The people have spoken — all 126,185 of them. That's how many votes turned Mitt Romney into the Republican nominee, for all intents and purposes. In a country with more than 300 million people, less than a tenth of a half of a percent have picked one of the two men who could be the next president of the United States.
You call that a democracy? It's a system that is almost too easy to attack. In a matter of a week, in two small states that in so many respects are not representative of the diverse, urban country in which we live, in a process that, by design, is dominated by activists and ideologues, the rest of the candidates are basically toast. The fat lady is tuning up.
But that doesn't mean the process is over. It's in the media's interest to keep something going as long as they can. There will be all kinds of attacks on Romney. Conservatives will try to coalesce. It's actually in Romney's interest to weather more attacks about not being conservative enough; nothing could be better to position him for the general. But it would take something pretty cataclysmic for Romney to lose at this point.
Political scientists have spent decades explaining all the things that are wrong with this system. Folks like me, who helped craft this system (in my case, on the Democratic side), have written endlessly about the goals it was intended to serve — many of which, by the way, don't have much to do with picking the candidate most likely to win in the fall. It is a system that is supposed to allow insurgents a fair chance; parties a chance to build; voters a chance to send a message; small states a say they wouldn't otherwise get. Agree or disagree, I think most students of the process, if we were starting from scratch, would never end up with it.
But here's the truly amazing part. Time after time, it actually works.
I say this as a Democrat who would have loved to see President Obama run against Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum or, best of all, Ron Paul. (Be still, my heart, there is still hope he will run as a third-party candidate, in which case Democrats would immediately abandon every position of principle they took to try to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot and support Paul's First Amendment rights, while Republicans would do just the opposite.) So I'm not saying, in partisan terms, that I'm happy about this. But I don't know how anyone who claims to be an expert in presidential politics could honestly say that someone other than Romney was the right person for the Republicans. Don't believe them if they do.
As for the rest, what can I say? As each took their turn as flavor of the month, I would check out their positions and pinch myself because it was too good to be true.
Santorum wants to privatize Social Security, require schools to teach intelligent design, eliminate the separation of church and state, and punish people who did the wrong thing like getting cancer at 5. Whew.
Paul wants to get out of the UN and turn the clock back on civil rights (he has problems with the 1964 law). He says he's anti-Israel, not anti-Semitic, and he refuses to denounce the supremacists who are supporting him. How do you spell "hallelujah"?
Newt Gingrich, former housing historian, has brilliant ideas and wacky ideas and shows equal enthusiasm for both.
Need I go on?
All of this might be clear to me, but it's not inevitable that people who are much more conservative than your average swing voter would see it that way. And they are the deciders in this process. Conservatives are understandably upset that with the possible exception of Huntsman, Romney is probably the least conservative candidate in a race that is all set up to give the power to conservatives, as it does to liberals on the Democratic side. Even now, various conservatives are trying to push for a unified approach to take on Romney, pointing out that if Santorum, Gingrich and Perry had been one candidate instead of three, they would have 11 delegates to Romney's whopping 12.
True enough, but that's not how it worked — or will.
None of this is to say that Romney is a sure shot against Obama. The president is an amazingly skilled politician. Unemployment is heading in the right direction. Obamacare may be unpopular, but the father of Romneycare is going to have a hard time making that case.
Romney is vulnerable on his own record: of "firing people" at Bain Capital and of some pretty dramatic flip-flops on choice and gay rights, complete with taped debates in which Romney fights back against the attack that he wasn't pro-choice or anti-choice but "multiple choice." And then there is, very sadly, the real and documented prejudice in this country against Mormons.
But he is the best shot Republicans have, and the amazing part of a flawed process is that even if the commentators and columnists didn't see this, the people voting did. Imagine: Democracy — even in a flawed and poorly designed system — actually works.