“I suppord Governor MerCainnn”. As California governator Arnold Schwarzenegger wades into the Republican race with an endorsement, has Mitt Romney been terminated? Certainly that’s the view among the punditocracy. Today, on the multi-channel feed of the one show Americans seem to love – Angry Fiftyish White Men Yelling At The Camera – that seemed to be the feeling.

“Can Romney hang in there?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Wasn’t that way a week ago, but that was before McCain scarfed up endorsements from Florida governor Charlie Crist, Giuliani and now Schwarzenegger. None of these were exactly surprising, but added to the Florida win, they’ve given McCain a momentum that has shifted the balance of the GOP race.

That’s as far as the media goes anyway. Yet there’s no guarantee that this new received wisdom will be borne out on Super Tuesday, with a mix of open and closed primaries. Having McCain run for the Republican primary is not quite like Petro Georgiou running for head of the Liberal Party, but it comes pretty close, and the great and good are mobilised in pretty much the same way here as they would be there to keep the leftie weirdo out of the running.

One of the things that make McCain so unattractive to the Republican hardcore is his lack of vengefulness. Having been a prisoner of the Vietnamese for six years, he spent a lot of time trying to get the US embargo on the country reversed – surely one of the most vengeful embargoes of all time. When he speaks about illegal immigrants, he talks about the humanitarian exceptions that would have to be made. You wouldn’t want to go overboard on this stuff – he’s a professional politician and a client of special interest like anyone – but his occasional outbursts of moderation are enough to sour him permanently with a large section of the base.

Romney, by contrast, never misses a beat. The combination of “strength”, “family” etc in his message is a soft-core very American fascism-lite – breed boys so we can send them overseas. Everything squeaky-clean and life-denying is in his persona. No doubt what I am about to say is not true of Romney himself, but he looks like the type of over-neat suburban type who pays hookers to p-ss in his mouth in chain store motel rooms.

To get back into the game on an equal standing, Romney needed to skewer McCain in last night’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the Simi Valley. The place is California at its best – an attempt at dignity and instant heritage (complete with a scaled down version of the Oval Office) only slightly undermined by the fact that it’s next door to hardcore porn central the San Fernando Valley, so close you can almost smell the lube on the wind.

Romney and McCain jousted quite bitterly, to the point where the debate nearly collapsed for a time, but neither came out on top. The real winner was Huckabee, because he’s the only one willing to call a spade a bloody shovel. “We’re going to effectively borrow $15 billion from China to fund this stimulus package which will give six hundred bucks to people which they will go and spend on stuff they don’t need, most of it made in China. We’re stimulating the economy alright, I just don’t know whose it is.”

Which is plain good sense about this desperate measure which truth-in-advertising would call the “Look Busy” Act. And more good sense follows from the Huck: “We should be investing in infrastructure.”

Yes Mike you should. But you won’t because private money will never invest in something tricky like a bridge, when it can make a quicker, easier buck off shipping 50,000 Jamie Lynn Spears bobble-head dolls or – the best thing I’ve seen yet – life insurance for pets. Fair enough. They’ve got dependents too. Sea Monkeys, hundreds of thousands. Where was I?

Ah yes. Huckabee, like all the candidates, talks about the need to reinvest, but none of them have the guts to talk back to their base, or to the dominant myths by which it lives. So they wander around in clouds of abstraction and feel-good bromides about American ingenuity. Nothing could illustrate the disconnect better than the uncritical veneration of Ronald Reagan in this respect – the President who presided over a massive blow out of the deficit that helped tip the world into the 1990-92 recession, the funding of the Mujahadeen that would give birth to radical Islamist terrorism.

But it was once again the Huck who said the only sensible thing all night, to the asinine question posed to each candidate “why would Ronald Reagan endorse you?” – “I don’t know that Ronald Reagan would endorse any of us, and I’m not going to make any claims that he would endorse me.” Wow. Plain common sense.

Tonight, the two remaining Democrat candidates duke it out in the final debate before Super Tuesday – and with John Edwards’ withdrawal, it’s going to be a flat out battle between inspiration and experience – Obama and Clinton – each lacking the other. Everyone is running a book on why Edwards dripped out days before Super Tuesday, when the sheer drift of momentum might have given him enough candidates to be a possible kingmaker in a split convention. Some suggest he was so desperately short of money that he simply couldn’t pay for the advertising necessary to stave off a dismal showing; that he doesn’t want to be in the kingmaker position for his longterm viability; that he is still hoping for a VP nomination by candidates conscious of their need to get back sections of the good ol’ boy vote; or it may be personal, as his wife Elizabeth has cancer come out of remission.

Whatever the case, it removes the one candidate who was willing to really talk in specifics about the way the US was failing a good forty to fifty million of its citizens. He’s much missed in the debate which is just getting underway as I write, in which both Hills and Obama are waffling their way through a health care proposal which would leave 15-20 million uninisured and another twenty underinsured.

Some may have been confused by the Edwards slogans about “defending the middle class” – an odd phrase to Australian ears, where any proposed government initiative can be undermined as “middle class welfare”. But what has happened in the US has been an effective detachment between the broad group we would call “middle class” – the interests and destinies of professionals and high-tier managerial people have gone in an entirely different direction from middle managers, lower tier professionals, office workers etc.

For the former group there is no word, a perfect demonstration of the old adage that “the smartest thing the devil did was convincing the world he didnt exist”. The two-lawyer, two-doctor etc families are the people for whom this country is run – they have the money to avoid crime, to avoid bad schools, to not only have good health insurance but enough liquidity for any chronic illness that would exhaust their health insurance, and so on.

It is the middle class below them that Edwards and the other Dems pitch too, because their lives have a relentless hum of fear to them – fear that your company will raid the pension plan (the pension plan that you or your union have no control over), that Dad will have a stroke and you’ll have to sell the family home to pay for care, that you won’t be able to amass the hundred grand or so to help your kids avoid lifelong student debts.

These are not the free-floating 4am fears of sudden disaster that everyone gets – they are the simple context of everyday middle class life, of a type that the European and Australasian middle class have not know for two generations, and you can’t understand the degree to which the US has diverged from other western societies if you can’t enter imaginatively into that space.

Edwards’ first concern was for the poor – the twenty percent of Americans in low income work who are technically homeless, for example, pulling shifts at Walmart or Waffle House and sleeping on friends’ couches or living week to week at the Days Inn or Motel 6, shifting to the car during holiday season when the rates climb. But he knew what he, and the Democrats need to do is bring over all those people who voted agains their own immediate economic interests in 2000 and 2004, bamboozled by the sugar rush of the “war on terror”, can-do etc, etc etc.

Yet there was always something lacking in Edwards push, always some fire in the belly missing. He couldn’t quite bring himself to really pull the cord on the chainsaw of populism and carve up the joint. To do that he would have needed to talk more about how the place had got into what everyone – Democrat and GOP – acknowledges is a mess, about the degree to which any family earning less than $150 grand a year here is to some degree mere raw material for corporate service providers, about how it is essentially a war of the system against the population. He stuck to a moderate version of that, and then had to watch as Obama and Clinton moved their centrist message slightly leftwards to scarf up his best lines. Like all candidates he was beholden – he worked for a hedge fund between 2004 and 2008, foreclosing on New Orleans properties people lost because they received neither insurance payouts nor disaster relief funds – but he had the beginnings of a program. Whether the two surviving contenders will take it up remains to be seen, but it was the only thing that had the real grit of politics about it.

Except for the Huckabee of course. Dang that man makes sense. I’m sure all those fossils were buried by the Masons in 1924.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey