On the gray, dank morning of the New Hampshire primary, I am experiencing a moment of deep existential despair about the nature of the American electoral process, profound doubts about the merits of democracy, and a painful, apathetic depression regarding the human political enterprise as we have known it for 3,000 years. Either that or I have a hangover.
It’s possible I have a hangover. Old-fashioned journalism may be on the wane in this age of rank bloggery, shrill tweets, and video streaming slush, but you wouldn’t know that by the number of old-fashioned journalists packed into JD’s Tavern at the Manchester Radisson last night practicing the traditional professionalism of their time-honored craft with help from Emily behind the bar. Make that a double, Emily.
The press corps, as it does every four years, has descended upon New Hampshire in such quantity that we vastly outnumber the flinty, taciturn Yankee natives upon whom we depend for pithy interview responses. According to the American Federation of Hacks bylaws for covering New Hampshire primaries, we are required to poke our notebook, tape recorder, microphone, or camera lens into the face of a flinty, taciturn Yankee native and ask him, for instance, “Why has Mitt Romney held a consistent lead in a state where, as any of us journalists will tell you, voters are most strongly attracted to the calm moderation of Jon Huntsman, the intellectual independence of Newt Gingrich, the small government ethos of Ron Paul, the social conservatism of Rick Santorum, and the rugged individualism of Rick Perry? Can you explain this seeming contradiction?”
To which the flinty, taciturn Yankee native will respond, “Ah-yup.” Followed by total silence.
Trouble is, there are only seven flinty, taciturn Yankee natives left in the state and two are in the VA hospital. All the other residents of New Hampshire—me, for example—are maddeningly similar to the people in the rest of the United States. This leaves members of the press corps with no one from whom to get pithy interview responses except each other, which we were doing with the help of Emily behind the bar.
This is what we’ve learned so far about the presidential primary race in New Hampshire: It seems that the varsity players all got food poisoning in the GOP cafeteria. Now the Republicans have the equipment manager, the water boy, the drum major, and the cheerleader out on the field for the championship game against their bitter rival from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And the cheerleader went back to the locker room in a huff.
New Hampshire polling data are unreliable because, when you call the Granite State’s registered Republicans and independents in the middle of dinner and ask them who they’re going to vote for, they have a mouth full of mashed potatoes and you can’t understand what they say. So nobody could make any predictions about the New Hampshire primary that everybody knew Romney was going to win. But who’d come in second and third would be really important. Except it wouldn’t be, since even though nobody knows who the 2012 Republican candidate will be, it’s Romney.
You could tell this by watching the performance of the candidates in their debates, which we members of the press carefully observed right up until the moment we fell asleep—fortunately waking in time to get over to JD’s Tavern at the Radisson.
Newt Gingrich is clearly the smartest man in the room. But the 2008 financial crisis showed us what happens when the smartest men in the room run things. Newt might turn the federal deficit into a collateralized debt obligation, get a subprime mortgage on the White House, and package U.S. foreign policy as a credit swap derivative. Newt has a lot of ideas. In fact, Newt has so many ideas that his head exploded. And that was in the ’90s.
Speaking of exploding heads and being in your 90s, we’re all waiting for Ron Paul’s skull to crack open and reveal the cyborg robotic circuitry that has been controlling his body for most of the past century. That’s when we’ll hear the announcement to Earthlings that Israel is actually a Klingon battle cruiser parked on the Mediterranean littoral. (If you include Gaza and the West Bank, you can tell by the shape.) And even if Ron Paul isn’t from outer space, his libertarianism is extreme enough to make members of New Hampshire’s Free State Project think about moving to Canada. Ron Paul is so libertarian that, if he’s elected, you won’t just get to do what you want, you’ll have to do what you want—a pack of cigarettes and a half gallon of butter pecan ice cream for lunch.
Which brings us to the non-smoker’s Marlboro Man, Rick Perry. First, people were worried whether America was ready for another cock-sure, way-too-pleased-with-himself Texan as president. Then people were worried that Rick Perry might actually be George W. Bush with Botox, speech therapy, and a wig. But the speech therapy didn’t work. And Perry has been pretty much left standing around saying he created a million jobs. “Gracias, Señor,” say the million job-holders.
The other Rick wasn’t getting much attention in New Hampshire either, other than when college kids were yelling at him for being pro-life unless you’re a guy who wants to lead that life in a dress. Santorum is good on the social issues—in an election year that doesn’t have any. Abortion may be a grievous moral wrong and the reproductive privacy rights embodied in Griswold v. Connecticut may be as important as George Stephanopoulos insists they are. But, at the moment, who cares? What with men down in the dumps about not having a job, moping around the house all day playing Wii in their underwear, and women all weepy and sad about how the Hope and Change thing didn’t work out, nobody has gotten lucky since 2009.
Meanwhile Jon Huntsman would seem to be an ideal candidate. But he ran into a marketing problem. The Huntsman campaign asked, “Would you like a multimillionaire Mormon with experience in government, moderate political views to attract independent voters, a good head of salt-and-pepper hair to give him gravitas, and a swell-looking family?” Nope, already got one of those. That left Huntsman in the role of Mitt Romney’s stunt double. (Okay, in this scene the Mitt character is supposed to speak Mandarin . . . )
And so we have Romney, or, as we call him in JD’s Tavern, “Bob Dole without the sparkle.” Mitt Romney—wealthy mature representative of the baby boom heeding the call to public service, or rich old white guy whose ego’s gotten too big for the private sector? At least he likes to fire people. Me too. Alas, I’m self-employed, leaving me with only myself to hand the pink slip to. Not that this doesn’t seem like a tempting option at times.
One more for the road, Emily. Got to drive back to my hometown, take a bullet for the team, and put my X on the ballot for Big Mittens.
P. J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.