Time to Get Ugly: The General Election Has Begun

By

As those familiar with Impolitic are well aware, this space is rarely given over to liturgical musings or Biblical invocations — but every so often, your columnist feels compelled to reach for the Old Testament. And though his preferred volume in that tome is and has always been Proverbs, on this morning our thoughts turn instead to Ecclesiastes (or, for all you heathens out there, The Byrds) and its reminder that "to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." For if the past 24 hours have taught us anything, it's that the political weather has just taken a sharp turn — turn! turn! turn! — and a fresh season is upon us. So herewith, four quick takeaways concerning the new electoral climate.

1. The Republican presidential-nomination contest is now effectively over, and the general election has begun. Obvious? Sure — almost painfully so, but the fact of it still merits notice. With his victories last night in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and most importantly Wisconsin, Mitt Romney extinguished any remaining hope (and thus even the faintest rationale) that Rick Santorum will be able to deny him the Republican nomination. At the same time, Barack Obama's sharp, tough, eye-of-the-tigerish attack on the Romney-Paul Ryan-Republican budget plan at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors signaled that the president is ready to rumble, provoking an election-night speech from the GOP's presumptive nominee that was less an act of celebration than one of rebuttal. Expect Romney and his team now to pivot forcefully to taking on the incumbent, while never uttering again the name Santorum until their rival finally pulls the plug on his campaign.
 
2. Which should be soon, if the former Pennsylvania Senator is in his right mind. Santorum has achieved something remarkable in this election cycle: emerging out of nowhere and against all expectations as Romney's principal competitor for their party's nomination, racking up wins in eleven states. Put aside the questions of party unity (which are overblown) and Establishment blowback (ditto). This is  purely about self-interest. If Santorum sticks around until the next set of contests on April  24 to compete in his home state — the only one where he stands a chance of winning — the Romney campaign is likely to turn Pennsylvania into a veritable Dresden. Together with its affiliated super PACs, in other words, it is all but certain to fire-bomb Santorum as it did Newt Gingrich in Florida. And if Santorum, who holds only a single-digit lead in the state now, is left similarly scorched, it will be an embarrassment eclipsing even his seventeen-point loss in his senate race in 2006. Meaning one that won't easily be forgotten, which should mean something to a man who presumably harbors the intention of hurling himself at the presidency again in 2016 or 2020.
 
3. Judging from Obama's speech yesterday, Romney-Ryan is the new Dole-Gingrich. Please recall that in 1996, Bill Clinton's campaign spent the spring hanging the controversial Speaker of the House around the septuagenarian senator's neck like a twenty-ton anvil — and in the process effectively won the general election six months early. Team Obama, like the rest of the Democratic Party, is confident that the same stratagem can work again. That they can win (and win decisively) the argument with the Republicans if they frame the election as a choice between the Ryan budget (and the philosophy animating it) and their vision of the fiscal future. The howling on the right over Obama's assault was not an unfortunate byproduct of the speech; it was the intended purpose. The president's people want to goad the Republicans into a posture of unified and feral support for Ryan, and thus yolk Romney to him ever more tightly. The sight of Ryan speaking at Romney's victory event in Wisconsin had tails wagging vigorously in Chicago; imagine a kennel at feeding time and you'll have a decent vision of what Obama's reelection HQ looked like last night.
 
4. I've said it before and I'll say it again: This general election is gonna be ugly. In his speech last night, Romney assailed Obama in language just as stark and harsh as the president had employed against Romney earlier. (Romney addressed the same audience of editors this morning; more of the same will surely be forthcoming.) For all the discussion of fund-raising problems on both sides, the truth is that Obama and Romney will each have ample resources to finance their broadsides against the other. How personal things will get remains to be seen. But neither has ever demonstrated any reluctance to fight hard and dirty. If you thought the Republican nomination tussle was sickeningly, deplorably, appallingly brutish, I have just five words of advice: Avert your eyes now, people.