The Golden Ring: The Quest for the Presidency

COMMENTARY - updated June 1
After Joseph Smith found his holy "golden plates" (metal pages), in an 1823 cliff-side in upstate New York -- and wrote what became Mormon scripture, "The Book of Mormon," he set up a community of true believers. But again and again, in the land of the free, from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, they were attacked, killed, and driven out. Finally, after Smith was killed by a mob in 1844, Brigham Young led the remnants west, into the hauntingly beautiful desert mesa country, beyond America, beyond civilization, where they ruled the state they created, Utah, for over a century. Even there, in 1857, the U.S. government sent an army against them over the banned practice of polygamy, which they finally abolished only in 1904.

In his trek towards the probable Republican presidential candidacy, Mitt Romney must feel echoes of his religion's past, as one pretender after another arises and is anointed front-runner for a few weeks or days, then drops away, by the fundamentalist base of the Republican Party, desperate to stop the ascension of a Mormon, who are not considered Christian. Even among the general U.S. population, 38 percent don't think Mormons are Christians. However, 67 percent view them favorably, though 82 percent know little or nothing about them, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. The perhaps-insurmountable problem for Romney is 42 percent of Americans wouldn't feel comfortable with a Mormon as President as late as November 2011, and only 40 percent even realized he was Mormon (although similar attitudes once existed about blacks before the advent of Obama).

First there was Rudy Giuliani, and then Donald Trump bloviating about the birther issue, although they weren't even declared candidates. Then came the execrable Michele Bachmann, a glaze-eyed evangelical zombie whose Fox News factoids were so outrageous that normally complacent reporters had to repeatedly correct her, "I don't think Obama spent $200 million a day on his trip to India." Then giant-killer macho Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had never lost a race, strode onto the scene with his Texas homilies and hard-line talk, but he embarrassed himself and the state by goofy ineptness in the debates: "Oops," he said, forgetting one of the three federal agencies he pledged to abolish. As Romney looked more inevitable, winning by a few votes (then losing by a few, but only two weeks later) in Iowa and winning easily in his near-home state of New Hampshire; the "anyone but Romney"-ites became more frantic. Black big businessman-banker Herman Cain was the flavor of several weeks, until a chain of women accused him of harassment, forcing him to quit the race. Likeable oddball anti-war, anti-government perennial candidate Ron Paul maintained a dedicated base of young and independent voters who ignored his extreme and unworkable plans, and he ran strong seconds and thirds in most northern states (almost won in Maine caucus).

But from the tax cuts, greed, and banking collapses of the Reagan era, Republicans have marched steadily to the right, until every candidate in their early debates had to not only disavow global warming, but even evolution to appeal to their hard-right evangelical base. The only principles they still stand for is more tax cuts for the rich; and total laissez-faire rules for business, no matter what the risk.

2004 presidential candidate and former Vermont governor and medical doctor Howard Dean, whom I then questioned twice, is the smartest and most honest politician I've met. In the three weeks before the Iowa Caucus he suffered a 25 percent drop, the greatest collapse in U.S. political history, after concerted and dishonest media attacks, and lost by February to John Kerry. He then built the Democratic Party back in only 2 1/2 years as Chairman to capture both houses of Congress. His pioneering volunteer Internet organizing was emulated by Obama in 2008 to win. In an exclusive interview, Dean said, "The Republicans have been dominated by their extremes … what I call the 'hate wing' of the Republican Party: anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-gay -- since Nixon put in the Southern Strategy (1968) .

Former Bush speech-writer David Frum, excommunicated from the party after some heresy, explained, "Backed by FOX News, their book-publishing industry, supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics." Another disgraced former Republican staffer, Mike Loftgren gripes that the Republican party, with its "prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science," is appealing to what he calls the "low-information voter" or the "misinformation voter."

Then the atrocious Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision of two years ago that overturned a century of campaign finance laws came into play, allowing unlimited secret donations to candidates. It was designed by a radical court to permanently tilt the playing field to the Republicans. Ironically, it has caused a bloodbath among Republicans: with three $5 million checks from right-wing Macao gambling billionaire and fervent Israel-backer Sheldon Adelson, the flaky, scorched-earth, self-styled big-thinker former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich produced a devastating half-hour documentary on Romney's life as a "vulture capitalist" leveraged buyout manager of Bain Capital, "When Mitt Came to Town", and flooded the TV airwaves touting Romney's $250 million fortune and Massachusetts liberalism. Their Super PACs even had duelling names: Newt's Saving Our Future and Romney's Restore Our Future.

In South Carolina, the last real bastion of the Confederate South, Gingrich crushed Romney in all but three counties, by 14 percent. Gingrich, a man who had left two wives when they were sick or dying for a younger model, even as he led the charge against Bill Clinton's sex scandal in the 1998-99 impeachment farce, was roundly detested by Americans (negative 57 percent, positive 27 percent), but he was a glib, bare-knuckle fighter who could take the battle to uber-orator Obama. The great Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi summed it up: "If Romney is a scripted automaton who could make it through a year's worth of marital coitus without one spontaneous utterance, Gingrich is his exact opposite -- taken prisoner in war, Newt would be blabbing state secrets without torture within minutes, then would be calling his guards idiots who lack his nuanced grasp of European history ..."

The wealthy Michigan scion of Gov. George Romney, former head of American Motors, Romney made several gaffes emphasizing his privileged upbringing, saying in interviews: "I don't care about the very poor"; "I don't make much from speaking fees" ($367,000, a drop of his investment income of $22 million but alone putting him in the top 1 percent); We should let the housing market "hit the bottom"; "I like being able to fire people"; trying to bet Perry $10,000 in a debate; and revealing he was taxed at only 14 percent and had accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, common tax shelters.

Even as the fervent conservatives settled on Newt as their savior, establishment Republicans realized he couldn't win, and Mitt's far greater resources -- his Super PACs, backing, organization, and bruising counterattack ("Newt Gingrich, too much baggage" with audio of dropping suitcase) -- led to a big win in the big and diverse, winner-take-all state of Florida (46-32 percent) Jan 31st. Mitt was back ... or was he?

The next flip in this carnival was the Feb. 11 sweep in the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and Missouri primary by fundamentalist ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who got his own millionaire sugar daddy, Wyoming cowboy-investor Foster Friess, surprising because Mitt won Colorado and Minnesota four years ago. Santorum's big obsession is fanatical anti-abortion and gay rights, even opposing the federally required exception for rape or the life of the mother, and contraceptives, not too popular in a huge and diverse country. "When you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what's left is the French Revolution," thundered Santorum in Texas. "What's left ... became the guillotine!"

"He's far too right and socially conservative, but his personality is not too bad," says Dean, who has debated him. Romney squeaked out a do-or-die win in his home state of Michigan Feb. 28, where he opposed the Obama auto bailout that saved the industry, and Santorum's working class origins played well, though he is now a rich lobbyist, says the AP.

Rick has had staying power, though he is as unelectable in the general as Newt, and Romney's money and institutional advantage have weighed in -- the heavy artillery of the negative ads -- but if the fading Gingrich withdraws, the conservative anti-Romney vote wouldn't be split, and he could have had serious problems. One clever Santorum bill proposed preventing the U.S. Weather Bureau from issuing free reports where there were competing private firms (which he was connected with). He was a singularly undistinguished Senator who lost his last Pennsylvania race by 18 percent. With his pessimistic and apocalyptic message, he terrifies the Republican old guard. In the Feb. 22 Arizona debate, where they all endorsed harsh immigration policies, he was blasted by every candidate as a Washington insider.

These caucuses are tiny -- 40 to 90 people getting together in a schoolroom for two to three hours to pick two to three delegates -- in Colorado only 1.3 percent of voters showed up (I ran one in Seattle). They can easily be hijacked by 10-15 dedicated partisans, like anti-abortion activists, and often are totally unrepresentative of the general vote. Obama only won in the 2008 primary because he rolled into tiny Democratic Party caucus states in the Republican West with superb organizations and racked up a big lead in delegates, beating Hillary Clinton before she even knew what hit her, although she won almost all the big states, the last by big margins, as well as the popular vote.

Romney barely won his home state of Michigan (splitting delegates), and Arizona by a big margin Feb. 28. But Mitt failed to wrap it up in the 10-state March 4 Super Tuesday contests, edging Santorum in important Ohio (no one has won the nomination without Ohio) and capturing winner-take-all Virginia, Massachusetts and Idaho and winning splits in Vermont and Alaska, while Gingrich won his home state of Georgia big and Santorum pleased the pundits (who love the endless battle) by winning Tennessee, Oklahoma, and empty North Dakota. But even in winning Oklahoma, he split delegates evenly and lost many delegates in Ohio because he never set them up, as Romney netted 63 percent of them. In Mississippi and Alabama March 13, there were two unprecedented three way splits: 29-31 percent each for Santorum (won both), Gingrich, and Romney (third!); but in winning Hawaii and Samoa, and splitting the South, Romney still amassed more delegates.

