x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

As Republicans run amok, sensible policy is trampled

Primary season has revealed that the Republican party's hard-liners created a race populated mostly by seriously ill-qualified candidates.

Whether or not former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wins Tuesday's primary contests in Michigan and Arizona, he is in trouble, and both he and the Republican Party leadership know it.

During the past month, the topsy-turvy Republican presidential contest took another turn, catapulting the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum into the lead over Mr Romney. On one night two weeks ago, Mr Santorum won three contests (in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri) giving him sufficient media exposure to push his poll numbers ahead of Mr Romney's in most national surveys.

Only those who underestimated the strength of the "anybody but Romney" sentiment among grassroots Republicans were surprised by this turn of events. And at this point, it is that sentiment, driven by ideological purists from the party's religious right and Tea Party activists, that is responsible for the craziness of this year's presidential contest.

It was the Tea Party and their supporters that kept more credentialed Republicans from entering the race - leaving the field open to the likes of Donald Trump, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry and pizza-franchise mogul Herman Cain. And while the GOP's establishment mobilised around Mr Romney, seeing him as the best of the bad options in the race, they have not been able to win the day.

The strange cast of characters running for the Republican nomination played leapfrog, one by one taking the lead for a few weeks before collapsing under either the weight of their own inadequacy or the destructive power of negative ads run by the well-financed Romney campaign.

First, it was Ms Bachmann's turn as front-runner, followed by Mr Perry, and then Mr Cain. Just one month ago, Newt Gingrich grabbed the spotlight by winning South Carolina and taking the lead in national polls. New life was breathed into the Romney effort by wins in Florida and Nevada. But then along came Mr Santorum.

At that point, the party's establishment made a determined effort to boost Mr Romney by helping him win a highly publicised but informal straw poll of attendees at a gathering of conservatives in Washington.

State party leaders also fixed a Romney win in Maine's caucus election. Deliberately not reporting all the votes there, the Republican establishment told the media that Mr Romney had defeated Congressman Ron Paul.

While neither "victory" meant very much (the Washington straw poll doesn't count for anything but one-day bragging rights, and Mr Paul may win the Maine recount), these actions did serve to stop the media haemorrhage that was hurting Mr Romney. What they also highlighted, however, was Mr Romney's - and the establishment's - desperation.

What the Tea Party and the religious right want is a candidate who is ideologically pure (and they believe Mr Romney is not), while what the Republican leadership wants is a candidate who can win the White House and not hurt the party's chances to take control of both houses of Congress (and they believe none of the other candidates is able to accomplish either objective). And so the fratricidal embarrassment continues. It was on display during last week's Republican debate as the candidates focused their nasty attacks more on each other than on President Barack Obama.

As a Democrat, I suppose I could take a perverse delight in the GOP's self-destruction, but as an American and a citizen of the world, I am concerned. The result has not merely been a weakening of the candidates involved, but a dangerous escalation of rhetoric as each of the remaining contestants moves further to the right to demonstrate their bona fides to the party's hard-core base. And here is where it becomes a danger to the country.

By now, the Republican field has locked itself into the most extreme positions imaginable on economic, social, political and foreign-policy matters - reinforcing the most reactionary instincts of Republican voters. This is the same crowd that brought us the "Obama is a Muslim" movement and other similar campaigns. They argued that Mr Obama had advocated setting up "death panels" as part of his health-care plan. Now they want to send troops back to Iraq and support a new war against Iran and chide Mr Obama for "throwing Israel under the bus".

This is not the old Republican party. This is a new creature, one that neither Mr Romney nor the party's establishment appears able to lead or control. And so, whatever the outcome on Tuesday, this long-drawn-out contest will continue, with more blood shed and more ill-will being created within the party ranks.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute