Mittens the Kitten vs. Newt the Slewt

Never has a presidential campaign been so absent of concrete ideas. Sure, Obama had “Hope” and “Change” but at the same time he had healthcare, race to the top, and ending the war. The Republican establishment can’t seem to get a handle on why Romney has failed to resonate and why Gingrich has caught on, despite his legendary pile of personal baggage, but the answer is simple: the American people like a candidate with actual ideas.  It doesn’t matter how good or practical those ideas are, really—we are a nation that likes to be excited about the future, rather than terrified of it.  For his many, many faults, Newt Gingrich seems and has always seemed excited for the future.  Romney treats the future like an alcoholic uncle—something not to talk about in public but that creates private stresses.  At the heart of things, he’s not a man who deals well with confrontation.  He says that the income disparity in this country, one of our greatest problems moving forward, should not be discussed on the campaign trail.  Instead, it should only be talked about “in quiet rooms.”  Romney was born for quiet rooms: Perrier in hand, light jazz in the background, hair gelled into a firm helmet. Most Americans would prefer to have campaign issues discussed openly.

At the beginning of this absurd process, Mitt Romney was a candidate that I respected.  He seemed reasonable and intelligent.  He didn’t seem like he’d be a terrible president, even though I disagreed with nearly all of his positions.  Now he’s devolved, once again, into a robotic caricature of himself. The only plank in his platform is that tired and dangerous notion that America is the unquestioned greatest nation in the world. If you can tell me one policy proposal that Romney has campaigned on, other than more tax cuts we can’t afford or repealing the progress of the last four years, where he actually differs from Obama—one original suggestion that justifies his candidacy—come to Forest 334 and I will give you five dollars.  There are none; his entire campaign has been reduced to the laughable claims that Obama is alternately a crony capitalist or weak on foreign policy. Somebody should tell his staff that for attacks to resonate with the public, they need some basis in truth. 

Newt Gingrich is a man of ideas. He has a solution for everything, from poverty to resource depletion. I’m particularly fond of his obsession with building a moon base. True, they range from impractical to blatantly racist. But at least you know he’s thought about the problems of the day and tried to come up with an original solution; at least he has a reason to run other than nice hair and a photogenic family. These, ideas, more than anything, are why he has caught on with the Republican base. Romney represents nothing. Newt represents a Conservatism that actually looks for solutions to the problems of the day and the challenges of the future. 

My last column predicted confidently that Romney would win. That may no longer be the case.  Gingrich’s support has increased throughout the nation and he’s taken the lead in Florida, the next state in the primary calendar. While the Obama campaign would rather face Newt than Mittens in the fall—polls show that two percent of the public think that’s his real first name—there’s a lot of danger in that; the American people want a reason to be excited about the future. Romney does not offer that.  Obama offered that in 2008, but his communications staff seems to have retreated into a black hole where they no longer have any contact with the media.  There’s little exciting about his presidency right now, and little hope that he’ll recapture it. America has not learned its lesson, though. We’re not ready to “settle” for the nice man with the steady paycheck, or several steady paychecks in Romney’s case. We’re not ready to settle for good, boring policy. We want the guy who promises us the moon. In 2012, Newt may be that man.    

What’s Next for Jim Douglas?

Recently retired Governor of Vermont Jim Douglas is not a man to sit idle. First elected to the Vermont legislature the same year he graduated from Middlebury with a degree in Russian studies, he rose rapidly through the state’s elected offices despite his unenviable status as a Republican in the nation’s bluest state. In 2002 he succeeded Howard Dean as Governor and served four terms in office as one of the most popular state executives in America. Halfway through his final term, he still enjoyed an approval rating of 65 percent. While he may have stepped down as governor this year, his political career is far from over.

Douglas is a classic New England conservative; a member of an endangered species. He seems most comfortable in a suit and tie, drives an aging Dodge Neon and line-dries his clothes in order to save on his electric bill. He’s master of the ‘retail politics’ that dominate in Vermont and New Hampshire; I have not yet met a Vermonter who hasn’t shaken his hand at some point and he remembers all of them by name. With his embrace of the stimulus and support for environmental conservation, he is also the type of politician that, in any other state, the Tea Party would have run out of the GOP. In Vermont, however, this allowed him to survive the wave that swept Democrats into power in 2006 and 2008.

As a member of the minority party in a tiny state, Douglas has had to work with his opposition throughout his political career. It is clear when he disagrees with something, but he knows when to respond with a rueful smile or one of his many deadpan jokes. He seems to regard his opponents with a friendly respect, speaking admiringly of Dean’s job in office and Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) work in Washington. He refers to the new Democratic governor Peter Shumlin (D-VT) as “Shummy,” and had Congressman Peter Welch as a guest speaker in the class he taught this January. The one notable exception to this esteem for his adversaries is his clear distaste for Senator Bernie Sanders, the Socialist Democrat who has become a hero on the left for his opposition to any compromise on the Bush tax cuts. Douglas clearly sees Bernie as too extreme, too much of a firebrand and more of a show pony than a work horse.

All of this leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jim Douglas will attempt to unseat Sanders in 2012. He will deny this when asked, but it is clear that his mind could change if he sees a path to victory. Douglas ran for the Senate against Leahy in 1992, giving the veteran legislator a run for his money. Since then, his profile in the state has increased substantially. As a first-term Senator, Sanders is considerably more vulnerable than Leahy. His “take-no-prisoners” approach endears him to the liberal wing of his party, but he alienates both moderates and the press. Douglas, the popular governor of the bluest state in the nation, has already demonstrated his ability to win these voters, along with a large share of Democrats. This makes him the only Republican with a shot at winning the seat in 2012. No other candidate could seriously challenge Sanders. With his future career plans not yet laid, the chance to jump back into the arena next year may be too tempting to refuse.

This is bad news for Democrats nationally. They currently hold the Senate with a razor-thin majority and two-thirds of the seats up for reelection in 2012 belong to Democrats. If they lose a seat in Vermont, they will fare far worse in the rest of the nation. Much of their success depends on how President Barack Obama tackles unemployment and the debt; if neither has improved by 2012, Douglas could find himself the member of a large Senate majority. But one thing is certain: Douglas will not be content with an early retirement.  Politics is his only hobby.