My first posting on the Republican battle for the presidential nomination was over a month ago, on November 2nd.
It's now December 12th, and oh my, how things have changed.
Up to a few weeks ago, it was essentially a battle between Romney in the one corner, and the dwarfs in the other. And it was Romney who, in his rather stolid and unconvincing manner, managed to maintain the lead. Maintain it, or recapture it, as one dwarf or another would briefly and diminutively jump up and fall back down again.
All the dwarfs, that is, except for the one who blew himself up into a giant. That dwarf is the improbable - one might say, the fundamentally improbable - Newt "the Grinch" Gringrich.
Gringrich shouldn't be were he is today, proudly and condescendingly ahead of the pack and set to win the Iowa caucus comfortably in just a few weeks time. But he is.
How on earth did that happen?
I think the answer to that has to be Romney himself. For months now, Romney has been the heir apparent, the guy who would "inevitably" win the nomination. His poll numbers were always stuck at around 20 to 25%, but that was enough for him to be the de facto front-runner.
But 25% meant that 75% was not backing Romney, and I think that it's becoming much clearer now that of that 75%, quite a few aren't just sitting on the fence. They're not people who will come round to Romney eventually, if reluctantly - instead, they seem to be people who have, for some time, decided that just don't want Romney. Not now, and not on November 6th 2012 either.
Now we all knew that Romney was not liked by many Republicans. That, after all, was why the dwarfs were able to keep nipping at his heels, and why one after the other had his or her moment in the spotlight. What's becoming clear now, however, is the extent to which these people will go: it seems that many of them will, in all likelihood, vote for the single most controversial, potentially least trustworthy and least conservative member of the pack, just to keep Romney out of things.
I will not say a great deal about Gringrich here (there is, simply put, too much to say to do it succinctly and in passing, so that will be left for another time). I will, however, mention just one fact: $ 300,000.--. In 1997, Gringrich was fined this sum of money whilst he was Speaker of the House of Representatives. It was the first and only time a sitting Speaker had been reprimanded by the House, and the vote was 395 for and 28 against (not just the Democrats, but practically all Republicans voted for the fine). Why was it levied? For a convoluted and murky form of tax evasion. Gringrich had taught two college courses (designed, the House Ethics Committee stated, to further his own political ambitions) and funded them with donations he had received. Donations, of course, are tax-deductible, but only if they're actually used as donations. Financing college courses isn't what donations are meant for, and by appropriating the money in such a manner, Gringrich evaded the taxes he would otherwise have had to pay.
This was bad enough, but then, and perhaps more importantly, he lied about this to the House Ethics Committee. In a number of letters, his lawyers denied the funding, and these statements were found by the Committee to be an "intentional or reckless" disregard to House rules.
All this resulted in the fine of $ 300,000.--; all this resulted in, at the time, bipartisan and almost universal condemnation of his actions. In 1998, Gringrich stepped down as Speaker and left the House; the Republicans had just endured one of the worst mid-term elections results of any party that didn't hold the presidency. This wasn't all due to the events set out above by any means; in fact, the main reason for the poor Republican election result was the way in which they had used the Monica Lewinksy affair to try to rid themselves of Bill Clinton. But that, too, was an endeavour spearheaded by Newt Gringrich (who was, as an aside, having a rather more serious extra-marital affair of his own at the time).
This is one of the many reasons why I find Gringrich's rise to the top so very - so fundamentally - improbable. And it all becomes even more bewildering if one considers the advent of the Tea Party and the current mood of Republicans in general. The candidate they seem to be favouring is the very candidate they should find distasteful. In many ways, Gringrich is the insider's insider; in others, though, he is worse: he's the insider who managed to screw things up so badly that even the other insiders had had enough.
And yet, here he is, and whilst we're still in the land of would-be's and what-ifs (after all, not a single vote has actually been cast yet) he's poised to win Iowa. And South Carolina, and Florida. If that happens, he will effectively have reduced Romney to the same position Romney was in back in 2008. All the planning, all the endless (subtle and years-long) build-up will have been for naught; Romney will have to bow out of the race once more.
How on earth does such a thing happen? Yes, the answer is, in part, Romney himself; it is Bain Capital, it is Mormonism; it is the whir/click character of the man. But part of the answer must also be sought in the minds and hearts of Republicans. I fear that there's something rotten in the GOP, and it's showing.