Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 2, 2012

The Political Stars Align for Romney

According to the most recent Gallup poll, the lead in the Republican nomination race has thus far changed seven times since May. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich each held the top spot at various points in 2011, with Romney’s standing rising and falling as other candidates surged and faded. Mike Huckabee led the Republican field, or tied Romney and Sarah Palin for the lead, in Gallup polls at the start of the year (both Huckabee and Palin ultimately declined to run).

“This is the first presidential election since 1964 that the Republican Party has had so many candidates in serious contention for a nomination, although many of the shifts in national Republican preferences in the 1964 race occurred after the primaries began, rather than in the year leading up to it,” according to Gallup. (Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater were the only Republican front-runners in Gallup polling in 1963. Then, during the primary season in 1964, Richard Nixon, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Scranton all emerged in the lead or tied for the lead, before Goldwater won the nomination.)

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According to the most recent Gallup poll, the lead in the Republican nomination race has thus far changed seven times since May. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich each held the top spot at various points in 2011, with Romney’s standing rising and falling as other candidates surged and faded. Mike Huckabee led the Republican field, or tied Romney and Sarah Palin for the lead, in Gallup polls at the start of the year (both Huckabee and Palin ultimately declined to run).

“This is the first presidential election since 1964 that the Republican Party has had so many candidates in serious contention for a nomination, although many of the shifts in national Republican preferences in the 1964 race occurred after the primaries began, rather than in the year leading up to it,” according to Gallup. (Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater were the only Republican front-runners in Gallup polling in 1963. Then, during the primary season in 1964, Richard Nixon, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Scranton all emerged in the lead or tied for the lead, before Goldwater won the nomination.)

It seems clear that this phase of the 2012 Republican nomination process “has been the most volatile for the GOP since the advent of polling,” in the words of the Gallup analysis.

The irony is that the volatility that has characterized the pre-voting may give way to an unusually quick resolution to the contest once the voting begins tomorrow. Consider: If the normally reliable Des Moines Register poll is correct, the top three finishers in the Iowa caucus will be Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. This result could hardly be better for Romney, who would be heading to New Hampshire with the two candidates who most concern his campaign–Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry–badly (or even mortally) wounded. One Romney aide put it this way: “Iowa is about eliminating Gingrich and Perry without us having to spend a lot of money to do so.””

After Iowa and New Hampshire, then, it’s possible the trajectory of the campaign will be set irreversibly in Romney’s favor. Forty-eight hours from now, things could look very different, of course. While Mitt Romney is acceptable to most conservatives, there is still wariness about him. Remember, too, that in 1984, Vice President Walter Mondale appeared to have put together the most imposing campaign imaginable — and he was nearly taken out by Gary Hart. So, surprises are always possible. But in this instance, they are unlikely. On the eve of the first vote, the political stars seem to be aligning in just the right way for the former Massachusetts governor.

 

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The Demise of the “Not-Romney”?

All eyes are on Iowa for the next 48-hours, but Mitt Romney is still making impressive inroads in New Hampshire, according to today’s Suffolk University/7News poll. Romney’s support is growing in the state, but the spike in voter intensity is probably the best news for him out of this poll:

The poll shows Romney leading with 43 percent of the vote – up 2 points from a day earlier, followed by Ron Paul (17 percent), Jon Huntsman (9 percent), and Newt Gingrich (8 percent), while another 7 percent was split among GOP hopefuls Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. Fifteen percent remain undecided. …

Romney voters appear unlikely to change their minds about their choice as primary day approaches. Seventy-three percent of Romney voters now say they are unlikely to change their minds about their choice, compared to 64 percent of Huntsman voters and 60 percent of Paul voters.

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All eyes are on Iowa for the next 48-hours, but Mitt Romney is still making impressive inroads in New Hampshire, according to today’s Suffolk University/7News poll. Romney’s support is growing in the state, but the spike in voter intensity is probably the best news for him out of this poll:

The poll shows Romney leading with 43 percent of the vote – up 2 points from a day earlier, followed by Ron Paul (17 percent), Jon Huntsman (9 percent), and Newt Gingrich (8 percent), while another 7 percent was split among GOP hopefuls Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. Fifteen percent remain undecided. …

Romney voters appear unlikely to change their minds about their choice as primary day approaches. Seventy-three percent of Romney voters now say they are unlikely to change their minds about their choice, compared to 64 percent of Huntsman voters and 60 percent of Paul voters.

The reason so many of Romney’s primary opponents have been able to rise so quickly in the polls is because GOP voters have been trying their hardest to avoid settling with him. But after auditioning Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and now Santorum, voters are running out of alternatives.

This poll seems to signify that New Hampshire voters have given up looking for the “not-Romney” candidate, and are now ready to fall in line behind the probable frontrunner. The fact that 73 percent of New Hampshire Romney supporters say they are unlikely to switch candidates doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re enthusiastic about Romney. It could just mean they’ve exhausted all other options, and decided he’s the best they’re going to do. The question now is whether this perception will spread, and that will have a lot to do with who finishes on top in Iowa.

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Obama’s Strategy a Gift to Romney

The Washington Post reports on how–should Mitt Romney win the Republican nomination–both Romney and Obama (and their surrogates) will employ essentially the same strategy of using their opponent’s own words against them. This is what many GOPers fear–Romney’s dreaded reputation as a flip-flopper–but it’s actually a gift to the Romney campaign and a major strategic blunder from Obama’s team. Here’s the description of the GOP plan:

Republican officials say they will leverage the party’s newly catalogued video library containing every publicly available utterance from Obama since his 2008 campaign. Television and Internet ads will juxtapose specific Obama promises of job gains, homeowner assistance, help for people in poverty, lower health insurance premiums and stricter White House ethics standards against government data and news clippings that paint a different reality.

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The Washington Post reports on how–should Mitt Romney win the Republican nomination–both Romney and Obama (and their surrogates) will employ essentially the same strategy of using their opponent’s own words against them. This is what many GOPers fear–Romney’s dreaded reputation as a flip-flopper–but it’s actually a gift to the Romney campaign and a major strategic blunder from Obama’s team. Here’s the description of the GOP plan:

Republican officials say they will leverage the party’s newly catalogued video library containing every publicly available utterance from Obama since his 2008 campaign. Television and Internet ads will juxtapose specific Obama promises of job gains, homeowner assistance, help for people in poverty, lower health insurance premiums and stricter White House ethics standards against government data and news clippings that paint a different reality.

There is much to work with, especially Obama’s unemployment claims prior to passing the stimulus bill that, thanks to Obama’s overpromising, has failed on the White House’s own terms–a crucial part of making the attack effective. (While any GOP nominee will use such ads, Romney has already incorporated this theme into his campaign.) But here is the Obama campaign’s version of this trick:

A similar in-his-own-words strategy has already been adopted by Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee designed to portray GOP front-runner Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper.

A “Mitt vs. Mitt” online video, showing Romney expressing opposing views on various issues over time, gained considerable attention and prompted a new round of questions from primary rivals and journalists about whether Romney can be trusted.

Ramesh Ponnuru already effectively laid out the weakness of this plan–namely, that voters may see moderation and pragmatism where Obama wants them to see the classic politician.

But Romney’s version is also more damaging to Obama because the president has helpfully defined the terms on which to judge his success or failure, and promptly failed by them. This makes Romney’s strategy seem slightly less negative than it is, as Obama is making the case for his own defeat–again, on his own terms, which saves Romney from the accusation he is simply moving the goalposts or engaging in hypocrisy.

Obama’s deployment of the strategy is weaker for another reason: it will give Romney more space to define himself. If the Obama campaign’s message is: Let Romney’s words define him, then voters will likely expand the application of that message beyond Obama’s negative ads. They will listen to Romney perhaps more closely, and they will hear a generally positive campaign platform from a nice, telegenic, intelligent, and usually reassuringly calm messenger–exactly how the Romney campaign wants to frame its candidate.

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Newt Gingrich’s Lament

In an interview with ABC News, Newt Gingrich complained about the negative ads being used against him.

“Politics has become a really nasty, vicious, negative business and I think it’s disgusting and I think it’s dishonest,” according to Gingrich. “And I think the people who are running the ads know they are dishonest and I think a person who will do that to try to get to be president offers you no hope that they will be any good as president,” he said. Gingrich added, “We’re gradually going to have to figure out how to essentially take apart the negative ads.”

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In an interview with ABC News, Newt Gingrich complained about the negative ads being used against him.

“Politics has become a really nasty, vicious, negative business and I think it’s disgusting and I think it’s dishonest,” according to Gingrich. “And I think the people who are running the ads know they are dishonest and I think a person who will do that to try to get to be president offers you no hope that they will be any good as president,” he said. Gingrich added, “We’re gradually going to have to figure out how to essentially take apart the negative ads.”

In responding to Gingrich’s statement, let’s start with the most obvious point first: Newt Gingrich is probably not the ideal messenger when it comes to complaining that politics is too negative. This is a man, after all, who in 1987 said, “After the first five months of this Congress, I must report to my fellow citizens that this 100th Congress may be the most irresponsible, destructive, corrupt, and unrepresentative Congress of the modern era… In future weeks, I will make a series of speeches outlining the threats of corruption, of communism, and of the left-wing machine which runs the House.”

Two years later, Gingrich put things this way: “The left-wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people in the name of letting hooligans loose.”

In 1992, Gingrich said this: “Woody Allen had non-incest with his non-daughter because they were a non-family.” He added, “It fits the Democratic Party platform perfectly.” And in 1994, after a South Carolina woman, Susan Smith, murdered her two sons, Gingrich summarized things this way: “I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way you get change is to vote Republican.”

I could go on (for more, see this compilation), but by now you get the point. It’s fair to say, I think, that Gingrich has not been an antidote to incivility during his years in public life.

In addition, Gingrich –who refers to himself as a historian — should recognize that politics has always involved passionate collisions that sometimes devolve into ad hominem attacks. Indeed, the election of 1800, which pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams, is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history and nearly tore apart our young nation. For a variety of reasons, politics tends to be less ugly and dishonest than it has been in the past –and it certainly hasn’t become significantly more brutal or disgusting in the last 25 days (which is roughly when Gingrich’s opponents began to target him with negative ads).

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that politics is pristine, elevated, and uplifting; it simply means Gingrich’s characterization is being distorted by the pounding he’s absorbed. As recently as a month ago, when he was leading by double digits in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, politics was characterized in very different, and far more positive, terms by Gingrich. He’s now universalizing his own recent, unhappy experiences. He speaks as if he’s been the victim of an unprecedented smear campaign (he has not). This, in turn, is creating in Gingrich something of a martyr complex. When asked on Sunday what he perceives to be his biggest weakness , Gingrich answered, “Probably that I’m too reasonable and that I should have responded to the negative ads two weeks earlier.” (My guess is that being too reasonable is not Gingrich’s greatest weakness.)

What we’re hearing from the former Speaker is typical. He perceives every moment in which he’s involved in epic, grandiose, and world-historic terms. It’s always the Children of Light v. the Children of Darkness. There are no gradations, no shades of gray, no medium moments. In that respect, Gingrich’s disposition is profoundly unconservative. The collapse he’s experiencing isn’t due to politics suddenly becoming “disgusting and dishonest.” It’s because Gingrich has always been a target-rich environment for his opponents and during the last four weeks, the missiles fired by the other candidates have hit their targets, with fairly devastating effect.

I can understand Gingrich being upset about that. He believes his record is being unfairly portrayed, putting Gingrich in the company of virtually every person who has ever run for president. Even if you were inclined to grant Gingrich all of that and more, no one has yet done to Gingrich what Gingrich has done to others.

 

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Obama Enters the Twilight Zone

If you want to gain a better appreciation for the fantasy world that President Obama is trying to create in order to win re-election, you couldn’t do much better than to read this New York Times story. The thrust of the article is that the president is planning to step up his offensive against an unpopular Congress, concluding that he cannot pass any major legislation in 2012 because of Republican hostility to his agenda. He intends to “hammer the theme of economic justice for ordinary Americans rather than continue his legislative battles with Congress,” said Joshua R. Earnest, the president’s deputy press secretary, previewing the White House’s strategy.

But here’s where things get interesting. “In terms of the president’s relationship with Congress in 2012,” Earnest said at a briefing, “the president is no longer tied to Washington, D.C.”

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If you want to gain a better appreciation for the fantasy world that President Obama is trying to create in order to win re-election, you couldn’t do much better than to read this New York Times story. The thrust of the article is that the president is planning to step up his offensive against an unpopular Congress, concluding that he cannot pass any major legislation in 2012 because of Republican hostility to his agenda. He intends to “hammer the theme of economic justice for ordinary Americans rather than continue his legislative battles with Congress,” said Joshua R. Earnest, the president’s deputy press secretary, previewing the White House’s strategy.

But here’s where things get interesting. “In terms of the president’s relationship with Congress in 2012,” Earnest said at a briefing, “the president is no longer tied to Washington, D.C.”

True enough. Obama isn’t tied to Washington, D.C.; it’s more accurate to say he embodies it. He is, after all, the nation’s chief executive. He lives in the White House. His desk is located in the West Wing. And his home and work area code is 202. Obama is primus inter pares of the political class.

Moreover, Obama, during the first two years of his presidency, was enormously successful in getting his agenda enacted into law. He got almost everything he wanted, which some of us believe is precisely the problem. And to the extent that we’re facing a “do-nothing” Congress today, the responsibility lies with the Democratically-controlled Senate, not the GOP House. These days the Senate (which has not passed a budget in more than 900 days) is the place legislation goes to die.

But to really enter the Twilight Zone, consider these two priceless sentences from the Times story: “Winning a full-year extension of the payroll tax, Mr.  Earnest said, will still be a top priority. He noted that House Republicans were now also arguing that it should be extended for a year, after some initially opposed extending it at all.”

Come again? On December 13, the GOP House passed a full-year extension of the payroll tax cut – and was promptly criticized by – you guessed it — the president. Obama favored a much shorter, two-month extension. House Republicans, under intense political pressure, eventually agreed to the two-month extension. Now the White House is declaring a full-year extension is a “top priority.” Yet as recently as three weeks ago the opposition to the president’s “top priority” came not from House Republicans but from Obama himself.

We are now reaching the point in which the president is running a truly post-modern campaign, in which there is no objective truth but simply narrative. Obama’s campaign isn’t simply distorting the facts; it is inverting them. This kind of thing isn’t unusual to find in the academy. But to see a president and his campaign so thoroughly deconstruct truth in order to maintain power is quite rare. The sheer audacity of Obama’s cynicism is a wonder of the modern world.

 

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Are We Heading for a Photo Finish in Iowa?

Most of the recent polls have shown Ron Paul fading fast in Iowa, which is why this Public Policy Polling survey showing him, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a statistical dead-heat has been greeted with some surprise today:

The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20 percent, Mitt Romney at 19 percent, and Rick Santorum at 18 percent. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, Rick Perry at 10 percent, Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Jon Huntsman at 4 percent, and Buddy Roemer at 2 percent.

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Most of the recent polls have shown Ron Paul fading fast in Iowa, which is why this Public Policy Polling survey showing him, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a statistical dead-heat has been greeted with some surprise today:

The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20 percent, Mitt Romney at 19 percent, and Rick Santorum at 18 percent. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, Rick Perry at 10 percent, Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Jon Huntsman at 4 percent, and Buddy Roemer at 2 percent.

The poll still shows Paul dropping – down 4 percent since earlier in the week – and his favorability numbers have fallen 21 points. But is it possible that his downward momentum is coming late enough that he can still eke out a win in Iowa?

At HotAir, Ed Morrissey is dubious, and notes the strange makeup of PPP’s “like caucus-goer” demographic:

More to the point, though, only half of the “1,340 likely Republican caucus voters” surveyed by PPP caucused with Republicans in 2008.  Sixteen percent caucused with Democrats in that cycle, and over a third (34 percent) didn’t caucus with either party in 2008.  Not shockingly, Paul wins 23 percent of those who didn’t caucus at all in 2008, and 28 percent among those who caucused with the Democrats.

Obviously, that composition favors Paul, who’s popular with an unusual coalition of young, Democratic-leaning voters in Iowa. But the question has always been whether he would be able to get this eclectic group out to the polls. That’s why Paul’s modest drop in support in the PPP poll may not be as worrying for him as his massive drop in favorability. It appears that few, if any, voters will be open to supporting him if they haven’t decided to already.

Santorum, in contrast, is the candidate who’s most poised to make gains, according to PPP. And the opposition research that’s just started trickling out on him is probably coming too late to make a difference:

Santorum’s net favorability of 60/30 makes him easily the most popular candidate in the field. No one else’s favorability exceeds 52 percent. He may also have more room to grow in the final 48 hours of the campaign than the other front runners: 14 percent of voters say he’s their second choice to 11 percent for Romney and only 8 percent for Paul.

Unlike Santorum and Paul, Romney’s support is holding steady, and his campaign is clearly unfazed by the shuffling momentum of his two closest competitors. “If we win, it’s fantastic. If Santorum wins and we are second, it’s good. If Paul wins and we are second, it’s great. Any of the likely outcomes is positive for us,” one top Romney advisor told Mike Allen. Out of the top three, Romney is the only candidate with a clear path to the nomination, which is probably why he’s taken an increasingly confident attitude heading into the caucuses.

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Winnowing the GOP Field

With just one day to go before the Iowa Republican caucus, the latest polls have led most observers to expect that there will be two big winners: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. But even if that turns out to be true, the big question that needs to be answered Tuesday night is whether or not Iowa will start the process of winnowing the GOP field.

It is on that uncertainty the fate of the leaders may hinge. If we assume Santorum does finish strong or even win the caucus outright by, in effect, winning the mini-primary of evangelical and social conservative voters over rivals Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, his ability to mount an effective challenge to Romney will in no small measure depend on the willingness of those two to hang on in the race. Romney has benefited from the inability of conservatives to conclusively settle on a single “not Romney” candidate and looks to be in a strong position to cruise to the nomination no matter what the others do. If Bachmann and/or Perry were to quickly exit after poor showings, it might give Santorum a far better chance to give Romney a run for his money.

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With just one day to go before the Iowa Republican caucus, the latest polls have led most observers to expect that there will be two big winners: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. But even if that turns out to be true, the big question that needs to be answered Tuesday night is whether or not Iowa will start the process of winnowing the GOP field.

It is on that uncertainty the fate of the leaders may hinge. If we assume Santorum does finish strong or even win the caucus outright by, in effect, winning the mini-primary of evangelical and social conservative voters over rivals Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, his ability to mount an effective challenge to Romney will in no small measure depend on the willingness of those two to hang on in the race. Romney has benefited from the inability of conservatives to conclusively settle on a single “not Romney” candidate and looks to be in a strong position to cruise to the nomination no matter what the others do. If Bachmann and/or Perry were to quickly exit after poor showings, it might give Santorum a far better chance to give Romney a run for his money.

If we are to assume that Santorum emerges from Iowa as the strongest conservative in the race, that ought to put him into position to take advantage of Romney’s weakness and to start chipping away at his lead in the other early primaries before mounting an all-out push on Super Tuesday and the later states. But Santorum, who up until just a couple of weeks ago was at the bottom of the heap, has little money on hand and only a rudimentary campaign organization outside of Iowa, where he concentrated all of his efforts.

A win in Iowa or even a top-three finish will enable Santorum to proclaim himself as the true conservative alternative to Romney, especially if, as expected, Newt Gingrich sinks to fourth or worse. But the only way for Santorum to take advantage of his well-timed late surge is for the other conservatives in the race to drop out.

So long as Perry and even Bachmann stay in to crowd the field, it will be impossible for Santorum to get the traction he needs to mount a credible challenge to the frontrunner.

If Santorum does well tomorrow night and especially if he somehow manages to ride his late momentum to an upset win, his money problems will be lessened if not completely solved. But Santorum’s ability to put himself forward as a potential nominee will be severely undermined if he is still struggling to compete for the social conservative vote against Perry, Bachmann or even Gingrich. The longer the second tier candidates stay in the better it will be for Romney.

On that score, there seems little reason for Santorum to be encouraged. Though her candidacy and campaign appears to have crashed in the one state where she had a fighting chance, Bachmann is talking as if she’s in denial about her dismal prospects and may wait to drop out. Perry has more than enough cash to continue and may think he will do better in southern states. He may decide to stick around until Super Tuesday in March, complicating a Santorum push to consolidate conservative support. As for Gingrich, even though his hopes appear to be as dismal as those of Bachmann and Perry, we must assume that if he didn’t drop out last summer, he won’t quit now, especially if he can continue to participate in debates.

In Santorum’s favor is the fact that the proportional vote rules will make it difficult, if not impossible, for one candidate to score an early knockout. That’s exactly what Romney will be aiming at if he can squeak out a win in Iowa that would almost certainly be followed by an expected easy victory in New Hampshire. The primary/caucus schedule was created in order to foster a long, drawn-out race, and that will be Santorum’s goal. But the longer it takes for Santorum to consolidate conservative support, the easier it will be for Romney to stay ahead of him.

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Why Santorum’s Surge Has Staying Power

The latest polls out of Iowa confirm two things as we head into the caucuses: Ron Paul has peaked, and his support is now on the downswing. And Rick Santorum is surging, going from single-digits to third place in a matter of days.

If the Des Moines Register survey holds true, Santorum may just be getting started:

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, shows support at 24 percent for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; 22 percent for Paul, a Texas congressman; and 15 percent for the surging Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

But the four-day results don’t reflect just how quickly momentum is shifting in a race that has remained highly fluid for months. If the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains the same, at 24 percent.

On its face, this would seem to make Santorum the latest of the “flavor of the month” candidates, following the rapid rise-and-fall of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The difference is that Santorum may have more staying power than the others.

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The latest polls out of Iowa confirm two things as we head into the caucuses: Ron Paul has peaked, and his support is now on the downswing. And Rick Santorum is surging, going from single-digits to third place in a matter of days.

If the Des Moines Register survey holds true, Santorum may just be getting started:

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, shows support at 24 percent for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; 22 percent for Paul, a Texas congressman; and 15 percent for the surging Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

But the four-day results don’t reflect just how quickly momentum is shifting in a race that has remained highly fluid for months. If the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains the same, at 24 percent.

On its face, this would seem to make Santorum the latest of the “flavor of the month” candidates, following the rapid rise-and-fall of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The difference is that Santorum may have more staying power than the others.

The previous not-Romney’s all looked fine from a distance, but withered under scrutiny. Santorum, in contrast, has grown more impressive as the race has progressed. Yes, he has plenty of his own flaws, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But so far, his baggage doesn’t seem to be of the fatal sort. There’s no history of adultery, no sexual harassment charges, no problems with articulation, no shoot-from-the-hip attitude. Santorum’s debate performances have been excellent, and he’s shown a notable grasp of foreign policy issues. He also has impeccable social conservative credentials.

There are legitimate questions of electability; those can’t be diminished. Santorum is a bete noir to the left when it comes to social issues, which means that any imaginable glob of mud that can be chucked at him will be chucked – and that could make it very difficult for him to appeal to independent and centrist voters. That’s not to say that there aren’t certain positions conservatives must hold absolutely firm on, even if they enrage the left. But when considering whether to support Santorum, conservatives will need to decide whether opposition to gay marriage and birth control are issues they would risk dying on the hill for.

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The Year’s Best Jewish Books

My second annual roll call of the year’s best Jewish books is the main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. Not to leave you in any suspense, I think the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays published in February as The Neoconservative Persuasion was the most distinguished Jewish title of 2011.

I began rereading Kristol shortly after his death on September 18, 2009. On Yom Kippur that year I took his Reflections of a Neoconservative to shul with me — reading in shul is almost as traditional as fasting on Yom Kippur — and was particularly struck by the book’s concluding essay, “Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” which was not included in The Neoconservative Persuasion for some reason.

Looking back, I realize now that Kristol was largely responsible for both of my own “right turns.” I quit the Left in disgust upon its widespread condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Kristol’s Reflections, published the next year (in the nick of time), gave a name to my discontent and reset my political compass, keeping me from drifting into a sterile resentment. What is more, his description of his religious leanings as “neo-Orthodox” (not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy”) pushed me down the road toward my own “return” to Orthodox Judaism several years later.

Quite apart from my autobiographical debt to him, I have always been impressed by Kristol’s “persuasion” — both his conviction and his rhetoric, his thoroughness in giving the reasons for thinking as he thinks. The late Christopher Hitchens was also a master of rhetoric, but a more different writer could not be imagined. Hitchens’s prose is red hot; justice and the denunciation of lies are Hitchens’s passions. Kristol’s prose is not cool, though: it is warm. In his essays, Kristol is the perfect host, setting things out for the reader and radiating cordiality, even toward enemies. Here he is, for example, in “Notes on the Yom Kippur War” (originally published in the Wall Street Journal in 1973):

I have said that I find it hard to be angry at the Arabs, and that is the truth. Unfortunately, when I try to explain what I mean, people think I am being frivolous. That is because we in the West, most of us anyway, have so little sense of history, cannot take religious beliefs seriously, and are so resolutely inattentive to the ways in which history and religion shape national character. Indeed, the use of that term, “national character,” is distinctly frowned upon these days. There isn’t supposed to be any such thing, every one of us presumably born into “one world.” What nonsense. The Arabs are an extraordinarily proud people, in some ways a quite noble people, whose religion assures them that they have been chosen for a superior destiny. . . . For Arabs, the glories of medieval empire are like yesterday; the intervening centuries are a lamentable hiatus, of no intrinsic significance or even of much interest, and “soon” to be annulled by foredestined triumph.

In one passage, Kristol demolishes a current fallacy and fully explains a lack of hatred for a mortal enemy, while inviting the reader to consider whether he might not be right on both scores. Add to this that Kristol is always informative and always surprising, and you can see why I believe that even those who are filled with scorn for us neocons would probably enjoy The Neoconservative Persuasion.

There were other good Jewish books published last year — especially Lucette Lagnado’s beautiful memoir The Arrogant Years and John J. Clayton’s delightful Mitzvah Man, reviewed in this month’s COMMENTARY and probably the best Jewish novel of the year. But the writer to read, whether or not you’ve ever read him before, is the great and inimitable Irving Kristol.

My second annual roll call of the year’s best Jewish books is the main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. Not to leave you in any suspense, I think the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays published in February as The Neoconservative Persuasion was the most distinguished Jewish title of 2011.

I began rereading Kristol shortly after his death on September 18, 2009. On Yom Kippur that year I took his Reflections of a Neoconservative to shul with me — reading in shul is almost as traditional as fasting on Yom Kippur — and was particularly struck by the book’s concluding essay, “Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” which was not included in The Neoconservative Persuasion for some reason.

Looking back, I realize now that Kristol was largely responsible for both of my own “right turns.” I quit the Left in disgust upon its widespread condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Kristol’s Reflections, published the next year (in the nick of time), gave a name to my discontent and reset my political compass, keeping me from drifting into a sterile resentment. What is more, his description of his religious leanings as “neo-Orthodox” (not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy”) pushed me down the road toward my own “return” to Orthodox Judaism several years later.

Quite apart from my autobiographical debt to him, I have always been impressed by Kristol’s “persuasion” — both his conviction and his rhetoric, his thoroughness in giving the reasons for thinking as he thinks. The late Christopher Hitchens was also a master of rhetoric, but a more different writer could not be imagined. Hitchens’s prose is red hot; justice and the denunciation of lies are Hitchens’s passions. Kristol’s prose is not cool, though: it is warm. In his essays, Kristol is the perfect host, setting things out for the reader and radiating cordiality, even toward enemies. Here he is, for example, in “Notes on the Yom Kippur War” (originally published in the Wall Street Journal in 1973):

I have said that I find it hard to be angry at the Arabs, and that is the truth. Unfortunately, when I try to explain what I mean, people think I am being frivolous. That is because we in the West, most of us anyway, have so little sense of history, cannot take religious beliefs seriously, and are so resolutely inattentive to the ways in which history and religion shape national character. Indeed, the use of that term, “national character,” is distinctly frowned upon these days. There isn’t supposed to be any such thing, every one of us presumably born into “one world.” What nonsense. The Arabs are an extraordinarily proud people, in some ways a quite noble people, whose religion assures them that they have been chosen for a superior destiny. . . . For Arabs, the glories of medieval empire are like yesterday; the intervening centuries are a lamentable hiatus, of no intrinsic significance or even of much interest, and “soon” to be annulled by foredestined triumph.

In one passage, Kristol demolishes a current fallacy and fully explains a lack of hatred for a mortal enemy, while inviting the reader to consider whether he might not be right on both scores. Add to this that Kristol is always informative and always surprising, and you can see why I believe that even those who are filled with scorn for us neocons would probably enjoy The Neoconservative Persuasion.

There were other good Jewish books published last year — especially Lucette Lagnado’s beautiful memoir The Arrogant Years and John J. Clayton’s delightful Mitzvah Man, reviewed in this month’s COMMENTARY and probably the best Jewish novel of the year. But the writer to read, whether or not you’ve ever read him before, is the great and inimitable Irving Kristol.

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