Commentary Magazine


Topic: GOP

GOP In Tough Fight Against Appointments

President Obama’s controversial “recess” appointment strategy was underhanded, politically-motivated, an abuse of power, potentially unconstitutional, and pretty much every other label Republicans have thrown at it. But perhaps the worst part for the GOP is that it was also clever – and Republicans could have a tricky time fighting back.

Charles Krauthammer touched on the crux of the problem on Fox News last night (transcript via NRO):

It’s cynical and it works. Look, [opponents like me are] talking about process and procedure and what would look like arcana. And [the president is] arguing “I am protecting the little guy against the Republicans, who [use] constitutional niceties to protect the rich and the 1 percent, the ones who have robbed you.” It’s a good argument [politically]. He wins it. But I think it’s disgraceful.

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President Obama’s controversial “recess” appointment strategy was underhanded, politically-motivated, an abuse of power, potentially unconstitutional, and pretty much every other label Republicans have thrown at it. But perhaps the worst part for the GOP is that it was also clever – and Republicans could have a tricky time fighting back.

Charles Krauthammer touched on the crux of the problem on Fox News last night (transcript via NRO):

It’s cynical and it works. Look, [opponents like me are] talking about process and procedure and what would look like arcana. And [the president is] arguing “I am protecting the little guy against the Republicans, who [use] constitutional niceties to protect the rich and the 1 percent, the ones who have robbed you.” It’s a good argument [politically]. He wins it. But I think it’s disgraceful.

Republicans are on the right side of this issue, but they may have a hard time winning over the general public. Typically, you oppose appointments because of problems with the appointees, but here the GOP is opposing them because of problems with the agencies themselves. They don’t want the agencies to be able to operate, which sounds obstructionist on its face, and it doesn’t help that these agencies are ostensibly focused on issues like labor and consumer protection. This situation is tailor-made for Obama’s reelection strategy.

The Wall Street Journal recommends that Congress start looking for other ways to push through the necessary reforms:

Congress can’t do much immediately to stop these appointments, but it ought to think creatively about how to fight back using its other powers—especially the power of the purse. However, private parties will have standing to sue if they are affected by one of Mr. Cordray’s rule-makings, and that’s when the courts may get a say on Mr. Obama’s contempt for Congress.

The idea of a legal challenge against Obama’s appointments has been raised constantly during the last two days, though it would be much more effective if the lawsuit was brought by a private party without blatant political associations than by the Senate or Chamber of Commerce.

 

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The Nominee Matters, Not the Field

The liberal writer Gene Lyons echoes the conventional wisdom when he says, “What’’s alarming about the GOP contest isn’’t the indecisiveness or poor reasoning processes of Iowa voters. It’’s the dismal quality of the choices they’’re offered. Is this the best that one of America’’s two major political parties can do?”

I’ve argued before that what will matter in this race isn’t the quality of the field (which I concede is comprised of unusually weak candidates) but the quality of the nominee who emerges. This field will be long forgotten not only years from now, but by the GOP convention in the summer.

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The liberal writer Gene Lyons echoes the conventional wisdom when he says, “What’’s alarming about the GOP contest isn’’t the indecisiveness or poor reasoning processes of Iowa voters. It’’s the dismal quality of the choices they’’re offered. Is this the best that one of America’’s two major political parties can do?”

I’ve argued before that what will matter in this race isn’t the quality of the field (which I concede is comprised of unusually weak candidates) but the quality of the nominee who emerges. This field will be long forgotten not only years from now, but by the GOP convention in the summer.

To help illustrate the point: last night C-SPAN broadcast a 2000 Iowa debate which featured GOP presidential candidates Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, and Orrin Hatch. This hardly constituted a political Murderer’s Row. It didn’t matter. George W. Bush emerged as the nominee and defeated Al Gore for the presidency.

The Republican Party simply has to hope that its best candidate wins the nomination and that he is formidable. My guess is both things will happen.

 

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Nelson’s Retirement Makes a GOP Senate in 2013 More Likely

Yesterday’s announcement that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson will not seek re-election next year was a stunning blow to a Democratic Party that had already been facing an uphill battle to retain their narrow majority in the upper house. Nelson is the seventh Democrat to retire in 2012. And as is the case with seats in Virginian, North Dakota and Wisconsin, Nelson’s exit creates another opportunity for a Republican gain. It’s arguable that Nelson would likely have lost next year anyway as a consequence of his vote for Obamacare, but the incumbent’s withdrawal now moves the seat from a “leans GOP” to “likely GOP” in any analysis of the coming battle for the Senate next November.

But the main point to be gleaned from this news is not just that the odds of Mitch McConnell assuming the post of Senate Majority Leader in January 2013 have increased. Rather, it is to point out to Republicans that despite their well-publicized dissatisfaction with their choices for president, with an unpopular incumbent president presiding over a sinking economy, the stage is still set for a big GOP triumph in 2012. Provided that is, they don’t nominate a presidential candidate who will not only allow Obama to be re-elected but sink the Republican opportunity to regain majorities in both the House and Senate.

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Yesterday’s announcement that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson will not seek re-election next year was a stunning blow to a Democratic Party that had already been facing an uphill battle to retain their narrow majority in the upper house. Nelson is the seventh Democrat to retire in 2012. And as is the case with seats in Virginian, North Dakota and Wisconsin, Nelson’s exit creates another opportunity for a Republican gain. It’s arguable that Nelson would likely have lost next year anyway as a consequence of his vote for Obamacare, but the incumbent’s withdrawal now moves the seat from a “leans GOP” to “likely GOP” in any analysis of the coming battle for the Senate next November.

But the main point to be gleaned from this news is not just that the odds of Mitch McConnell assuming the post of Senate Majority Leader in January 2013 have increased. Rather, it is to point out to Republicans that despite their well-publicized dissatisfaction with their choices for president, with an unpopular incumbent president presiding over a sinking economy, the stage is still set for a big GOP triumph in 2012. Provided that is, they don’t nominate a presidential candidate who will not only allow Obama to be re-elected but sink the Republican opportunity to regain majorities in both the House and Senate.

To conservatives who scoff at the notion that electing Republicans ought to be a higher priority over choosing solid conservatives rather than moderates, it should be pointed out that the alternative–Democratic control of Congress–would be a disaster for their movement. Obamacare was made possible not just by the election of a Democrat to the White House but his carrying along majorities in both the House and the Senate. Repeal of that measure will not happen unless Obama is defeated while Republicans retain the House and seize the Senate.

Keeping that goal in mind does not mean that conservatives must acquiesce to the nomination of any candidate with an R after their name, even if he is an incumbent. Tea Party favorites like Marco Rubio won races against Democrats after beating moderates. But it means that the GOP must guard against throwing away certain victories, as in Nevada with Sharon Angle and in Delaware with Christine O’Donnell. And, yes, it also means nominating a candidate for president who can not only win but also, at the very least, not act as a drag on the rest of the ticket.

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Now for the Fallout on Payroll Deal

The payroll deal is is being billed as a House Republican defeat, and from a political optics standpoint it is. But the deal, which was passed by unanimous consent, actually isn’t bad for Republicans, especially considering some of the new language that was inserted:

The deal entails a new bill with language protecting small businesses from a measure in the Senate bill that creates temporary new caps on the wages that are subject to payroll tax relief, a Republican aide said. Sen. Harry Reid accepted the House Republicans’ proposal late this afternoon.

The bill will be passed by unanimous consent, which would not require all the members to return for a vote.

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The payroll deal is is being billed as a House Republican defeat, and from a political optics standpoint it is. But the deal, which was passed by unanimous consent, actually isn’t bad for Republicans, especially considering some of the new language that was inserted:

The deal entails a new bill with language protecting small businesses from a measure in the Senate bill that creates temporary new caps on the wages that are subject to payroll tax relief, a Republican aide said. Sen. Harry Reid accepted the House Republicans’ proposal late this afternoon.

The bill will be passed by unanimous consent, which would not require all the members to return for a vote.

It’s a minor consolation, but at least an acknowledgement that Republican concerns about the impact a two-month payroll tax extension would have on businesses were legitimate. Coupled with the fact that the bill will force the Obama administration to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, it represents a small victory for the GOP. Though as plenty of conservative pundits and bloggers have pointed out, this is one that wasn’t necessarily worth the political cost.

The idea that congressional Republicans “caved” to Obama will play into the narrative that the president’s fortunes are improving. Some see the standoff as the reason why Obama’s approval ratings have had a modest bounce this week, though that explanation may not be entirely accurate. At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver thinks the poll boost is due to economic factors, not congressional gridlock:

The White House got a good headline number in this month’s unemployment report, with the unemployment rate dropping to 8.6 percent from 9 percent. Although the details of the report were not as strong, the findings have been bolstered by a steady decline in the number of initial claims for unemployment insurance, which are at their lowest levels since 2008. Meanwhile, housing starts are upretail sales figures have been reasonably good, and various regional and national manufacturing indexes are generally coming in above expectations.

That does make a little more sense. With the holidays approaching, Americans are likely more focused on their families and vacation plans than the tedious payroll tax battle. The standoff didn’t reach the same level of media saturation that the debt-ceiling battle did during the summer, so the image damage may not be as bad for Republicans as it could have been otherwise.

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Elder Bush Makes Elite’s Choice Official

I’ve always been of the opinion that the idea there is such a thing as a Republican “establishment” is something of a myth. The GOP hasn’t really had anything approximating a ruling elite since conservatives nominated Barry Goldwater and booed Nelson Rockefeller off the stage at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. The idea that Wall Street honchos or intellectuals running national magazines have any power over Republican voters and the party apparatus is based on a misunderstanding of how contemporary American politics works. The only thing that approximates an establishment is the family who produced two U.S. presidents during the course of a 20-year period encompassing the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one: the Bushes.

So the announcement yesterday that the elder George Bush is endorsing Mitt Romney comes as close as anything can to verifying one of the media’s favorite clichés about the Republican establishment’s role in the 2012 race. Given this mythical establishment’s lack of actual power and the resentment that the mere idea of its existence can conjure up among the party’s grass roots, it is doubtful the 41st president’s seal of approval will help Romney all that much. But what the Bush statement does do is make it clear exactly whom the GOP’s royal family doesn’t like: Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.

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I’ve always been of the opinion that the idea there is such a thing as a Republican “establishment” is something of a myth. The GOP hasn’t really had anything approximating a ruling elite since conservatives nominated Barry Goldwater and booed Nelson Rockefeller off the stage at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. The idea that Wall Street honchos or intellectuals running national magazines have any power over Republican voters and the party apparatus is based on a misunderstanding of how contemporary American politics works. The only thing that approximates an establishment is the family who produced two U.S. presidents during the course of a 20-year period encompassing the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one: the Bushes.

So the announcement yesterday that the elder George Bush is endorsing Mitt Romney comes as close as anything can to verifying one of the media’s favorite clichés about the Republican establishment’s role in the 2012 race. Given this mythical establishment’s lack of actual power and the resentment that the mere idea of its existence can conjure up among the party’s grass roots, it is doubtful the 41st president’s seal of approval will help Romney all that much. But what the Bush statement does do is make it clear exactly whom the GOP’s royal family doesn’t like: Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.

When President Bush praised Romney as someone who wasn’t a “bomb thrower,” it’s not exactly a secret that he was thinking about Newt Gingrich. Bush and other GOP moderates disdained Gingrich as a radical troublemaker during the Reagan administration and considered his scorched earth tactics as House Minority Leader during the first Bush presidency to be contemptible.

Though Bush also said that he “liked” Rick Perry, the blood feud between the Texas governor and his son’s political camp is also no secret. Had there been any affinity between Perry and the Bushes, the latter might have avoided any endorsements.

It is doubtful any endorsement these days carries all that much weight. Bush 41 had a similar profile to Romney during his political career. Like Romney, Bush came from wealth, flip-flopped on abortion and was unreliable on the key economic issue of his day (substitute his “read my lips” switch on raising taxes for Romneycare). So it’s not likely that Tea Partiers and social conservatives, most of whom never had much use for George W. Bush’s father in the first place, will be swayed by his support for Romney.

But in the context of a crowded GOP field with a gaggle of unsatisfactory candidates vying for the affections of a limited universe of social conservative voters, Romney can survive the unflattering comparison. Yet if Bush 41’s seal of approval does help convince some wavering middle-of-the-road Republicans and moderate conservatives to forget about Gingrich or Perry and go with the more electable Romney, it won’t hurt him.

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McConnell Breaks Silence on Payroll Tax

Now that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is publicly calling on House Speaker Boehner to just take the two-month payroll tax extension deal, House Republicans aren’t going to be able to hold out much longer:

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday urged House Republicans to pass a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, putting greater pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to act.

McConnell said House passage of a Senate-approved payroll tax relief package “locks in” legislative language requiring President Obama to speed up his timetable for approving the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

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Now that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is publicly calling on House Speaker Boehner to just take the two-month payroll tax extension deal, House Republicans aren’t going to be able to hold out much longer:

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday urged House Republicans to pass a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, putting greater pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to act.

McConnell said House passage of a Senate-approved payroll tax relief package “locks in” legislative language requiring President Obama to speed up his timetable for approving the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Ed Morrissey writes that Obama had a press conference scheduled for 1 p.m., which could signal an agreement. In exchange for the House passing the two-month extension, the Senate will likely reconvene after the New Year to hammer out a year-long deal.

Setting the narrative, Boehner blasted out a read-out of his phone call with Obama earlier today, in which the president apparently rejected the idea that a deal could be reached before January 1:

“Today, Speaker Boehner called President Obama to discuss the Speaker’s desire to provide a full year of tax relief for American families before December 31. With Senator Reid having declined to call his Members back to Washington this week to join the House in negotiating a full-year extension of the payroll tax cut, the Speaker proposed that the president send members of his economic policy team up to Congress to find a way to accommodate the president’s full-year request. The Speaker explained his concern that flaws in the Senate-passed bill will be unworkable for many small business job creators. He reiterated that if their shared goal is a one-year bill, there is no reason an agreement cannot be reached before year’s end. The president declined the Speaker’s offer.”

House Republicans have little choice but to take the deal to negotiate a year-long extension with Democrats in early January – a token gesture that gives the appearance that the House GOP isn’t walking away empty-handed. This is a perfect affirmation of the phrase “choose your battles wisely.” After a lot of noise and some political damage, House Republicans will probably get very little out of this standoff.

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Capitol Hill Fiasco Again Shows Why Obama is No Pushover

Watching House Republicans steer their party straight into a ditch over their failure to pass a version of the payroll tax cut has been like observing a car crash in slow motion. But along with the backbiting and second-guessing that have done little to enhance the reputation of the GOP House caucus or that of their leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the debacle also ought to illustrate to Republicans the political resiliency of President Obama and the fact that a GOP victory in the 2012 election is not a foregone conclusion.

That’s an important lesson. Many Republicans have approached the presidential nomination process as if any GOP candidate with a pulse could beat Obama. The ease with which the president has run rings around Boehner on the payroll tax cut not only should bring back disturbing memories of how Bill Clinton beat Newt Gingrich like a drum back in the 1990s but should also show what happens when ideological inflexibility on the part of the GOP allows the Democratic incumbent to play to the center as well as to the left. A few more debacles like this one and Obama won’t have to channel Harry Truman in order to portray his opponents as do-nothing losers.

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Watching House Republicans steer their party straight into a ditch over their failure to pass a version of the payroll tax cut has been like observing a car crash in slow motion. But along with the backbiting and second-guessing that have done little to enhance the reputation of the GOP House caucus or that of their leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the debacle also ought to illustrate to Republicans the political resiliency of President Obama and the fact that a GOP victory in the 2012 election is not a foregone conclusion.

That’s an important lesson. Many Republicans have approached the presidential nomination process as if any GOP candidate with a pulse could beat Obama. The ease with which the president has run rings around Boehner on the payroll tax cut not only should bring back disturbing memories of how Bill Clinton beat Newt Gingrich like a drum back in the 1990s but should also show what happens when ideological inflexibility on the part of the GOP allows the Democratic incumbent to play to the center as well as to the left. A few more debacles like this one and Obama won’t have to channel Harry Truman in order to portray his opponents as do-nothing losers.

Republican optimism about 2012 is rooted in a situation that ought to make them the odds-on favorites next year to win back the White House. The president has historically low poll numbers and a terrible economic record. Even the Obama-friendly New York Times conceded this morning in a front-page article that hopes for a recovery are misplaced and economic growth will likely ground to a halt in the first half of 2012.

But as poor as his leadership has been, Obama has all the advantages of incumbency. He also has the ability to demagogue congressional Republicans in a manner that can help shape the contours of the coming election. A campaign that tilts as far to the left (as his appears to be doing) may have trouble attracting independents. But what Obama is trying to do is to set up his opponents as being not merely a band of right-wing extremists who care nothing about working people but also as a pack of incorrigible incompetents.

Such charges may be as unfair as the Democrats’ Mediscare attacks on Paul Ryan’s attempt to reform entitlements, yet after the ill-managed debt-ceiling crisis and this month’s tax cut shenanigans, it’s a label that may well stick.

It’s no surprise that the GOP presidential candidates have run for cover on the payroll tax cut issue. But above all, this episode should concentrate the minds of Republicans on the fact that the general election will be the fight of their lives, not the walkover some partisans expect.

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How Republicans Can Save Face on the Payroll Tax Fiasco

On Fox News last night, Karl Rove outlined how the House GOP can backtrack on their payroll tax cut position, while still holding on to a bit of dignity:

“The only way to win it is to sit there and ruin their own Christmases and wait until the president heads off to Hawaii for his, and then lambast the Democrats for having abdicated their responsibility of passing a year-long tax cut,” Rove said.

“There’s only one way out of it,” he continued. “Is to stay in Washington, wait until President Obama gets on an airplane and heads for Hawaii, and then hold a session in the House, vote the two-month extension and use the opportunity to beat up on the now long absent Democrats and Harry Reid and the absent president and say look – this is going to not be good for the companies that have to write the paychecks.”

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On Fox News last night, Karl Rove outlined how the House GOP can backtrack on their payroll tax cut position, while still holding on to a bit of dignity:

“The only way to win it is to sit there and ruin their own Christmases and wait until the president heads off to Hawaii for his, and then lambast the Democrats for having abdicated their responsibility of passing a year-long tax cut,” Rove said.

“There’s only one way out of it,” he continued. “Is to stay in Washington, wait until President Obama gets on an airplane and heads for Hawaii, and then hold a session in the House, vote the two-month extension and use the opportunity to beat up on the now long absent Democrats and Harry Reid and the absent president and say look – this is going to not be good for the companies that have to write the paychecks.”

It’s a meager political consolation for passing a useless bill and missing the holidays, but at least it’s something. At this point, it’s fairly obvious that the House Republicans will have to fold on the payroll tax cut extension and accept the two-month Senate deal – they know the alternative of letting the cuts expire is self-destructive – and now it’s just a matter of when they’ll do it. Waiting until Obama blinks and leaves for his $4 million trip to Hawaii would be the best time to do it.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports that the standoff will likely drag on for awhile anyway, since some House Republicans don’t want to be seen as giving up too easily:

The issue: rank and file Republicans think the Senate bill is “atrociously bad.” They don’t want their leadership to give up so quickly after voting overwhelmingly to reject it yesterday.

“Our members expect us to spend some time explaining and defending what we did – even if we are playing from a disadvantageous position,” said the House Republican aide.

This aide agrees that the payroll tax cut will almost certainly be extended before January 1 and that Republicans will likely be forced to accept the two-month extension, but he warns that the standoff may go on for several more days.

With two days to go until Christmas Eve, it sounds like House Republicans will be following Rove’s advice, whether they want to or not.

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Have Newt’s Rivals Been Paying Attention?

Lacking money and organization, and under a heavy barrage of negative advertising, Newt Gingrich’s poll numbers are coming back down to earth. But it would be a mistake to treat Gingrich’s candidacy with the same dismissal as those of the “bubble” candidates who preceded the former Speaker. There is much Gingrich’s opponents can learn from him.

In his brief time in the spotlight, Gingrich exhibited three attributes that helped advance his candidacy and which the other candidates lack.

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Lacking money and organization, and under a heavy barrage of negative advertising, Newt Gingrich’s poll numbers are coming back down to earth. But it would be a mistake to treat Gingrich’s candidacy with the same dismissal as those of the “bubble” candidates who preceded the former Speaker. There is much Gingrich’s opponents can learn from him.

In his brief time in the spotlight, Gingrich exhibited three attributes that helped advance his candidacy and which the other candidates lack.

The first was demonstrated in the following exchange Gingrich had with Fox’s Chris Wallace during a debate in August:

WALLACE:  Thank you.  Speaker Gingrich, one of the ways that we judge a candidate is the campaign they run. In June, almost your entire national campaign staff resigned, along with your staff here in Iowa. They said that you were undisciplined in campaigning and fundraising, and at last report, you’re a million dollars in debt. How do you respond to people who say that your campaign has been a mess so far?

GINGRICH:  Well, let me say, first of all, Chris, that I took seriously Bret’s injunction to put aside the talking points, and I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions. (APPLAUSE)….

Congress should come back Monday. They should repeal the Dodd-Frank bill. They should repeal Sarbanes-Oxley. They should repeal Obamacare. They should institute Lean Six Sigma across the entire federal government, a hard idea for Washington reporters to cover, but an important idea, because it’s the key to American manufacturing success.

I’d love to see the rest of tonight’s debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games. (APPLAUSE)

That is how Gingrich controlled the dialogue on his terms. He effectively established the boundaries of serious discussion around his comfort zone, and invited the media to join him there. Then he offered up a red meat response to the question as he reframed it. Once he won the exchange, he reminded the media they can expect to be called out on their silliness and hypocrisy the rest of the way, to nudge them toward asking questions that won’t get them humiliated on national TV with a live studio audience cheering it on.

Obviously, this doesn’t work in all situations, and it can get old. But Gingrich was smart enough to know when to deploy the tactic, and he built his comeback on these exchanges. The other candidates may be sensitive to looking like a jerk (an admirable sensitivity), but neither should they fear coloring outside the lines as the press seeks to define both the candidates and the narrative.

The second aspect of Gingrich’s strategy that proved effective has been his insistence on using his time to criticize President Obama. The candidates will need to contrast themselves with their rivals in order to win the nomination, and they will be forgiven for doing so. But it’s doubtful they will win over a nervous public if they fail to present a clear enough contrast with the president.

The third one–and this is fraught with tripwires–is Gingrich’s astounding self-confidence. It gets him in trouble, but it’s also what made him believe the Republican party could, under his leadership, take back the House after 40 years in the minority. Gingrich’s 2012 campaign is predicated on a “scorched Washington” mentality; no federal institution, apparently, is safe. He can reform it all.

What makes this effective is that, for Gingrich, people actually believe it. To some, this makes him far too risky; to others, this makes him compelling. To his supporters, he is the candidate of refreshing honesty. To his detractors, he has become the Pop Rocks and Coke candidate.

Last week, Daniel Henninger wrote that Gingrich will either best Romney for the nomination, in which case the idea that Romney was capable of defeating Obama becomes less plausible anyway, or he will toughen Romney up and sharpen his reflexes. Henninger even raises the comparison to Rocky, a flawed but plucky and durable contender insisting he has a shot at the title.

Whichever way it goes, Gingrich will have left his mark on this year’s crop of aspiring Republican leaders. The question is: when the perpetual professor was teaching them a lesson, were they listening?

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Inside Romney’s Rise to Top of GOP Heap

The latest survey of Iowa Republican caucus goers confirms the rapid decline in Newt Gingrich’s fortunes. A Rasmussen poll conducted Monday and published today shows Mitt Romney vaulting into the lead with 25 percent, Ron Paul in second with 20 percent, and Newt Gingrich lagging behind in third with 17 percent.

There are a few notable elements about this poll. First is the continuation of Gingrich’s slide which shows him with only about half as much support as he had just about a month ago in Iowa. Second are the steady gains that both Romney and Paul have made with each advancing 2 points in the last week. Third is the fact that for the first time, Rick Santorum is finally gaining some traction in Iowa and most specifically passing Michele Bachmann. But last and perhaps most significant is the fact that Romney is, according to Rasmussen, leading among those voters who “consider themselves Republicans,” while Paul is ahead among non-Republicans likely to participate in the caucus. That bodes well for the former Massachusetts governor and illustrates again how implausible Paul’s hopes for the nomination really are.

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The latest survey of Iowa Republican caucus goers confirms the rapid decline in Newt Gingrich’s fortunes. A Rasmussen poll conducted Monday and published today shows Mitt Romney vaulting into the lead with 25 percent, Ron Paul in second with 20 percent, and Newt Gingrich lagging behind in third with 17 percent.

There are a few notable elements about this poll. First is the continuation of Gingrich’s slide which shows him with only about half as much support as he had just about a month ago in Iowa. Second are the steady gains that both Romney and Paul have made with each advancing 2 points in the last week. Third is the fact that for the first time, Rick Santorum is finally gaining some traction in Iowa and most specifically passing Michele Bachmann. But last and perhaps most significant is the fact that Romney is, according to Rasmussen, leading among those voters who “consider themselves Republicans,” while Paul is ahead among non-Republicans likely to participate in the caucus. That bodes well for the former Massachusetts governor and illustrates again how implausible Paul’s hopes for the nomination really are.

Examining these trends in greater detail, it’s clear that Gingrich’s decline is no longer in doubt. Since his campaign was always something of a house of cards, the final two weeks before the caucus may see his support decline even further. That will mean not only an ignominious end for what seemed only a month ago to be a campaign headed to victory in Iowa but the harbinger of a swift end to his hopes elsewhere.

Some may interpret Romney’s progress as more evidence of his inability to gain more than a quarter of the vote, but his slow creep toward the top illustrates that he has reversed the negative momentum that seemed to stall his campaign a few weeks ago. Paul’s gains will be greeted with dismay by mainstream Republicans who are unhappy about this extremist’s prominence in the party, but if he is taking away votes from conservatives who want anyone but Romney, that will merely strengthen the former Massachusetts governor in the long run because any outcome in Iowa other than a Gingrich win makes his nomination more likely.

As for Santorum, it appears his months of beating the bushes in Iowa and going to every county in the state to appeal to social conservatives is finally paying off. His support has doubled in the last month and, though it still leaves him with only 10 percent, it is clear that five percent probably came from Gingrich. Even more, it finally pushes him ahead of Bachmann, who is largely competing for the same voters as the former Pennsylvania senator. Bachmann’s decline from nine percent a week ago to six today is significant. Combined with the endorsement from a major evangelical figure in the state (which did not figure into responses in this poll) this gives Santorum hope that his momentum will grow in the campaign’s final days. I have already written that I thought one of those two will finish in the top three in Iowa and I’m standing by that prediction, though it appears more likely now the one to do so will be Santorum rather than Bachmann (as I thought a couple of days ago).

Lastly, the figures that show Romney winning among Republican voters should pour cold water on the expectation that the party’s grass roots won’t support him. This may be more a matter of a belief in his greater electability over any of the other candidates than affection for Romney, but the effect is the same. Once Iowa and New Hampshire have finished voting, most of the next states up for competition won’t be open enrollment, which means the GOP core will decide this nomination.

This is also a reminder that support for Paul is not coming so much from Tea Party or social conservative activists but from more marginal and disaffected elements. One would hope that as more voters learn about the extremist nature of his views, and of his connection to hate literature, that his share of the vote would decline. But no matter what happens in Iowa, Paul still has no chance of winning over most Republicans. It also should illustrate my belief that the possibility of him running as a third party candidate is more of a threat to the Democrats than to the Republicans.

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The Most Important Political Development of 2011

As we move toward the end of the year, it’s worth putting the state of politics in America today in perspective, starting with this observation: Barack Obama is, right now, in a perilous situation, quite apart from what the GOP field does and does not do to one another. That is, I think, the most important political development of 2011.

There are several year-end polls that illustrate Obama’s problems. One of them comes to us courtesy of the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll. Having sliced and diced the data, the analysis of one of America’s best political reporters, Ron Brownstein of National Journal, is thus: On the nation’s immediate circumstances, “the verdict in the survey remains overwhelmingly negative.”

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As we move toward the end of the year, it’s worth putting the state of politics in America today in perspective, starting with this observation: Barack Obama is, right now, in a perilous situation, quite apart from what the GOP field does and does not do to one another. That is, I think, the most important political development of 2011.

There are several year-end polls that illustrate Obama’s problems. One of them comes to us courtesy of the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll. Having sliced and diced the data, the analysis of one of America’s best political reporters, Ron Brownstein of National Journal, is thus: On the nation’s immediate circumstances, “the verdict in the survey remains overwhelmingly negative.”

Fully 70 percent of those polled say the United States is on the wrong track, while only 20 percent say it is moving in the right direction. That ties the Heartland Monitor survey last October for the most pessimistic finding on that reading in any of the polls dating back to April 2009.

In the new survey, only 44 percent of those polled say they approve of Obama’s performance while 49 percent disapprove. (In eight Heartland Monitor surveys
since January 2010, Obama’s approval rating has exceeded 50 percent only last May, when it reached 51 percent).

In the new poll, just 35 percent of whites say they approve of Obama’s performance. Among whites without a college education, less than one-third of them approve of his performance. And among college-educated white voters, who have generally been favorably disposed to Obama, just 39 percent of them say they approve. Even among college-educated white women, who gave Obama 52 percent of their votes in 2008, his approval rating has dropped to 42 percent.

The most recent two surveys also place Obama near a low point with independents: 38 percent of them in the new poll approve of his performance; each of those mark the first time in the Heartland Monitor polling that fewer than 40 percent of independents have approved.

Only 28 percent said they expect his policies to increase opportunity for them to get ahead; 37 percent say his agenda will diminish their opportunities. “That’s the biggest tilt toward the negative that the poll has ever recorded on this question,” according to Brownstein. He adds that an incumbent’s approval rating historically has been the most revealing gauge of his reelection prospects – and “the numbers are even gloomier for Obama on a reelection question.”

When asked if they intend to vote for Obama, 39 percent said they were now inclined to, while 54 percent said they will definitely or probably back someone else.

Brownstein also provides this useful comparison. Compared to his 2008 total

  • Obama’s approval rating has dropped 14 percentage points among independents;
  • 12 percentage points lower among young adults (aged 18-29);
  • 11 points lower among African-Americans;
  • 10 points lower among college-educated white women; and
  • 7 points among upper middle-income families earning between $75,000 and $100,000 annually (Obama has dropped from 51 percent of the vote with them to 44 percent approval).

Remember: Each of those groups provided him a majority of their votes last time; among none of them does he command anything like majority support right now. And while Brownstein notes that there is evidence of some increasing optimism among the public, it’s “hardly the stuff of clouds parting.”

If Barack Obama is going to be re-elected, he will have to climb a steep political mountain. He could do it, of course. But he ends this year even more  vulnerable than he began it. By any reasonable measure, President Obama is now the underdog. The presidential race is the GOP’s to lose.

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Is There Still Time for an Iowa Surprise?

I think Alana is right when she says the main beneficiary of Newt Gingrich’s free-fall in Iowa will be Mitt Romney. In fact, as I wrote earlier today, any outcome in the first caucus other than a Gingrich victory plays into Romney’s hands. Even if a dark horse candidate like Ron Paul takes the state or one of the second-tier conservatives sneaks into the winner’s circle, the net effect will be to destroy the former Speaker’s hopes for the nomination. That will leave Romney in effect the only mainstream candidate left standing and, though his path will not necessarily be easy, it would then be hard to imagine anyone else becoming the nominee.

But though the various polls of likely caucus-goers are showing Paul, Gingrich and Romney as the only potential winners, a word of caution is needed. Anyone who thinks this isn’t a volatile race whose outlines can change radically from week to week hasn’t been paying attention. It also needs to be pointed out that Tea Partiers and social conservatives who abandon a sinking Gingrich in the next two weeks have two other logical candidates they could turn to: Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. That’s why the betting here is that one of those two will wind up edging into the top three or better in Iowa by the time the caucus is finished.

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I think Alana is right when she says the main beneficiary of Newt Gingrich’s free-fall in Iowa will be Mitt Romney. In fact, as I wrote earlier today, any outcome in the first caucus other than a Gingrich victory plays into Romney’s hands. Even if a dark horse candidate like Ron Paul takes the state or one of the second-tier conservatives sneaks into the winner’s circle, the net effect will be to destroy the former Speaker’s hopes for the nomination. That will leave Romney in effect the only mainstream candidate left standing and, though his path will not necessarily be easy, it would then be hard to imagine anyone else becoming the nominee.

But though the various polls of likely caucus-goers are showing Paul, Gingrich and Romney as the only potential winners, a word of caution is needed. Anyone who thinks this isn’t a volatile race whose outlines can change radically from week to week hasn’t been paying attention. It also needs to be pointed out that Tea Partiers and social conservatives who abandon a sinking Gingrich in the next two weeks have two other logical candidates they could turn to: Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. That’s why the betting here is that one of those two will wind up edging into the top three or better in Iowa by the time the caucus is finished.

Any such outcome will be judged a big surprise at this point, especially since both Bachmann and Santorum seem stuck in the polls at around 10 percent in Iowa. But Bachmann, and to a lesser extent Santorum, have the right conservative credentials as well as an ability to connect with grassroots conservatives in a way Romney and Paul cannot.

It may seem like several years ago but, in fact, it was only four months ago that Michele Bachmann concluded a summer of unexpected prominence by winning the Iowa straw polls in Ames. But unfortunately for her, Rick Perry’s decision to announce that same day took the steam out of her victory. Though his boomlet soon fizzled, she never quite recovered.

Most pundits wrote Bachmann off after she went off the tracks with goofy accusations about Perry’s Texas vaccination program. But her evisceration of Newt Gingrich’s Washington cronyism and Freddie Mac boodle in last Thursday night’s debate not only may have greatly damaged the former Speaker, but it might also put a spark back into her campaign. Bachmann’s strong ties to Iowa and her concentration on the state made her a potential favorite there back when her candidacy was on the upswing. In the intervening months, Perry, Cain and Gingrich have all had their moments in the sun as the leading “not Romney” in the race. It may be too late for Bachmann to regain the momentum she had back in August, but a surge on her behalf is not out of the question.

The odds of Santorum taking advantage of Gingrich’s decline seem less likely. Santorum has been relentlessly beating the bushes in every county in the state trying to convince social conservatives to vote for him. Though both have obvious weaknesses that make their nomination highly implausible, Bachmann has a better chance of channeling some conservative enthusiasm.

Iowa voters have often confounded pollsters in the past, and any objective reading of the various polls ought to discourage anyone from making blithe predictions about the outcome on Jan. 3. But if Gingrich truly is in a free-fall, my hunch is that enough of his support will wind up in Bachmann’s column, which will allow her to declare a victory of sorts.

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Did the GOP “Kill” the Keystone XL?

Republicans scored a victory on Saturday, when the Senate passed a payroll tax extension deal that included a provision that would force President Obama to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline construction within 60 days. The choice puts Obama in a tricky political predicament, as labor unions and environmentalists are bitterly divided over the Keystone issue:

If Republicans get their way, President Barack Obama, right around Valentine’s Day, could have to weigh in for the second time in about three months on permitting the Keystone XL pipeline that divides his environmental and labor bases.…

For a White House sensitive to economic concerns, it’s not exactly an ideal scenario as it shifts into reelection mode. Hence the calculation last week from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to elevate the profile of the seemingly parochial energy issue, which months ago was mired among a laundry list of Republican grievances with the Obama administration.

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Republicans scored a victory on Saturday, when the Senate passed a payroll tax extension deal that included a provision that would force President Obama to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline construction within 60 days. The choice puts Obama in a tricky political predicament, as labor unions and environmentalists are bitterly divided over the Keystone issue:

If Republicans get their way, President Barack Obama, right around Valentine’s Day, could have to weigh in for the second time in about three months on permitting the Keystone XL pipeline that divides his environmental and labor bases.…

For a White House sensitive to economic concerns, it’s not exactly an ideal scenario as it shifts into reelection mode. Hence the calculation last week from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to elevate the profile of the seemingly parochial energy issue, which months ago was mired among a laundry list of Republican grievances with the Obama administration.

Obama previously threatened to veto any bill that included the Keystone XL provision, but on Sunday his administration seemed to back away from that position. He really has no choice – vetoing a payroll tax cut extension bill that received broad support in both the House and Senate would be politically suicidal.

It’s unclear which side Obama will take on Keystone XL, but we can assume he’s leaning against its construction. Just last month, the administration announced that the State Department needed an additional two years to assess alternative routes for the pipeline. There is no way this research could be completed in just two months. Unless Obama is prepared to backtrack and say that the assessment is no longer necessary, his hands are tied.

Democrats are probably aware of this, which is why they’ve started preemptively blaming Republicans for “killing” the pipeline:

But the two-month deadline “would make it almost certainly impossible” that the project will get the green light, added [White House economic adviser Gene] Sperling, joining the chorus of Senate Democrats who have made similar assertions.

“They’ve just killed the Keystone pipeline. They killed it because they forced the president to make a decision before he can make it so he’s not going to move forward with it,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, an ally of environmental groups, said Friday.

Of course, it was Obama who created this mess to begin with by letting campaign politics interfere with his decision on the pipeline. His administration took three years to review the Keystone XL, and ruled over the summer that it was environmentally sound. It was widely expected that the State Department would approve construction this fall, and the delay was a big surprise. Now Obama is stuck defending an extended review process that everyone knows is unnecessary. The right move would be to scrap the two-year assessment and greenlight the pipeline immediately – but, unfortunately, campaign politics will likely trump common sense in this case.

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Could Endorsement Hurt Romney?

If there’s such as a thing as a backhanded endorsement, the Des Moines Register gave a major one to Mitt Romney this weekend. After glossing over some of the justifiable concerns that conservatives have about Romney, the paper piled on the praise for Romneycare and gushed over the candidate’s willingness to compromise with Democrats:

While other Republican candidates are content to bash the president’s health reform law without offering meaningful reforms of their own, Romney has defended the principal goal of the Massachusetts health care legislation, which was to ensure that all residents there had access to health care. …

This ability to see the merits of tough issues from something other than a knee-jerk, ideological perspective suggests that Mitt Romney would be willing to bridge the political divide in Washington. Americans are desperate for the Republicans and Democrats to work together. His record of ignoring partisan labels to pass important legislation when he was governor of Massachusetts suggests he is capable of making that happen.

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If there’s such as a thing as a backhanded endorsement, the Des Moines Register gave a major one to Mitt Romney this weekend. After glossing over some of the justifiable concerns that conservatives have about Romney, the paper piled on the praise for Romneycare and gushed over the candidate’s willingness to compromise with Democrats:

While other Republican candidates are content to bash the president’s health reform law without offering meaningful reforms of their own, Romney has defended the principal goal of the Massachusetts health care legislation, which was to ensure that all residents there had access to health care. …

This ability to see the merits of tough issues from something other than a knee-jerk, ideological perspective suggests that Mitt Romney would be willing to bridge the political divide in Washington. Americans are desperate for the Republicans and Democrats to work together. His record of ignoring partisan labels to pass important legislation when he was governor of Massachusetts suggests he is capable of making that happen.

These aren’t exactly arguments that conservative caucus-goers will find persuasive. Romney’s Massachusetts health care reform is perpetually toxic with Republican voters, and they aren’t likely to be impressed by his “carefully nuanced position on abortion over the years,” either.

It’s no wonder Nate Silver found that Republicans endorsed by the Des Moines Register tend to do worse on average than predicted by the polls:

On average, across the eight races, the candidate receiving the endorsement of the Des Moines Register has outperformed the polls by a statistically insignificant 3-point margin. The four Republican candidates in the sample, meanwhile, have on average done slightly worse than polling would have projected, although the difference is nowhere close to being statistically significant.

The Register’s endorsement is better suited for the general election than for the Republican primaries. It isn’t likely to help Romney in the caucuses, and it may even drag him down a bit with conservative voters — though probably not enough to matter.

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Who Benefits From Newt’s Free-Fall?

As much as Newt Gingrich’s supporters wanted to believe his rise in the polls was more solid than Rick Perry’s or Herman Cain’s, it looks like his reign on top is coming to an end. Jonathan writes that Gingrich has plummeted to 14 percent in today’s Public Policy Polling Iowa survey, down from 22 percent last week and 27 the week before.

While we may just be witnessing the beginning of Gingrich’s collapse, his trajectory has seemed to follow the same pattern as the previous not-Romney frontrunners, who maintained their leads for a little more than a month before crashing spectacularly. But there are reasons why Gingrich’s fall may not be as dramatic as the other ones, according to the National Journal:

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As much as Newt Gingrich’s supporters wanted to believe his rise in the polls was more solid than Rick Perry’s or Herman Cain’s, it looks like his reign on top is coming to an end. Jonathan writes that Gingrich has plummeted to 14 percent in today’s Public Policy Polling Iowa survey, down from 22 percent last week and 27 the week before.

While we may just be witnessing the beginning of Gingrich’s collapse, his trajectory has seemed to follow the same pattern as the previous not-Romney frontrunners, who maintained their leads for a little more than a month before crashing spectacularly. But there are reasons why Gingrich’s fall may not be as dramatic as the other ones, according to the National Journal:

Gingrich’s candidacy does have several variables that could complicate whether he too falls just as hard. For one, it’s not readily apparent which candidate conservative voters could flock to instead. In every other case, when a GOP candidate flopped there was a concurrent rise in one of their rivals. Bachmann was succeeded by Perry, who was supplanted by Cain, who gave way to Gingrich.

So far, no candidate seems to be rising to fill in the “not-Romney” void that would be left by Gingrich. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have gained a modest two points since last week’s PPP poll, while Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman have basically remained flat.

Paul is now leading the field at 23 percent, with Romney on his heels at 20 percent. According to PPP, Romney has the most to gain from Gingrich’s fall:

One thing Romney really has going for him is more room for growth than Paul.  Among voters who say they’re not firmly committed to their current candidate choice, Romney is the second choice for 19 percent compared to 17 percent for Perry, 15 percent for Bachmann, and only 13 percent for Paul.   It’s particularly worth noting that among Gingrich (who seems more likely to keep falling than turn it around) voters, he’s the second choice of 30 percent compared to only 11 percent for Paul.

Predictably, Paul’s supporters are the most committed to their candidate. But Paul’s ceiling in Iowa is also lower than Romney’s. If no other candidate rises to take Gingrich’s place, and this remains a two-man race between Paul and Romney until the caucuses, then there’s a good chance Romney could come out of Iowa as the victor.

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Did the Gingrich Bubble Just Pop?

My view that Newt Gingrich’s performance in last Thursday’s debate would send him back to the pack was very much in the minority the day after the candidates clashed in Sioux City, Iowa. But a pair of new polls published this weekend shows the former Speaker’s large lead in the Hawkeye state is evaporating. For much of November and December, opinion surveys showed Republican voters were ignoring Gingrich’s troubling past and lack of electability. However, after getting pounded on his Freddie Mac fees and another week of heightened scrutiny about his inconsistent record, Gallup’s Daily Tracking Poll in Iowa showed Gingrich’s lead over Mitt Romney to have declined to four points (28 to 24 percent) from 15 points only two weeks ago (37 to 22 percent). Even more shocking, a Public Policy Poll now shows Gingrich dropping to third in Iowa with only 14 percent of the vote, while Ron Paul leads with 23 percent and Romney is listed as a close second with 20 percent.

The discrepancy between Paul’s showing in the two polls illustrates both the volatility and the difficulty of predicting this race. It is hard to square the fact that Gallup shows the extremist libertarian at only 10 percent while PPP has him in the lead. Nevertheless, both surveys agree on one thing. Gingrich’s surge is not only over; it may be about to be reversed. He is now rapidly losing ground in Iowa, and with no other debates scheduled before the Jan. 3 caucus and his campaign lacking organizational strength on the ground, it isn’t likely he’ll be able to recover. So no matter how well Paul does, the popping of Gingrich’s bubble is good news for Romney. Any outcome other than a Gingrich win in Iowa will set him up for a very good January.

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My view that Newt Gingrich’s performance in last Thursday’s debate would send him back to the pack was very much in the minority the day after the candidates clashed in Sioux City, Iowa. But a pair of new polls published this weekend shows the former Speaker’s large lead in the Hawkeye state is evaporating. For much of November and December, opinion surveys showed Republican voters were ignoring Gingrich’s troubling past and lack of electability. However, after getting pounded on his Freddie Mac fees and another week of heightened scrutiny about his inconsistent record, Gallup’s Daily Tracking Poll in Iowa showed Gingrich’s lead over Mitt Romney to have declined to four points (28 to 24 percent) from 15 points only two weeks ago (37 to 22 percent). Even more shocking, a Public Policy Poll now shows Gingrich dropping to third in Iowa with only 14 percent of the vote, while Ron Paul leads with 23 percent and Romney is listed as a close second with 20 percent.

The discrepancy between Paul’s showing in the two polls illustrates both the volatility and the difficulty of predicting this race. It is hard to square the fact that Gallup shows the extremist libertarian at only 10 percent while PPP has him in the lead. Nevertheless, both surveys agree on one thing. Gingrich’s surge is not only over; it may be about to be reversed. He is now rapidly losing ground in Iowa, and with no other debates scheduled before the Jan. 3 caucus and his campaign lacking organizational strength on the ground, it isn’t likely he’ll be able to recover. So no matter how well Paul does, the popping of Gingrich’s bubble is good news for Romney. Any outcome other than a Gingrich win in Iowa will set him up for a very good January.

Even if Ron Paul is able to parlay his strong ground game into a surprising victory in Iowa, there is no chance his out-of-the-mainstream views on foreign policy will enable him to win elsewhere. Any boost an extremist such as Paul gets in Iowa will only make Romney’s nomination look like a better idea to most conservatives who value beating President Obama over ideological purity.

Though Romney has had trouble connecting with grassroots Republicans, the notion that Gingrich could overcome his enormous negatives and cruise to the nomination may have been as much an illusion as the bubbles that briefly had Rick Perry and Herman Cain leading in the GOP contest. Even more to the point, a Gingrich collapse in Iowa will send his poll numbers in other crucial early primary states where he has been leading (such as South Carolina and Florida) tumbling as well. That may give Romney a chance to follow up his likely win in New Hampshire with victories in the south that could give him a stranglehold on the nomination.

The crowded field is also still an advantage for Romney. None of the second-tier candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Rick Perry have shown any ability to break out so far. But with all of them hanging on to approximately ten percent of likely caucus-goers, the split on the right has prevented Gingrich from consolidating the lead he once held and gives Romney a chance at winning in Iowa with only a fifth of the electorate behind him. With PPP showing the former Massachusetts governor with far more room for growth than Paul — who appears to be maxing out the libertarian/youth/anti-war vote — that gives Romney a very decent chance at an outright plurality in Iowa.

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Obama’s Political Problems Mount

A new Associated Press-GfK poll found the following:

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A new Associated Press-GfK poll found the following:

* President Obama’s overall job approval stands at a new low, with 44 percent approving and 54 percent disapproving.

* The president’s standing among independents is worse: 38 percent approve while 59 percent disapprove.

* For the first time, the poll found that a majority of adults, 52 percent, said Obama should be voted out of office while 43 percent said he deserves another term.

* About two-thirds of white voters without college degrees say Obama should be a one-term president, while 33 percent of those voters say he should get another four years. Among white voters with a college degree, 57 percent said Obama should be voted out of office.

* Obama’s approval rating on the handling of the economy is 39 percent approve while 60 percent disapprove.

* Only 26 percent said the United States is headed in the right direction while 70 percent said the country is moving in the wrong direction.

*About half of the respondents oppose the health care law and support for it dipped to 29 percent from 36 percent in June. Just 15 percent said the federal government should have the power to require all Americans to buy health insurance. Only 50 percent of Democrats support the health care law, compared with 59 percent of Democrats last June. And only about a quarter of independents back the law.

What all this means is while the attention of the political world continues to focus on the Republican primary race, President Obama’s political problems continue to mount.

The situation we find ourselves in is analogous to 1979-1980, at least in this respect: The country has made the judgment, at least for now, that the current occupant of the White House is a failure, inept and in over his head. Americans are certainly disposed to vote against Obama; the question is whether the Republican nominee provides sufficient reassurance to the majority of the public who believe the president should be voted out of office. Ronald Reagan did that in 1980; but only in the last few weeks of the election – and due in large part to his debate performance in Cleveland (held on October 28). As Craig Shirley points out in his excellent book Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, the morning of the debate a Washington Post story featured this headline: “Carter Goes Into Debate With Lead in New Poll.”

Even with an unpopular president, the opposition party has to nominate someone who can make the sale. That’s what Republicans did in 1980; as a result, Reagan won 44 states and many Democratic “old bulls” in Congress (like Washington State’s Warren Magnuson) were washed away. There’s a lesson to be learned for Republicans in 2012. Regardless of how unpopular Obama becomes, the GOP nominee has to be able to close the deal. That’s what the primary process–as long and brutal as it is–is meant to determine.

 

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Last Dance in Iowa Brings Gingrich Back to the Pack

A few days ago, Newt Gingrich looked to be rolling to the nomination, and Mitt Romney seemed headed for an inevitable loss. But the last debate before the Iowa caucus ended with the former Speaker headed back to the pack. Gingrich had some strong moments in Sioux City, but the beating he took on his consulting work for Freddie Mac from Michele Bachmann brought into focus the questions about his record that many Republicans have been ignoring in recent weeks.

Mitt Romney recovered from his poor performance last Saturday and was back to the steady, confident debater he was earlier in the campaign. But the story was not so much his strong showing as it was the ability of Bachmann and even Rick Perry to score some points. If, as today’s Rasmussen poll indicates, voters are starting to have second thoughts about Gingrich’s ability to beat President Obama, then the ability of the second-tier conservatives to eat into the former Speaker’s support may be crucial in deciding the outcome of the caucus next month. Though Ron Paul, the candidate who seemed in the best position to threaten Gingrich’s lead, had a terrible night as he was flayed by Bachmann for his irresponsible support for Iran, the net result of the field evening out in this manner is to Romney’s advantage.

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A few days ago, Newt Gingrich looked to be rolling to the nomination, and Mitt Romney seemed headed for an inevitable loss. But the last debate before the Iowa caucus ended with the former Speaker headed back to the pack. Gingrich had some strong moments in Sioux City, but the beating he took on his consulting work for Freddie Mac from Michele Bachmann brought into focus the questions about his record that many Republicans have been ignoring in recent weeks.

Mitt Romney recovered from his poor performance last Saturday and was back to the steady, confident debater he was earlier in the campaign. But the story was not so much his strong showing as it was the ability of Bachmann and even Rick Perry to score some points. If, as today’s Rasmussen poll indicates, voters are starting to have second thoughts about Gingrich’s ability to beat President Obama, then the ability of the second-tier conservatives to eat into the former Speaker’s support may be crucial in deciding the outcome of the caucus next month. Though Ron Paul, the candidate who seemed in the best position to threaten Gingrich’s lead, had a terrible night as he was flayed by Bachmann for his irresponsible support for Iran, the net result of the field evening out in this manner is to Romney’s advantage.

There were no obvious gaffes. But there were some memorable moments as Bachmann stood up to both Gingrich and Paul, subjecting both to withering attacks. Gingrich recovered to some extent with strong attacks on President Obama on the Keystone XL pipeline cancellation and on liberal judges. But if his goal was to maintain his momentum, he failed. Gingrich was subjected to tough questioning that diminished his ability to stay on top.

The debate was more important to Gingrich than the others because his weak organization in the state made it imperative he head into the final weeks with a big lead. Though it can be argued by the end of the night he had recovered some of the ground he lost when he was being backed into a corner by Bachmann, it still meant that he was, at best, no better off than when he began.

Paul’s extremist foreign policy, which was thoroughly exposed by both the moderators and his conservative opponents, should sink any hopes that his followers might have about the libertarian extremist squeaking out a narrow plurality. That has to help Gingrich, but strong showings by Bachmann and Perry (who will be best remembered for his line about being the political version of Tim Tebow), will eat into Gingrich’s lead and diminish the notion that he is the default “anti-Romney” for many conservatives.

Romney’s path to victory in Iowa — which would set him on an easy path to the nomination — is predicated on a divided conservative field. If Gingrich is headed back to the pack and with some of the second-tier candidates gaining ground rather than fading into obscurity, then Romney may be back on track.

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Debate Preview: Last Dance Before Iowa

Tonight’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa is the 14th in which all the major Republican candidates have participated since the first back in May. The campaign has undergone a number of major twists and turns in that time but after all the talking and the spinning, this event will be the last one before the Iowa caucus. That means that this will be the last chance for any of the contenders to change the minds of viewers of this latest episode of what has become the country’s favorite political reality show.

Once again the focus will be on Newt Gingrich who has been leading the national polls for weeks. With the release of a Rasmussen poll today that, as Alana noted, showed Mitt Romney overtaking Gingrich, there is a chance that the former speaker’s bubble may finally be bursting. This debate will therefore be closely watched not merely for the usual question of who makes the biggest mistake but as a sign of whether Gingrich is finally cracking under the pressure of attacks from Romney and the rest of the field. Since the debates have largely shaped this race, this last one before the votes start being counted will be crucial.

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Tonight’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa is the 14th in which all the major Republican candidates have participated since the first back in May. The campaign has undergone a number of major twists and turns in that time but after all the talking and the spinning, this event will be the last one before the Iowa caucus. That means that this will be the last chance for any of the contenders to change the minds of viewers of this latest episode of what has become the country’s favorite political reality show.

Once again the focus will be on Newt Gingrich who has been leading the national polls for weeks. With the release of a Rasmussen poll today that, as Alana noted, showed Mitt Romney overtaking Gingrich, there is a chance that the former speaker’s bubble may finally be bursting. This debate will therefore be closely watched not merely for the usual question of who makes the biggest mistake but as a sign of whether Gingrich is finally cracking under the pressure of attacks from Romney and the rest of the field. Since the debates have largely shaped this race, this last one before the votes start being counted will be crucial.

Despite our almost obsessive focus on each poll that comes out, the fact remains that we don’t really know whether each snapshot of public opinion at a given moment will translate into votes at the caucus in January. With more scrutiny bringing what Romney aptly called Gingrich’s “goofy” side and with more conservative thought leaders, like National Review trying to alert GOP voters to what they rightly believe is Gingrich’s fatal weakness in a general election matchup with President Obama, it could be that Gingrich’s momentum is being halted.

While this may not translate into big gains for Romney, at this point it must be considered that any result in Iowa other than a Gingrich victory will give the former Massachusetts governor a big boost heading into the New Hampshire primary days later. Considering that Gingrich seems to be ignoring the ground game in Iowa in the comings that will mean it is absolutely essential that he give another strong performance tonight. It may also be necessary for him to ignore Romney  — whose support is relatively stable — and concentrate on undermining Ron Paul’s since the libertarian extremist may pose the greatest threat to Gingrich.

Given the volatility of the polls, no matter what Romney does, Gingrich cannot afford to stumble. This last dance before the caucus could make or break Gingrich’s presidential hopes.

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Live Blogging the GOP Debate

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from Iowa. So tune in to Fox News at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the GOP contenders have at it yet again.

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from Iowa. So tune in to Fox News at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the GOP contenders have at it yet again.

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