“We don’t want our enemies trying to influence the way we vote and I worry about Al-Qaeda making some sort of strike or something before the elections,” says Chris Matthews, one of the half-dozen or so populist blowhards who dominate the airwaves here. People wonder why a third of young Americans say they get most of their information from satirical news sources like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. The answer is because it’s the only goddam source that actually tries to synthesise and summarise, rather than sprawling all over the place, like being trapped in a lift with your Uncle Vic, whose prostate is enlarged and is damn angry about the fact that Asian triads are running madrassas in Cabramatta with money supplied by the Australia Council.

Mathews, another bloke named Lou Dobbs, a man named Tucker Carlson who appears to have a well-behaved stoat on his head all work on a virtually identical setting, which is foam-flecked outrage barely kept under control. They all got their start in the Clinton years, and found an audience overwhelmingly composed of angry white people being done over by the collapse of American industry, and looking for anything other than the actual government or economy to blame.

In the past six months they’ve had to modulate their stance somewhat, as it became clear that Bush was so loathed that a large chunk of their audience is switching back to the Democrats. But old habits die hard, and they got a great chance to get back into it when Mitt Romney announced to the annual CPAC – Conservative Public Action Committee — conference that he was suspending his campaign because “to continue would make it more likely that the Democrats would win and surrender in Iraq and I couldn’t help them do that.” In other words, the fight for freedom and pluralism is so important that we have to suspend the actual exercise of it.

If one spectacular attack in seven years puts you on a permanent war footing, always looking over your shoulder, then the enemy has already influenced domestic politics – shaped it pretty much entirely, especially on the Republican side. Which points to the asymmetry of the contest, the Democrats talking about hope, the Republicans about fear. The former are filling a vacuum of despair and disconnection, the GOP (it means among other things Grand Old Party) digging a hole where only a divet is. If there was another attack it would reap dividends, but most Americans have turned inwards, to focus on the sense that something is wrong at the root of the Republic.

“The speech he [Romney] gave today was probably the best he’s given for years,” Laura Ingram told Fox. Recognise that? Yes, Romney did a Beazley, putting all his energy and life into concession. Does that indicate that deep down he really didn’t want the gig? Not necessarily, but he didn’t want it real hard, he never had the blood of it in his nostrils, the way McCain, Huckabee or all the Democrats have. Romney always sounded like he was talking to you through a powerpoint presentation, even when he was looking someone in the eye.

Romney has suspended his candidacy, rather than withdrawn it – a technicality which means he’s still in the race. What’s he hoping for? Huckabee won’t split the ticket. He’s hoping, of course, that McCain will have a stroke before the Convention and be out of the running, and the party will have no-one else to turn to. It’s a long shot, but it sounds a hell of a lot better bet than the thirty million he pissed up against the wall in his lacklustre, America’s CEO, campaign.

Huckabee’s staying in the race, calling himself the true conservative and trying to net Romney’s supporters. But he’s already getting flak for various outbreaks of occasional compassion during his governorship of Arkansas, which was reasonably pragmatic around issues like illegal immigration and death sentence commutation. Romney was a reasonably faux conservative too, but not on immigration which is the hot-button issue for the Right. Appearing at CPAC after Romney’s quit speech, McCain was roundly booed when he touched on the issue, strengthening the impression that people won’t regroup behind him.

Romney’s quitting is being seen as good for the GOP, bad for the Democrats who have another coupla months to fight through. That judgement seems to me dependent on whether Obama and Clinton can keep a lid on the dirty tricks. If they can, then they’ll get the bulk of the coverage, while the Republican race just got a whole lot less interesting. The Democrats can use the next rounds of primaries to keep talking about the war, the health system etc, and if they can maintain the idea that they have differences but they agree that something is fundamentally wrong, then the terrain will have shifted substantially to the left.

That means keeping their noses very clean. And getting Bill regularly soothed before any media events will be a must. On Saturday there’s contests for both parties in Washington state, for the Dems in Louisiania and Nebraska and for the GOP in Kansas. Going on super Tuesday, I reckon Obama will get 60-70% in Washington and Nebraska, with Louisiana a 50-50 split. In the GOP, if Huckabee gets 8% in Washington I’ll be surprised, but Ron Paul may get 10-15%. But Huckabee may well take Kansas, or run it very close.

And even out of the race, Romney will get 5 or 10% from people who just won’t admit that the deep blue conservatives are out of the race…unless of course Al-Qaeda blow up the Seattle space needle…

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey