x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Out for blood, GOP damages more than its own reputation

The sad spectacle of the Republican nomination race in the US has damaged both the party and the image of the whole country.

I am writing this from Dubai, one day before South Carolina voters go to the polls in that American state to vote for the Republican presidential nominee. While it might have been nice had I been able to wait until the vote were counted to weigh in, deadlines being deadlines I must write now.

In a way, though, the outcome doesn't matter.

It makes no difference whether Republican voters decide to give former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential aspirations a last minute boost or decide to end the party's agony and give former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney a win that might help him clinch the nomination.

It makes no difference because the story of this Republican primary contest has already been written. In short, it has been more of a fratricidal embarrassment than an election. In the process, real damage has been done both to the Republican Party and to the United States' image.

It was clear from the beginning that the Tea Party and the religious right would cannibalise the GOP. But watching it play out has been ugly. The first victims were the more solid and experienced "should've run" Republican governors who chose not to enter the race, such as Mitch Daniels (governor of Indiana), Haley Barbour (governor of Mississippi) and Chris Christie (governor of New Jersey).

Next in line were the "never should've run" half-baked candidates who were each, for a short time, catapulted into the lead of this lacklustre field only to be humiliated and forced to drop out when it became clear that they "were not ready for prime time".

It is Mr Romney who is paying the heaviest price, and there is something almost sad about how the story of this election season has played out for him. Mr Romney is the classic "born with a silver spoon in his mouth" son of power and wealth. Other things being equal, one might have thought that he would have been the perfect Republican candidate, but for two issues: he is a Mormon and his political conversion to conservatism is considered unconvincing by many hardliners.

As I watch Mr Romney in debates fielding challenges from lesser candidates, I see in his eyes what looks like a mix of desperation and anger behind a starched shirt and crisp smile. It is as if he is saying to himself: "I've worked too long and too hard and have been the inevitable winner for too many months for this to be happening to me." What he knows is that each attack has drawn blood and that continuing attacks could prove fatal.

Now I know that politics is a rough business, but in my many decades of following presidential campaigns I've never seen Republicans behave like this. There is an old adage that says "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line". Historically, it is Democrats who have the bitter primaries and then have to make up and embrace at their convention as the party faithful swoon over their new nominee.

This is not to say that Republicans aren't, at times, quite nasty. They have been. But for the most part the GOP tried to adhere to what came to be known as "Reagan's 11th Commandment" - that is, thou shalt not attack a fellow Republican.

And when GOPer's did attack, it was often done discreetly - with no fingerprints (for instance, there was the rumour campaign about Arizona Senator John McCain having fathered a non-white child just before the South Carolina primary in 2000).

In any case, by the time the party's establishment has made their choice clear the GOP rank-and-file will respond by stopping its attacks and "falling in line" in support of their party's candidate.

This year's presidential contest started out quite civilly. But a combination of desperate candidates, the fervent desire of some hardliners to block Mr Romney's bid for the nomination, and the explosion of negative advertising, have all contributed to changing this primary season's political dynamic.

The attacks have been harsh and they have been sustained. And over time they have only become more intense and personal. As a result, real damage has been done.

One recent poll, late last week, showed that one in six Republicans said that they would not vote for Mr Romney should he win the nomination; almost one-half of all Republicans believe that Mormons are not Christians; and, at this late date, four in 10 Republicans remain unsatisfied with the candidates and still hope others will run. None of this adds up to anything good for Mr Romney or for Republican chances in November.

From my vantage point here in the UAE, where I am teaching a three-week course at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus, the GOP debates - and the bizarre storylines that have shaped this campaign - have made the race for the presidency look more like a clown show than a serious contest to determine who will lead the mightiest nation on Earth.

The candidates' marriages, their money, their irresponsible hawkishness, their Islamophobia, and what appears to be their willingness to say almost anything - no matter how outrageous - have produced a long-running embarrassment that, unfortunately, the whole world is watching. America has been hurt as a result.

So it doesn't matter who takes top billing in South Carolina's primary. The damage has already been done.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute