This Week in Politics

This week in politics
Ben Padnos
Ben Padnos

I’m a political junkie. I can’t explain why I like this stuff, but I do. History was always one of my favorite subjects in school, and I participated in student council and Model U.N.  The Presidential election in 1992 was the first year I was eligible to vote. I was a freshman at the University of Michigan and was very excited to be taking Political Science where we closely followed the race – Bill Clinton defeated incumbent George H.W. Bush with third-party candidate Ross Perot taking almost 20% of the vote.

My wife, Ellen, is not interested in news and politics like I am. I watch many of the speeches and debates, and find myself glued to CNN on key nights during campaigns. When I used to give Ellen grief about subscribing to US Weekly, she’d say, “Don’t go thinking you’re any better. Politics is just celebrity gossip for smart people.” I’d argue that what’s going on the United States political arena and what’s going on in the world is a little more important than “Who wore it best” or “Stars. They’re just like us!” (OK, I’ll admit I occasionally peek @ Ellen’s US, too.) So in this column every Monday, I’ll aim to highlight the major political news and events from the prior week and a preview of the week ahead.

I’ll admit there’s an aspect of truth to what my wife reminded me about politics – Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are all essentially “celebrities”. However without some extraordinary circumstances, one of these three men is going to win the election in November, which is pretty important.

Gun to my head, I think it’s going to be Obama because as it stands today, the economy appears to be growing and the two Republican front-runners, Romney and Gingrich, are bloodying themselves in a very heated primary that shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.

Romney reminds me a lot of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the Republican Presidential nominee in 2008 and Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the Democrats’ choice to take on George W. Bush in the 2004 race. People weren’t excited about voting for McCain and Kerry, and their supporters basically selected them more as a vote against Obama and Bush, respectively.  Romney engenders the same lukewarm enthusiasm – he simply fails to inspire or make any sort of emotional connection with most folks. Conservatives know most of Romney’s “conservative” positions are phoney – he was a moderate Republican governor of a very “blue” state, Massachusetts. And many of the Southern evangelicals are quietly uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormon faith. So while they don’t like Obama, they don’t love Romney either – just as Democrats disliked George W. Bush in ’04 but didn’t particularly care for Kerry.

Gingrich, on the other hand, has some passionate conservatives supporting him, including the rabid Tea Party faithful. But he scares the daylights out of the “Republican establishment.” Bob Dole came out last week and said in an open letter, “I have not been critical of Newt Gingrich but it is now time to take a stand before it is too late. If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices. … In my opinion if we want to avoid a sweeping victory by Obama in November, Republicans should nominate Governor Romney as our standard bearer.”

Sarah Palin, who voiced support for Gingrich on January 17 in advance of the South Carolina primary, telling Sean Hannity on Fox News, “If I were a South Carolinian…I would vote for Newt.” This support may actually be hurting him, however, reported Howard Fineman, editorial director of HuffingtonPost. “Some D.C.-based establishment types were preparing to reconcile themselves to former House Speaker Gingrich, if not outright endorse him, before or after the South Carolina primary last week. But according to one such insider Gingrich fatally said on Jan. 18 – three days before the primary – that he would offer former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin a ‘major role in the next administration if I’m president.’ That one statement scared the accept-Newt, Republican-establishment types.”

After Gingrich’s solid victory in South Carolina on January 21, he entered Florida, next on the primary calendar, with a lot of momentum. Early signs showed him competitive with Romney in the election, which takes place on Tuesday (January 31), but the most recent polls show Gingrich’s support slipping and Romney expected to win comfortably.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, another Republican Presidential candidate, temporarily suspended his campaign and cancelled his Sunday schedule in Florida to return home to be with his young daughter, Bella, who is in the hospital. The three year-old suffers from Trisomy 18, a rare and life-threatening chromosomal disorder. Most children diagnosed by this disease rarely live beyond a few years, but news came out Sunday evening that Bella’s doing better. I find it very ironic – irresponsible, frankly – that Santorum is so adamantly against stem-cell research as these scientific efforts are aimed at curing similar types of genetic diseases as the one his daughter is stricken with. Santorum ultimately doesn’t believe in science – he’s skeptical of climate change and evolution. He also insultingly compares gay marriage to incest and marrying animals, and leaves no wiggle room on abortions even in the cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is in danger. While I loathe his politics and think he’d be a terrible, destructive President, I’ll think good thoughts for his little girl.

What will be very interesting is to see what happens to Santorum’s supporters when he eventually drops out of the race, which could happen after he finishes a distant third on Tuesday. You have to think the Christian Conservative audience he attracts will have a hard time going with Romney, a Mormon who has a history of moderate positions on abortion and other social issues. On Sunday, Gingrich described Romney as a “liberal” who is pro-abortion, pro-tax increase, pro-gun control,” adding, “he’s bought an amazing amount of ads to try to pretend he’s somebody he’s not. Meanwhile, Romney aggressively attacked Gingrich, mocking Newt’s idea of establishing a lunar colony, saying, “The idea of the moon as the 51st state is not on my mind.”

So, while it looks like Romney will carry Florida comfortably, if Gingrich can consolidate Santorum’s voters, the former Speaker of the House is very much alive in the nomination race.

Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) is not actively campaigning in Florida to focus on states where he’s got a greater chance of being competitive.

In other news, the President gave his State of the Union address on Tuesday (transcript here). More of a campaign speech than a legislative one, Obama framed income inequality as the “defining issue” in the US, and said that anyone earning over $1 million a year should pay at least 30% in taxes. He calls this proposal the “Buffett rule”, named after billionaire investor Warren Buffet who openly chides the tax system which has him paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. Obama also discussed tax breaks for companies who manufacture their products here vs. abroad, and outlined plans to take funds “we’re no longer spending on war” to rebuild worn-down infrastructure and invest in clean-energy technologies. Obama highlighted his foreign policy wins: the killing of Osama bin Laden, the continued destruction of al-Qaeda, and the full troop withdrawal from Iraq. And at home, the President announced plans to help “underwater” homeowners refinance their mortgages at reduced rates and “give those banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust.” He also proposed “that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18,” which Republicans deride as “criminalizing dropping out of high school.”

While Obama declared “The state of our Union is getting stronger,” Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who gave the Republican response (transcript here), said, “when President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true.” Daniels, who considered a Presidential campaign himself, criticized Obama for policies that made the economy worse, expanded the role of government and added trillions of dollars to the national debt. “The President has put us on a course to make (the economy) radically worse in the years ahead. The federal government now spends one of every four dollars in the entire economy; it borrows one of every three dollars it spends. No nation, no entity, large or small, public or private, can thrive, or survive intact, with debts as huge as ours.”

Ben Padnos is CEO of He lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with his wife, Ellen, and his children, Anthony and Annie. His column, “This Week in Politics,” will appear here every Monday. You can also follow him on Twitter (@benpadnos).

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