After sweeping Puerto Rico (where he dishonestly promised to push for statehood -- Republicans wouldn't allow that for the mostly Democratic territory: they've stymied DC's hopes for years), Romney crushed Santorum in the big central state of Illinois and has a commanding lead (more than all opponents together), and despite many misgivings, was still marching towards the nomination. But his weakness in the Republican base of Dixie was evident again in losing 27 to 49 percent in Catholic Louisiana March 24, yet even there Santorum netted only five more delegates, with 31 more unallocated Party people, who will likely break for the leader. Even when he wins big, Santorum is losing the delegate race.

Losing winner-take-all Wisconsin was his last gasp April 3 -- pressure was growing to consolidate behind Romney, who received endorsements from right-wing Fla. Sen Marco Rubio and former President George H.W. Bush. Santorum was even behind in his home state of Pennsylvania, where he was being outspent 10 to 1, and faced with that humiliation and crushing Party pressure, he quit April 10. It's hard to leave the Presidential carnival -- nothing you ever do will even be as exciting, powerful, and intoxicating. I've covered the campaigns 2 1/2 times and even as press it is overwhelming, with great gobs of hope, money, and enthusiasm being thrown around. After this, Newt returns to being a self-styled scholar of history and a political footnote.

Romney comes off as plastic and artificial, an android without normal human emotions; but that is partly a product of his Mormon faith, its strictures and its secrecy (non-believers are not allowed into Temples). Because of their religion's persecution and sceptical public attitudes, Mormons are very reluctant to talk about it, but another better explanation and justification speech is needed, like he did in 2007 (YouTube) in his "Faith in America" address, as Obama did about race and JFK did about Catholicism. To the suspicious masses, Mormonism must be dragged into the sunlight. Mormons have to go on unpaid missionary missions for 2 1/2 years in their youth -- Romney spent time in France (subject of an "elitist" Newt attack ad) -- and was a deacon in his church. There must be heart-warming tales of human contact there that could counteract his soulless nerd image.

But even as he is polite, Romney can be gleefully vicious, as when he dissected Newt Gingrich in a debate before Florida, or he savages Obama as un-American, leading to his high unlikeability quotient. And his flip-flops on every issue, sometimes in the same interview, leave even supporters disquieted: "He's fake," said Ron Paul flatly in one debate. Some commentators have accused him of lying effortlessly, even professionally. Remarkably he attacked all his competitors from the right, though he was demonstrably more liberal. After loudly opposing any government bailout of the auto industry (including in op-eds), he actually claimed credit for helping save it, another "Etch-a-Sketch" moment, scoffed Obama. In another telling incident, Romney lead a gang holding down an effeminate elite prep-school classmate and cutting his bleached blond hair.

I like Mormons -- I worked for them at an Idaho TV station -- they are polite, smart, honest, hard-working, optimistic people with the best religious ads on TV (family). But they are the straightest people on the planet -- no alcohol, drugs, tobacco, tea, coffee, cola, extra-marital sex, lying, little meat; extremely right-wing; and their beliefs were and are often deeply exotic, from polygamy (Mitt's great grandfather escaped to Mexico to avoid prosecution, where Mitt's father was born) to religious undergarments to believing American Indians were a lost tribe of Israel to believing blacks were cursed with the mark of Cain, says USA Today. There are about five to six million Mormons in America, eight million outside it. Only 1 percent of American Mormons are black -- they were restricted from most rites until 1978.

Governor of liberal bastion Massachusetts, Romney has had to run from his only real governmental achievement -- creating an Obama-like health care plan -- and had to reverse his position on abortion and contraception to appeal to the far right that dominates the Republican primaries but maybe dooming him against Obama. This makes him seem more artificial, and leaves nothing to talk about but the meaningless culture war red herrings of the jihadist right. The last tempest in a teacup was Obama's requiring Catholic hospitals to cover their employees for contraceptives. Republicans went ballistic, calling it an assault on religion, but 99 percent of U.S. women use it, even 60-plus percent of Catholic women. It may have been a clever trick of Obama's to expose their extremism.

"This is what the Republicans do, try to divide people," complains Dean. Romney has been closing his speeches speaking or singing "America the Beautiful," a cringe-worthy spectacle accentuating his overweening dorkiness, though he surprisingly won the Conservative Political Action Convention Feb 11 with 36 percent to Santorum's 31 percent to Gingrich's 15 percent, pledging to be "severely conservative." Four years ago there, he was the great conservative hope against McCain, now all the contenders are to his right.

