I know we’re nine months away from Election Day, but even at this early stage we’ve learned a lot. So let’s take an early assessment of winners and losers from Campaign 2012.
Super PACs: The big-money groups conjured into existence by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United campaign-finance ruling have had a big impact on the GOP race. When Newt Gingrich began to surge in Iowa, the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney hammered him. Newt didn’t respond, nor did the pro-Gingrich super PAC. The result? Gingrich came in fourth and didn’t carry a single Iowa county. But he learned his lesson. The super PAC supporting him, fueled by a $5 million donation from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, fought back in South Carolina, and Newt won. For better or worse, super PACs are now a powerful force in our political system. (Full disclosure: I advise Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC.)
Newt Gingrich: The most divisive and self-destructive politician of our time, Gingrich has also shown remarkable resilience. He was humiliated last summer when he took his wife on a Mediterranean cruise instead of campaigning, prompting his staff to resign. He survived the revelations that he has a seven-figure line of credit at Tiffany’s, as well as details of his prior marriages that would cause any normal person to curl up into a fetal position. But he keeps coming back. As the guy who dubbed Bill Clinton “the Comeback Kid,” I love a resurrection narrative.
Rick Santorum: No, he will never be president, but Santorum’s eloquent and heartfelt victory speech in Iowa and his strong debate performances have pointed the way to a future potential cabinet job—or even a return to his old gig at Fox News.
Ron Paul: For a man in his 70s, Paul is playing a long game. He openly admits that he doesn’t even dream of being president, but I suspect he dreams of his son, Rand, living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Rand is a Republican senator from Kentucky who observers believe will inherit his father’s passionate followers—and his fundraising base.
Debates: Not since Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas stood on tree stumps have debates mattered this much. Millions of Americans have tuned in, and they were rewarded by the ultimate reality-TV show. In those debates we saw for ourselves that Rick Perry couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the “c” and the “t.” We saw that Gingrich can go from zero to anti-press demagogue in 3.6 seconds. And we saw that Mitt Romney is in the habit of making $10,000 bets.
Barack Obama: If his predecessor cursed Obama by handing him a depression and two wars, the Good Lord has blessed him with the weakest field of opponents in memory. I stand by my early assessment: when I look at the economy, I think Obama can’t win, but when I look at the Republicans, I think he can’t lose. The economy is starting to get better; the Republicans aren’t. The president has moved to the populist center, smoothly co-opting the legitimate grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement and ensuring that he wouldn’t face a primary challenge from the left. “Barack” means blessing in Swahili. Perhaps “Obama” means luckier than a dog with two tongues.
The Tea Party: It sought to bring a new, fresh, committed conservative to power. Instead, the top two Republicans are a Wall Street layoff artist and a K Street influence peddler.
Quitters and Bench Warmers: Somewhere, Tim Pawlenty is kicking himself. He dropped out of the GOP race months before the first vote was cast. Other talented Republicans, from Chris Christie to Sarah Palin to Mitch Daniels to Jeb Bush, didn’t even make it that far. This just proves the wisdom of the old Steve Forbert song “You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play.”
The “Establishment”: As super PACs have come to dominate fundraising and campaign expenditures—and as the Internet and social media have amplified the voices of individual citizens and activist groups—the power of parties and other vestiges of the old political establishment has receded. In some ways, the decline of the political elite is a good thing—a continuation of trends that go back decades, since reformers began moving the presidential nominating process out of proverbial smoke-filled rooms and toward direct democracy unmediated by established institutions. The downside, especially for Republicans this year, is that sometimes grassroots activists put ideological passion ahead of cool, electoral pragmatism—and lose.