Political InQueery: Out of the Gate in an Information-Rich World

A photograph of Herman Cain at a debateRight around the corner is the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 presidential election. Participating are seven people—not necessarily candidates, mind you—with aspirations for the White House, if not declared campaigns. It may be an event co-sponsored by CNN, and held in the state with the first stab at primary season, but many politics watchers question whether any of the people at the top of the GOP list now will be in the race at all come the party's convention next summer. One big factor: the ease with which the information superhighway throws potholes in their faces.

Former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, announced his candidacy on May 22 in a "soothing" video, and a day later his home town newspaper in St. Paul calls his campaign "dead on arrival."  On its obiturary page, no less. But more damning for him, was the recycled news that a child molester he pardoned as Governor has been brought up on new charges, for the same kind of crimes.

Newt Gingrich plans to participate in the June 13 debate. Not only has the ancient moralist argument about his divorce been brought up again—which I would argue is not a helpful conversation to have regarding his candidacy—but his contradictory statements regarding President Obama's decision to mount air strikes in Libya made him look like the opportunist he claimed his opponent was. On March 7:

Exercise a no-fly zone this evening. … It's also an ideological problem. The United States doesn't need anybody's permission. We don't need to have NATO, who frankly, won't bring much to the fight. We don't need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening.

And after the US-NATO joint strike:

...It is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity." This morning on the Today Show, he said plainly, "I would not have intervened" —reporting from ThinkProgress.org

Michelle Bachmann, who has not yet announced formally that she will seek the office but who has "an event" scheduled in Iowa, will be at the debate. Ms. Bachmann has generated such a litany of frightening statements about government, liberals, and socialism that there are whole Web sites and political columns dedicated to criticizing her candidacy and calling her crazy. I'm looking at you, Huffington Post.

Mitt Romney, as it is well known, has a problem defending his health care insurance reform from his days as Massachusetts Governor. Originally, he campaigned on this program, but along the way Mr. Romney has picked up the social issues talking points of the Tea Party and needed to shift the way in which he talks about instituting mandated insurance. Even so, he still comes out to defend his actions directly:

A lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that it was just a bone-headed idea and I should just admit it, it was a mistake and walk away from it. And I presume a lot of folks would conclude that if I did that it would be good for me politically. But there is only one problem with that. It wouldn't be honest. I in fact did what I believed was right for the people of my state.

Assaulted by the left and the Tea Party for "Romneycare," which necessarily compares him with President Obama, Romney can't get away from reporters' questions about whether he's a secret socialist.

And then we have Rick Santorum. While I have been open about my misgivings regarding Dan Savage as a leader in the fight against queer-youth suicide, I am grateful that he has forever given Mr. Santorum a Google problem. Open a new window and search for "santorum," and see what I mean. And this doesn't even touch upon the not-so-secret concerns among GOP operatives that his 2006 landslide Senate loss to Bob Casey is still hanging around. They wonder online, can Rick Santorum win against a rather popular, incumbent President?

Ron Paul, the sixth candidate planning to attend the debate, is well known as a far-right politician. A representative from Texas, Mr. Paul is ahead in book sales among Republican aspirants, which--thanks, LA Times--is not a rational basis for any political analysis regarding his viability in the field. That there haven't been many knee jerk reactions to his decision to run isn't so much evidence that he'll have smooth sailing ahead so much as the reality that most of the response was articulated in election cycles past. Paul's messages may have renewed cache in the Tea Party "era," but there still isn't much of a fire behind him per se.

Finally, there is Herman Cain, of Godfather Pizza fame. Several personalities have lambasted him as having a mighty thin resume, but he was widely seen as having "won" the last debate in South Carolina. No, historically speaking, candidates with little or no political experience have not fared well heading into the convention, although Sarah Palin did very well as a VP candidate, and she looks to get into the field at some point this summer, probably after the current frontrunners have burned themselves out, joining Donald Trump in the loser's lounge. But debunking history, Mr. Cain has inspired positive commentary since the last debate, and much of it is problematic. To say that his entry into the campaign means the Tea Party isn't racist is to forget that that's exactly how tokens operate. I'm not saying Herman Cain is a token—he's a man with self-determination and a successful professional life, yes—but one minority candidate does not signify equality, just like one president of color does not eradicate racism in the United States.

It is still very early in the campaign, and the race has already seen some big GOP personalities back out or flame out, and more will give up the chase before fall. As we saw in the 2010 midterm elections, the Internet in its capacity to house and organize every syllable these candidates utter and write makes identifying contradictions very easy. It also helps voters communicate amongst themselves—criticisms can catch fire and take out a campaign almost before it can get started—raising the stakes of every single speaking engagement. We've seen in the last several months, that social networks can even help bring down whole governments. What a strange new world these folks are taking on in their quest for the White House.

Previously: Let the 2012 Games Begin

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