As Rick Santorum exits and Newt Gingrich fades out, who would have imagined that the Gospel of St. Matthew would provide the best handle on the GOP primaries this year?
Even in 2009, it was obvious that the Republican Establishment and many of America’s richest citizens were busy laying the groundwork for a very special effort to take back the White House in 2012. After the 2010 congressional elections produced the second largest swing in the two party vote against the Democrats since 1826, the focus on 2012 became ferocious. The road, though, was bumpy. But by late last year, as one candidate after another flamed out, the hopes of most Obama opponents were settling, sometimes ruefully, on Mitt Romney.
The logic behind their choice was simple and compelling: With the American economy stuck in the mud of the Great Recession, the time was ripe for a campaign centered on economics. With his glittering track record in private equity on Wall Street at Bain Capital before he entered politics, Romney stood out from the rest of the Republican field. He was someone who could convincingly lead a campaign targeted on the economy and jobs. The rush to his standard accelerated after he dramatically embraced many neo-conservative foreign policy positions and advisers.
The result was a shower of campaign money and generally favorable press. With a small army of super-rich supporters lining up to fund his super-PACs (including several who tried clumsily to hide their identities behind various corporate shells) and the rest of his fundraising racing ahead, Romney’s nomination looked inevitable. He could drown the rest of the field in a shower of attack ads.
But his campaign’s single-minded focus on economics ran squarely against the grain of the “holy owned subsidiary” that GOP elites had built up over decades to shift the focus of public discussion from their elite interests in deregulation and the upward redistribution of income through an emphasis on wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. In Iowa, Romney did indeed blow away all his main campaign challengers with a volley of expensive TV ads. But evangelical and conservative Catholic opponents coalesced around the last alternative to Romney who was still standing, Rick Santorum, to deny Romney a decisive victory.
Then came Newt Gingrich, the blast from the past who changed everything. Facing elimination in South Carolina, but retaining just enough ties to really big money briefly to float a super-PAC of his own, Gingrich boldly decided to breach the informal rhetorical conventions of GOP primaries.
The GOP’s “Occupy” Moment
He began to bite the hands that had fed him and so many others in the party for decades. Turning his legendary attack skills from Democrats on Republicans, the former Speaker of the House attacked private equity, bailouts, and federal largess to the super-rich. Rick Perry, and other Republicans, including some self-proclaimed Tea Party leaders followed. Santorum, too, drifted along with the new populist current, though far more circumspectly and only after distancing himself from Gingrich’s strident attacks.
The Republican Party’s “Occupy Wall Street” moment did not last long. Thanks to a powerful documentary attacking private equity that his super-PAC promoted and his willingness to throw red meat to voters in TV debates, Gingrich won in South Carolina.
But the reaction among moneyed party elites was fierce. Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the president of Americans for Prosperity and angry business leaders hit back. A top Perry supporter in South Carolina, Colonial Group president Barry Wynn, abandoned the Texas governor’s already fading campaign and endorsed Romney, specifically citing the disrespect for free enterprise.