January 21, 2012

Election 2012: Wealthy Republican Candidates: One Angry, One Cold

After the American Century

South Carolina is voting as I write, and all the polls suggest that Gingrich is likely to win, or to come close to winning. A sampling of polls suggests that Gingrich might win by 4%, but the margin of error and the volatility of the public makes this prediction a bit dubious. The momentum is on Gingrich's side, as he has come from a deficit of more than 10 percentage points to take the lead. Romney will not be able to capture the nomination easily. 

The coming vote in Florida will test the Republican Party further. Romney and Gingrich do not just represent different political views. There is considerable animosity between them, and it is fueled by a barrage of negative advertising, from both sides. The longer the campaign lasts, the more divided the Republicans will become, and the fault lines are not merely between Gingrich and Romney  The Ron Paul stalwarts show no sign of losing enthusiasm for their man, who keeps alive a libertarianism that can never really compromise with Romney and has contempt for Gingrich's opportunism. That leaves Santorum to gather up the votes of conservative Catholics and evangelicals. They find Gingrich immoral, and they see Romney as unacceptable, for he is a Mormon who has supported abortion in the past.

In the previous post I predicted that South Carolina would be a bloodbath of negative advertising, and so it has been. Possibly in the coming Florida primary the Republican leadership will be able to convince the candidates to tone down their rhetoric, in the interest of eventual unity in the general election. However, my guess is that the vituperation and nastiness will continue. Romney has begun to attack Gingrich for his ethics violations that cost him leadership in the House of Representatives back in the 1990s. Until now little had been said about this. And Gingrich continues to hound Romney about his off-shore wealth, his low tax rate, and his still undisclosed personal finances. John McCain was successfully attacked for having so many houses that he could not recall how many, and Romney will be in for similar problems. 

It is not a sin to be rich in the United States, but it is unwise to run for public office if the wealth is not mitigated by well-publicized philanthropy or pro bono work for good causes. The rich man who is a public benefactor, like Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates, is the cultural ideal. Angry or cold rich men who do not give something back are not popular. Men of great wealth have often created foundations to redistribute it, notably the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation.  These charitable institutions have the added advantage that the contributions to them are tax deductions. Ted Turner gave much of his personal fortune to the United Nations, and Warren Buffet has put billions of dollars into the foundation that Bill Gates created with his billions. Such acts seem rooted in a Protestant idea of stewardship.

It may be that Romney has been beneficent, but if so, the news has not reached this writer or most of the electorate. He seems to be a ruthless capitalist, a Bain Buccaneer, who recently declared that he likes to fire people. Gingrich also seems devoted to feathering his own nest, and last year at times seemed to campaign in order to promote his books more than to win. He has accepted outrageous "consultation fees" from clients, when it is obvious that in fact he was peddling his considerable political influence.

None of these men seems a worthy steward of the nation's resources, much less a repository for the public trust. Santorum is not worth commenting on, and Ron Paul is too extreme to be taken seriously. Republican voters are left with two wealthy, self-serving, nasty candidates, neither of whom are trustworthy, consistent in their views, compassionate in their nature, or visionary in their politics. When the dust finally settles and we have a Republican nominee, one can only hope that by some miracle a new face has suddenly emerged. A nation of 300,000,000 people surely ought to be able to produce at least one decent Republican candidate. In hard times, a wealthy candidate can be appealing. Think of Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, we have two insensitive rich men, one angry, one cold.