One year ago, President Obama's reelection chances looked dim. Republicans were fresh off a sweeping victory in the 2010 midterm elections, and the possibility of retaking the White House had greatly energized the GOP base. But over the past few months, the odds of Obama winning a second term appear to have improved dramatically, especially in the past week as conservative voters in South Carolina rejected the Republican establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, and instead cast their ballots for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom most political observers agree has almost no chance of defeating the president next November. And with Gingrich taking a nine-point lead in the Florida polls early this week, the GOP is digging in for a long, ugly battle that could last until the California primary in June.
The main problem for Republicans is that in a year in which they were supposed to have a legitimate shot at winning the White House, they've fielded perhaps the worst field of presidential candidates since 1964 — when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. Another problem is that the conservative base detests the establishment-anointed frontrunner Romney. The base gets it that Romney is a stiff, awkward phony, who will say anything to get elected, and whose flip-flopping is legendary — from abortion (was for it before he was against it) to climate change (said it was real, but now questions it) to the individual mandate (again, was for it before he was against it).
To the horror of deep-pocketed Republican donors who back Romney, Gingrich also has tapped into the resentment that conservative, blue-collar voters have toward the über wealthy ex-governor of Massachusetts. Indeed, Gingrich, as if channeling an inner Democrat, harangued Romney for his work at Bain Capital as being "exploitive" and "not defensible," because the corporate raiding firm made a fortune by buying up healthy American companies, stripping them of their assets, and firing all the workers. It was a line of attack that the president was expected to use against Romney this fall, and now if the ex-governor survives the rough-and-tumble GOP primaries, Obama will be able to argue that even Republicans find Romney's business record — which was his supposed strength — distasteful.
In fact, Romney's business background may now be his one of biggest liabilities. He's always been the candidate of the One Percent, but now rank-and-file conservative voters believe it, too, thanks to Gingrich. Romney didn't help himself, of course, when he refused to release his tax returns until the early primaries were over, and then revealed that his effective income tax rate on his multimillion-dollar fortune is less than 14 percent, far lower than that of the vast majority of the American middle class. The Associated Press added fuel to the fire that Gingrich set by reporting late last week that Romney has been stashing his riches, up to $32 million, in offshore, tax-haven accounts in the Cayman Islands.
Gingrich's love for the politics of destruction has shot him to the top of the polls. The only problem is: He appears to be unelectable. To start, his personal shortcomings are infamous. In 1999, he became the only speaker in the history of the House to be found guilty of ethics violations and was fined $300,000. There are also the stories of how he served his first two wives with divorce papers after they fell victim to serious illnesses. And then last week, his second wife went public on national TV, saying that Gingrich had asked her for an open marriage so that he could still keep seeing his then mistress (who became his third wife).
Gingrich's considerable baggage, coupled with his commanding victory in South Carolina, his lead in Florida, and his rise in the national Republican polls, has the GOP establishment in a near-state of panic. Major GOP funders know that Gingrich has astronomically high disapproval ratings — a whopping 60 percent among the general public, far higher than Obama's. Steve Schmidt, who was John McCain's 2008 campaign manager and a longtime Republican political operative, summed up the views of the GOP leadership in a recent interview with Rachel Maddow: "We're probably moving toward a declaration of war on Newt Gingrich by the Republican establishment. And if Newt Gingrich is able to win the Florida primary, you will see a panic and a meltdown of the Republican establishment that is beyond my ability to articulate in the English language. People will go crazy.
"I think everybody in the establishment Republican circles in Washington, DC is fixated on the numbers .... Newt Gingrich has a 100 percent name ID, has a 60 percent national unfavorable number, and it's a number so high that with the 100 percent name ID it's impossible to come back from. You're not electable in a general election, in a 2012 presidential election, if your unfavorable numbers are that high. Particularly against a president, that, while vulnerable, is still a net positive in that number. So people look at Newt Gingrich and don't see him as a plausible candidate in the general election, so the Republican establishment who thinks that the president is vulnerable and beatable is going to begin to melt down if Gingrich's momentum continues."
But the Republican knife fight isn't just good for Obama; it has the Democratic Party suddenly believing that it can maintain the US Senate this year and also retake the House. Some Republicans think so, too. "[T]he Republican Establishment fears Gingrich will cause them to lose the House and not get the Senate," conservative blogger and CNN pundit Erick Erickson wrote earlier this week. "Put another way, the current Republican leadership fears that the man who helped the GOP take back the House for the first time in forty years and his allies in the Tea Party who helped take back the House in 2010 will cause the GOP to now lose."
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana lowered the proposed number of city layoffs to the equivalent of 105 full-time employees as they scrambled to make nearly $30 million in budget cuts because of Governor Jerry Brown and the legislature's decision to kill redevelopment. ... Brown, meanwhile, said he opposes a bill that would extend the deadline for eliminating redevelopment from February 1 to April 15. "I don't think we can delay this funeral," he said. ... State Democratic legislators, however, are balking at Brown's proposal to shred California's social safety net in order to start paying down the wall of debt owed by the state government, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Brown is proposing to pay $6.9 billion of the debt next year — but in order to do it he's proposing to slash funding for social services by more than $2 billion. ... And Obama announced that his administration will block the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project — a move hailed by environmentalists. The pipeline would have expanded the extraction of dirty tar sands oil in Canada and was heavily supported by the oil industry and the GOP. Obama said his decision was prompted by a requirement from Congressional Republicans to rule on the pipeline's fate by February — a timeline that he said didn't provide enough opportunity to thoroughly study the issue.