of asps. Palin is the best known of the lot, and were things different, she would be a genuine threat to secure the nomination. But Palin is a quitter, and as my old friend Zina Tillona liked to observe, most people do most things the way they do most other things. I have long thought that Palin would never actually commit to and follow through with a run for the nomination, and now that she has found a way to combine big earnings and lots of media attention with not much work, she will, I am confident, take a pass on what is, after all, the very tiring business of running for president. A while back, Republican commentators were publicly musing that the presidency was really beneath her, a sure sign that they were offering her a graceful way to quit once again. So let us cross her off the list.

The natural front runner among the vipers is Mike Huckabee, a genuinely nice person with utterly poisonous views on a wide range of serious subjects. If, contrary to my expectations, there really is a Hell, Huckebee will be its most genial resident for all eternity. Were he to run, he would be a force to contend with, but he too appears to be ready to sit this one out. Two of his top aides have signed on with other Republican hopefuls, and he is an indifferent candidate when it comes to the nitty-gritty of raising money and assembling a team. Besides, the Huckebees are now, for the first time, seeing some real money, thanks to his gig as a Fox News personality. This has enabled them to build a lavish home in Florida, where it seems he really would like to spend some time. So, sadly, scratch Huckebee as well.

Santorum's expressed interest in the presidency is a mystery. It surely is not the case that anyone, not even among his former aides, has been whispering in his ear that he ought to run. The only explanation I can conjure up is that he hopes participation in the inevitable cattle call debates will remove some of the sting from his recent humiliating defeat for re-election to the Senate from Pennsylvania. Herman Cain is of course the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza [I insist I am not making this up.] To be fair, he was also the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Kansas City. His results in the polls make Huntsman look like a front runner. Forget Herman Cain.

That leaves Bachman, Gingrich, and Trump [I will refrain from the inevitable allusions to Curly, Moe, and Larry]. Michelle Bachman is an attractive, forceful, bat-shit crazy politician who is skilled at raising money and appealing to the baser instincts of an already debased electorate. She is quite effectively occupying the space left vacant by Huckebee and Palin, and will, I predict, be a player once things get started next Fall. Newt Gingrich, for reasons I have never been able to comprehend, is widely viewed by the conventional wisdom as brilliant, albeit erratic and unstable. A serial public adulterer and architect of the most humiliating Congressional defeat suffered by the Republicans in recent decades, Gingrich does not seem to me to have much going for him. I have no doubt that he will take part in the early debates, but it is doubtful that he will make any mark in the early caucuses and primaries, and he may not even have his name put on the ballot. Forget Gingrich.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Can the worst comb over in the history of hair care actually have a chance at the Republican nomination? [If there is anyone out there who does not know what a comb over is, let me explain. Balding men will sometimes allow what hair they have on the sides or back of their head to grow excessively long and then carefully comb it over the bald places in a completely unsuccessful attempt to conceal the truth about their rapidly receding hairline. This is known as a comb over. Trump is to comb overs what QueeQueg is to a sailor with "Mom" tattooed on his arm.] Trump has three strengths that have vaulted him to the top of the early Republican polls. First, he has lots of money. [As much as he says? Who knows? But enough to sustain him through an entire nomination run, should it come to that]. Second, he is far and away the most skilled television performer among the twelve aspirants, widely known because of his television show, The Celebrity Apprentice. And third, he is completely unhindered by the slightest suggestion of hesitation or embarrassment when it is in his interest to utter manifestly, blatantly, grotesquely false and absurd statements. He is the consummate salesman. He really believes in the curative properties of the snake oil he is selling, at the moment when he is selling it.

And there you have them. One of those twelve, believe it or not, will get the Republican Party's nomination for the presidency and appear on the ballot with Barack Obama in November 2012. Which one? This is the point at which devotees of the hot stove league throw caution to the winds and go all in with their predictions. [One of the conventions of hot stove league speculation is the liberal use of tired clichés].

If the choice were being made in a smoke filled room of the sort that dominated politics in the good old days [another tired cliché], it would come down to Barbour, Daniels, Pawlenty, Huntsman, or Romney. But these days, there is a process to be gone through, and it pretty much guarantees that only one of the Pharisees will survive to the finals -- the late primaries in which a winner may emerge. Early popularity polls, of which there are a very great many, make it clear that among likely Republican Primary voters, anywhere from a quarter to a third are inclined to choose one of the Pharisees. Romney sucks up almost all of those votes, and the remainder are parceled out in tiny dribs and drabs among Barbour, Daniels, Pawlenty, and Huntsman. Romney will do adequately in Iowa, the first state to make its selection. He may well win New Hampshire, perhaps even by a wide margin, but win or lose there, he will do alright. Barbour is of course hoping for good results in South Carolina, and surely, if he cannot win there, he is finished. But he is not going anywhere. Nor can I see how Pawlenty, Daniels, or Huntsman can survive those early primaries with any credibility whatsoever, regardless of the hopes of the Beltway bloviators. [Once again, for my overseas friends, Washington D. C. is ringed by a road called The Beltway, designed to allow through traffic to avoid going into the city. It is the Conventional Wisdom that people who live in Washington and offer opinions for a living are prisoners of Inside the Beltway Conventional Wisdom. If this sounds peculiarly self-referential, that too is a characteristic conventionally attributed to prisoners of the Conventional Wisdom.]

Among the Generation of Vipers, I predict confidently that only Bachman and Trump will emerge as viable hopefuls from the first several weeks of caucuses and primaries. So, fairly quickly we will see a three way race -- Romney, Bachman, and Trump. This will create consternation and despair in the ranks of relatively rational Republicans, but there will be very little they can do about what they perceive as a slow motion train wreck.

Romney has three strikes against him, even though he will make it this far, but this is not really baseball, the "hot stove league" metaphor to the contrary notwithstanding, so three strikes may not be enough for him to be out. The first strike is his Mormonism. The second strike is his authorship of a successful health care reform program in Massachusetts that was pretty much the alpha iteration of what became the Affordable Care Act, referred to by all Republicans with a mixture of loathing and contempt as "Obamacare." I long for the presidential debate in which Obama, with a great show of courtesy, thanks Romney for test-driving health care reform in Massachusetts and proving that it could work, so that the Democrats could embrace it and take it national. Romney's third strike is that he is manifestly, patently, obviously the least authentic person in American politics. Even a dog can smell it [not, of course, the family dog whom he tied to the roof of their station wagon one year on the long drive to Maine.] But Romney will stay to the bitter end, and he will continue to collect the votes and the delegates of the portion of the Party that now supports one or another of the Pharisees.

I think it is entirely possible that Bachman, Trump, and Romney will continue to fight it out all the way to the Convention in Tampa, Florida. If Bachman or Trump wins, Obama is a shoo-in. If the powers that be engineer it for Romney, as the least bad of the three, there may well be an eruption, and even a third party, which of course, will make the election a walk in the park for the Democrats. Any two of the three might try to join forces and delegate pools and forge a ticket with either in the first position: Bachman-Trump, Trump-Bachman, Bachman-Romney, Romney-Bachman, Romney-Trump, Trump-Romney. Or the powers that be may try to foist Daniels or Pawlenty on the party in a truly brokered convention, in which case all hell will break loose.

And what will the Democrats be doing during all of this? Probably heeding Napoleon's famous advice to one of his Marshals: "When your enemy is making a mistake, do not interrupt him."


patrickwolff said...

Since the modern primary system emerged in the 1960's, a simple rule predicts whether an incumbent president is reelected: If he faces a serious challenger his party's primary, he loses; otherwise he wins.

Obama looks unlikely to face a Democratic challenger, and if he does not then he will almost surely be reelected. The question of his Republican challenger is secondary.

But it would be interesting for him to face Michelle Bachmann.

GTChristie said...

The dark horse you did not mention, not on the radar because he's a freshman Senator, is Marco Rubio of Florida. He is playing Tea Party but he has a strange allure -- populist, son of Cuban refugees, and a traditional take on God and Country -- that rings most of the magic bells in the GOP at this moment. I'm willing to buy you coffee in Chapel Hill if I'm wrong: he will be either presidential nominee or the VP nominee, the latter only because of his age and "inexperience." That inexperience (and strange allure) upended exGov Charlie Crist's shoo-in for the Senate, forcing Crist to run as an independent because he could not nail the GOP nod ("too liberal," ie, moderate). Rubio has all the pancakes in the stack. He's the GOP's secret weapon, and everybody else is a stalking horse: see what flies in the town halls and on the stumps before the convention, and issue Rubio with the polished message at election time. The kid is smart as a whip and comes with almost zero baggage. Ante up.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hey, Peege, welcome to the blog. God, I hope you are right. I went back and checked some races, and what you say seems true. Give my love to Samuel and Athena [my grandchildren, for the rest of you].

GT, that is classic hot stove league speculation, and you may very well be right. The rules of the hot stove league say that all opinions must be offered with absolute assurance and no hesitation. I do hope that you are wrong, because his presence on the ticket would seriously compromise the Democrats' command of the hispanic vote. I tend to doubt that he can get the presidential nod. Remember that the Florida primary is only fifteen days after the Iowa caucuses. If he doesn't get in before that, I cannot see him making a run. But VP is of course always possible. Unless, of course, the evrntual winner has to offer it to Bachman to get her delegates.

Unknown said...

Your comment about Yankee hospitality gave me a giggle. We were once invited to a big home on the ocean on the North Shore and treated to a dinner of one hotdog each, no bun, with a small bowl of jello. My husband, a non-New Englander, had to be dissuaded from feeling this was a direct insult from a professional colleague, but merely normal procedure for that social group.

I'm looking forward to more giggles watching the Republicans destroy themselves in the coming political season. Maybe Massachusetts will be able to reclaim the honored name of Tea Party state for itself.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have to admit, one hot dog, no bun, and some jello takes New England WASP to a whole new level! My favorite story is of a young social climber trying to make it with Boston's grande dames. She asked one of the matrons where she bought her hats [this is back in the day when hats were an essential part of polite wardrobes.] The matron replied, witheringly, "My dear. We do not buy our hats. We HAVE our hats."