Reince Priebus is not a drinker. Friends say he will occasionally sip white wine at corporate functions to appear erudite or nurse a beer at $1,000-a-plate fundraisers to better affect grassroots credibility. But these mere acts of social obligation are usually seen as a civilized way to “take the edge off,” an important salve in any campaign year. So it was something of a news story coming out of Iowa late Tuesday night that the Republican National Committee Chairman was reportedly seen “guzzling 16-year-old Glenkinchie [Scotch malt whiskey] straight from bottle as if it were Gatorade.”
Beginning his second year on the job, Priebus has one goal this winter: Usher in, as smoothly as possible, a non-polarizing fiscal conservative candidate for President of the United States. The best people assured the 39-year-old stoically tight-lipped Priebus that Mitt Romney was that man. A memo sent to his desk in September emphatically stated, “With unemployment teetering around nine percent and ‘wrong-track’ polls tossing dirt on a weak incumbent, this is no time to ‘get cute.’”
These, among several follow-ups through the holidays, were memos not to be ignored. Not if you consider yourself chairman of anything, much less a resurgent political party hijacked by amateurs who’ve routinely made mincemeat of the Speaker of the House and plummeted the already gruesome approval numbers for congress to a spectacularly dismal 12 percent.
This is the Republican Party after all, a tight ship of “earned” status and unshakable tenets in decorum and hierarchy, wherein the 11th commandment set down by the almighty Gipper that no Republican shall besmirch the other is sacrosanct.
Thus, a week before the Iowa Caucuses—largely ignored by the party elite, as even four years ago evangelical favorite, former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee secured victory and solidified his place for over two months of primaries—there was a sense that even the incredible expanse of the Ron Paul Iowa Plan was screeching to a halt. This bit of prime news encouraged the Romney camp to call Priebus personally and assure him victory.
Then, literally out of nowhere, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum began one of the most inexplicable political comebacks in recent history by taking his eight month-old, non-funded, barely staffed and directionless campaign and canvassing to all of Iowa’s 99 counties, pressing the flesh with those he’d entertained over 350 times in town hall meetings attended by one to 100 people. Within six days, his immovable eight percent polling catapulted to 22 percent, leapfrogging every other candidate who had some kind of lead in the state since mid-August.
By the time the caucuses commenced at 7 p.m. on Jan. 3, the Santorum surge, untouched by media vetting or opponent challenges, smartly heisted the abandon-ship votes from Ron Paul’s radical libertarian stance and what was left of New Gingrich, who had been mercilessly pilloried by Romney’s $3 million Super PAC media machine for a week. This was later interpreted by the delusional Gingrich as underhanded smearing, despite the fact that he was one of the leading voices supporting the free speech element of Super PACS and, in all fairness, nary a charge levied turned out to be either false or distorted. Apparently merely citing the career credentials of the former speaker is enough to shave 15 points off his lead.
Thus, along with his cannonball method of downing Scotch, these almost jarringly sudden unforeseen events led to several confirmed reports describing Priebus’ behavior at 10:30 p.m. that night as “disturbingly unbalanced.” He was seen in the lobby of the Renaissance Savery Hotel “openly crying” and “shouting discordant slurs at bell hops” while “shoving his press secretary into a candy machine on the way to a private bathroom.”
A local television crew captured the fallout as the shaken employee was seen rubbing his injured arm. “He can’t be blamed,” the young man whispered. “I mean… Rick Santorum?”
On an enormous monitor above the unsettling scene, a grinning Santorum, the eventual second-place finisher in Iowa by a record-close eight votes, stood before a raucous throng and announced, “Game on.”
Minutes later, as The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol was telling the Fox News audience that “there has to be a mystery candidate to fill this vacuum,” phones began to ring at RNC headquarters on First Street in downtown Washington D.C. On the other, end donors to the Romney Campaign—by far the richest in the field—wanted to know how in holy hell a flat broke religious fanatic who hadn’t held a government position in the nearly six years since being slaughtered by 18 points in his home state, mainly due to his abysmal senatorial record of spendthrift legislation backed with a rapacious earmark appetite, with a crew of less than 20 and a pick-up truck could get .0006 percent fewer votes than the party’s presumptive nominee?
While Santorum spoke in maudlin tones about the coalfields of Pennsylvania, comparing the sitting President of the Unites States to Mussolini and thanking God for guns, a group of what Politico reported the next morning as “Movement Conservatives” scheduled an emergency meeting in Texas “to coalesce behind a presidential hopeful that is not Willard Mitt Romney.”
Romney may well be the first frontrunner in modern American politics to win the opening tally of a presidential race and be considered by all accounts an abject loser. The numbers don’t lie. Four years ago the former governor of Massachusetts lost in Iowa by 10 points to the aforementioned Huckabee, garnering only 25 percent of the vote. This time around, after four years of national face-time and over two years of organizational ramping up, he received 25 percent of the vote, (breaking Bob Dole’s 1996 total of 26 percent for the lowest in history) and ironically only five more actual votes than the last time around.
The 25 percent also represents something of a polling ceiling for Romney nationwide, and over the summer, four of his opponents out-polled him, not only in Iowa, but nationally; meaning that nearly three-quarters of the Republican electorate is at odds with the Republican establishment, represented by the RNC and its chairman, the suddenly embattled Reince Priebus.
No amount of screeching or Scotch can shift these numbers.
Numbers the RNC had stupidly ignored in keeping the major party donors funds flowing in Romney’s direction, despite fleeting moments of celebrity by Michelle Bachmann (jettisoned from the race Wednesday by a last place showing in Iowa, her native state), Rick Perry (a fifth-place finisher who returned to Texas to be told by his people he should use his remaining $3 million to fight it out in South Carolina in two weeks), the long-gone Herman Cain and more recently Newt Gingrich.
News did not improve for the RNC as Gingrich, who called Romney a liar on national television the day of the Iowa vote, turned what was to be a concession speech on his fourth-place showing in Iowa into a declaration of vengeance against Romney, something he echoed throughout his week in New Hampshire on every conservative talk radio show in the nation. Plots of a triangulation of fire coming at the frontrunner from the resurgent Santorum and the angered Gingrich was quickly squashed when it dawned on both campaigns that this would merely split their already meager support and embolden Romney not only in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, the only primary where he polls aver 30 percent, but in South Carolina; what observers are already dubbing the Right Wing Waterloo.
With two debates scheduled—one official and another informal on Meet The Press over the weekend in New Hampshire—and a major coalition of conservative players scheming on how to make a social fascist and fiscal Keynesian the alternative choice, it is this space’s public service to suggest Mr. Priebus begin carrying a flask.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of TheReality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus and Midnight For Cinderella.