They may be shit for choosing a good candidate for the presidency, but say this for the Republican primaries: They're fast turning into the most luridly entertaining political spectacle of our time. In an inherently conservative, bottomlessly moneyed, scrupulously stage-managed electoral system designed to preclude chance or weirdness from playing any part in determining our political future, the unthinkable is happening: real drama. This isn't part of some clever but inscrutable master plan, put on by the hidden hands who run this country, to fool or distract the masses. This is an unscripted fuck-up of heroic dimensions, radiating downward from the highest levels of our society, playing out in real time for all of us to watch. Our oligarchy has thrown a rod.
If you're not a conservative voter with a dog in this fight, watching Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and whoever else is running for the GOP nomination this week try to hold on to front-runner status has been great slapstick, like watching a cruel experiment involving baboons, laughing gas and a forklift. No matter how many times you ring the bell, those poor animals are never going to figure out how to move that pallet of bananas – yet they keep trying, taking the sorry show from one state to the next, over and over, as if something is going to change.
The latest ape to fall off the heavy machinery is Romney, who in a single week before the South Carolina primary went from near-certain nominee to national punch line, in genuine peril of becoming one of America's all-time electoral catastrophes. The overwhelming expectation was that Romney would roll into South Carolina, kneel on the ball a few times, and run out the clock on the party's yearlong display of manic instability. Heading into South Carolina, he'd raised $32 million; none of his competitors appeared to have enough cash to keep the lights on for more than a few more weeks, let alone a whole campaign. This experienced national politician, who had run a superbly organized campaign for president in 2008, a man whose very trademark is inoffensiveness and caution, and who for the year has appeared dedicated to saying nothing in public more controversial than "God bless America," needed to hang on for only 10 or 11 more days after his decisive win in New Hampshire without completely wetting himself on television, and the nomination was his.
But he couldn't do it. Less than a week after New Hampshire, Romney committed a series of gaffes that revealed his crucial character flaw: He's a hypernervous control freak who flips out if you try digging around below the paper-thin veneer of his schlock patriotic presentation. The robotic Mormon financier looks like a walking OCD diagnosis, a trim coil of tightly wound energy with perfect coif and tie, seemingly living in permanent terror of a single hair falling out of place. For this type of anal-retentive personality, the messy chaos of South Carolina was a phobic horror. Faced with actual opposition, he lost his grip on everything. At a time when a quarter of the population has zero or negative net worth, when outrage against the financial elite is at an all-time high on both sides of the political aisle, Romney, it turns out, is so weirdly tone-deaf about his status as a one-percenter and bloodsucking corporate raider that any question in that direction sends his eyes pinwheeling. As his electably boring-mannequin act began to crumble, his carefully concealed true self – a deluded gazillionaire nitwit – was suddenly thrust naked onstage for all of America to gape at.
First he made the mistake, in explaining his income as a private-equity vampire, of insisting that the money he receives each year in speaking fees is "not very much." Romney's idea of "not very much" turns out to be $374,327.62 – a microscopic portion of his total earnings, but still a number that all by itself put him in the one percent. Then, in the crucial debate in Charleston on January 19th, he seemed to go into a mental tailspin. With both the debate and the primary slipping away from him, Romney reached into his bag of clichés for an "I'm not from Washington, I'm an outsider like you" speech. Only he ballsed it up: "If we want people who spent their life and their career, most of their career in Washington," he said, indicating his opponents, "we have three people on the stage who've..."
But as Romney looked to his left, he spotted long-practicing doctor Ron Paul. "Well, I take that back," he fumbled. "We got a doctor down here who spent most of his time in the, in the surgical suite."
The surgical suite? But wait, Paul was an obstetrician! "Well, not surgery," Romney corrected himself. "The birthing suite."
Then, as he looked pleadingly at CNN moderator John King, it was Dan Rather time. Dead fucking air. Romney's candidacy was literally dying in front of his eyes. He realized that he had forgotten King's original question, which was about why he had called Gingrich an "unreliable leader."
"Now, you asked me an entirely different question," he said to King. "What's..."
The crowd laughed as Romney looked around to the other candidates for help. Gingrich, who despite an utter lack of self-control is a cunning old crook with a keen instinct for combat, moved quickly to drive the knife in. "Beats me. I don't know," he said. "Where are we at, John?" The crowd roared.
Romney was never the same after that moment. The next day, in that very building, I watched as the level of panic in his campaign finally boiled over into violence. Throughout the race, Romney has been targeted by protesters from Occupy Wall Street, who have made it their mission to screw up his rope-line photo ops. In New Hampshire just a week before, Romney had tried to do the campaign-cliché thing and kiss a baby – only to have protesters shout at him, repeatedly, "Are you going to fire the baby? Are you going to fire the baby? Are you going to fire the baby?"
Romney typically has not responded to these provocations. But on the day of the Charleston debate, in a small nearby suburb, a protester asked Romney, "What will you do to support the 99 percent, seeing as how you're part of the one percent?"
At that perfectly reasonable question, Romney lost his cool and spun around awkwardly, arms in and head forward, like a bobbing harbor buoy, to face the protester. "Let me tell you something," he fumed. "America is a great nation because we're a united nation. And those who try to divide the nation, as you are trying to do here and as our president is doing, are hurting this country seriously."
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