US Presidential campaign: Never has the good news sounded so bad

Now Romney’s party is beginning to ask some of these same questions. On Tuesday, Republicans in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota even voted, in effect, to keep the party’s primary process going. They did so not by casting votes for the inevitable Romney or the insurgent Newt Gingrich, but by choosing Rick Santorum, the dark horse former Pennsylvania senator. Although it’s late in the game, one final ABM (Anybody But Mitt) candidate now gets his run.

Clearly, Santorum is the beneficiary of the sudden good economic news. As a social conservative, he’s a lot more plausible than Gingrich: he has had only one wife, not three plus some mistresses. As a man of the people, he has more credibility than Mitt Romney: he comes from a blue-collar family, isn’t a billionaire, and doesn’t have Swiss bank accounts. He also has the advantage of seeming like a real person, and not a television actor – I met him once, and we had an interesting conversation about the state of the modern movie industry. He might not be the man you want to manage your economic meltdown, but if there isn’t going to be an economic meltdown, then so what?

Expect the Romney campaign now to focus like a laser on Santorum’s very non-centrist views on contraception (he’s against all of it) as well as his inexperience in economics and foreign policy. Sooner or later, someone is also going to pick up on the speech he made which confused Poland with Pakistan. Expect Santorum’s campaign, on the other hand, to focus with equal precision on Romney’s plutocratic lifestyle, and his ideological move from the centre to the Right (in America we call this “flip-flopping”). Both campaign tactics are good news for Obama: whoever emerges from this contest as the winner will have been badly damaged by the loser.

And yet – this unexpected situation is also tricky for the Democrats, more so than one would think. Until now, President Obama has blamed the recession on his predecessor: the phrase “Bush’s failed economic policies” has been a kind of Obama mantra, repeated over and over again. But if it’s not the president’s fault when the stock market goes down, how can he take credit when it goes up? Quite a lot of what happens when one is president is, let’s face it, sheer luck. This, in the end, is the true task of an election campaign: how to take credit for the good luck and blame the bad luck on someone else.

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