Republicans have also been using the time-tested tactic of disenfranchisement, according to the New York Times: Fourteen states have harsh new voter fraud (which almost never has been proven) laws requiring state ID's that some minorities, poor, and very old don't have -- 11 percent, mostly Democratic voting groups. In Florida, where the highly inaccurate (42%, according to a researcher I worked with then) 2000 felon purge elected GW Bush, the Fl. Dept of Elections is doing last minute purges of 182,000 suspected non-citizens from outdated drivers license records (where they had to prove citizenship since 2010). They also are aggressively carving up state election districts in the bipartisan decadal cheap trick of gerrymandering, but they control most states doing it.

Obama has let down many of his true believers on the left with his embrace of Bush-era abuses -- prisoner rendition, Patriot Act re-signing, Guantanamo non-closure, endless compromises with the right, the failure to prosecute any of the neocons' crimes in the Iraq invasion conspiracy and subsequent war profiteering, or the destruction of $12 trillion in the 2008 popping of the home mortgage-fraud bubble.

Dean agrees: "I think we needed to have some prosecutions. There was huge corruption and lying to the public on both Wall Street and the Invasion of Iraq. But I ran into some guy in a coffee shop who said 'I'm not gonna vote for Obama' and I said, 'Oh yes you will, in October… when you see what the alternative is!' Reno Domenico, head of Ukraine Democrats Abroad, complains: "Obama's form of compromise is 'OK, lets compromise - here's my half' -- the Repubs say, 'OK great, we offer nothing.' We then repeat the process several times."

Romney finally clinched the nomination and 1144 delegates with his win in Texas May 29 --- but he will be the whitest candidate in history running against the blackest, dubious in a country inexorably becoming browner (Hispanics have twice the birthrate of whites, non-white births just topped 50%).

"He said, 'I will veto the Dream Act' .. that's for (illegal) kids who've grown up in America, done well in America, to stay in America. That will kill him with immigrants!" gasps Dean (they must do two years in college or military to qualify). Indeed, after all the harsh immigrant bashing, latest polls have Obama ahead among Hispanics by a whopping 40 percent (67 to 27), another poll has him up by 47 percent. Likewise the intrusive Republican-backed anti-abortion laws and harsh talk have led to a 12 point Obama lead among women (ABC has a 19 point lead) ; with an Ahmadinejad lead among blacks: 90 to 4 percent. Romney's been demonizing Obama with the standard wildly inaccurate right-wing brush: un-American, socialist, anti-business, anti-religion; reckless charges that appeal to the racist unease many have with a black President.

But Obama, who finally caught Osama Bin Laden, increased troops in Afghanistan, deported more illegal immigrants and ended the self-inflicted quagmire of Iraq, is solidly middle of the road; and has seen his ratings bump up to 50 percent approval with 243,000 new jobs in January and an unemployment drop to 8.3 percent; and is steadily leading Romney by 6 to 9 percent in polls, Santorum by more. Two-thirds of Americans think Romney's 14 percent tax burden is unfair, and 52 percent to 37 percent believe Obama better understands their economic problems. And Romney has a steady fatal negative favorability rating of 47 to 35 percent positive, says ABC, not seen in 30 years of eventual Presidential candidates! But ominously for the President, nine of 10 rate the economy negatively, which now has become Obama's albatross, though he is innocent of any original culpability. This may be Romney's only hope- that the economy tanks, because many believe his business expertise makes him better able to manage the economy, though Obama has been hammering him on this. He shows no sign of pivoting to more moderate positions after all his pandering to the hard right.

"I don't think any of them can win (against Obama), but Romney is the best against us cause he's the most moderate," says Dean, "but it's been a bloody Republican primary -- I don't think they're going to recover from it. He's the Wall Street candidate, of the (top) 1 percent, but he's a damaged candidate ... by his own people."

We will see. Romney apparently has it sewn up. But in this free-for-all, with talk of saviors at a brokered convention, unlimited cash, and widespread qualms about Romney, anything can happen... if enough believe he is unelectable. With an extra billion or two of billionaire bucks, this will be the dirtiest, lowest, and most negative campaign ever.

Michael Hammerschlag (Hammernews.com) has covered 2 1/2 Presidential campaigns, managed a Democratic Presidential caucus in Seattle, helped save Bill Clinton with an anti-impeachment organization, and produced political ads and media advice. He broke the first big story about the media mistakes in the 2000 Pres. elections. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Honolulu Advertiser, Capital Times, Media Channel, Modern Photography, Scoop; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, and Times; and Kyiv Post, Weekly, and Business Ukraine.

Published by Michael Hammerschlag

Michael Hammerschlag's (Hammernews.com) political commentary and articles have appeared in New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hon...  View profile

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