Dan is Mother Jones' deputy DC bureau chief. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Sons of Wichita(Grand Central Publishing), a biography of the Koch brothers that is now out in paperback. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
In HBO's hit show Game of Thrones, there are dragons, sword fights, and zombie armies. But the heart of the show is intense political intrigue. Alliances are forged and broken; backroom deals are cut; principles are sacrificed. It's a dirty game. Yet imagine how much more unsavory it would be if super-PACs and dark-money outfits existed in the Seven Kingdoms. We did—and here are the results. Mild season 2 spoilers to follow.
The klieg-lit ballroom inside Manchester's Derryfield restaurant is where Rick Santorum's unexpected surge coughed, sputtered, and stalled. Munching on chicken fingers, making small talk, and checking email on iPhones and Blackberries, reporters appeared to outnumber Santorum supporters at the candidate's primary party. This was where the reality of Santorum's spare, insurgent campaign overtook the media hype surrounding it.
The Santorum campaign had zeroed in on Iowa, where the candidate methodically hit all 99 counties, a strategy that paid off when the former Pennsylvania senator claimed the second slot—and the media spoils that accompanied it—in the state's GOP caucuses. But his focus on Iowa left Santorum with little beyond media momentum to carry him into New Hampshire, where he didn't have much of an infrastructure to speak of. (Though his campaign manager, Mike Biundo, does hail from the Granite State.)
Despite this disadvantage, the Santorum team ran a dogged campaign in the week leading up to the primary, stacking the candidate's schedule with town halls and meet-and-greets. But his social conservative message, which found a small but diehard base of support here, didn't really penetrate—at least not in the way the Santorum campaign needed it to in order to pose a real threat to Mitt Romney's slick, cash-flush operation. (The contrast between the two campaigns couldn't have been more stark. At Santorum's events, it was a crapshoot whether the candidate would even have a working mic; Romney's appearances were meticulously choreographed, resembling a presidential—not a primary—campaign.)
Before Santorum's Iowa near-victory, the former Pennsylvania senator was polling in the single digits in New Hampshire. Afterward, one poll briefly had him at 21 percent. In the state's primary, he ended up placing fifth, slightly behind Newt Gingrich, with less than 10 percent of the vote. The campaign's goal had been to score in the double digits and possibly overtake Gingrich, but it was ultimately unable to achieve either.
Taking the stage at the restaurant flanked by his wife Karen and two of his seven children, Santorum—appearing a tad dejected—spun his back-of-the-pack finish as a victory. The fact that he competed at all, Santorum suggested, was a win. "We wanted to respect the process here," he told supporters, to cheers of "We pick Rick!"
He added: "We came where the campaign was and we delivered a message not just for New Hampshire but for America—that we have a campaign that has a message and a messenger."
Now message and messenger head to South Carolina, running the same bare-bones operation. But now, the momentum—and the media swarm—that carried Santorum north to New Hampshire are quickly disappearing.
During a campaign stop at an Elks Lodge in Salem, New Hampshire, on Monday, Rick Santorum fielded a question about his stance on immigration, to which he provided his rote response: If you're in the United States illegally, he believes, you're breaking the law and should return home to pursue the immigration process through the proper channels. Period. End of story. As a first-generation American himself, his black-and-white position had nothing to do with a lack of empathy or compassion, he explained, but merely his belief in justice and law and order. He stressed that he certainly had no antipathy towards our neighbors to the south.
Then he launched into a curious tangent: "I thank God for America that our southern border is Mexico," he said. "And it's not Libya, and it's not Tunisia, and it's not Iran. Mexican culture and American culture is Western civilization, and the basic values and understanding of our laws and our government are based in those Western civilization traditions. That is not the case in Europe, and you're seeing the effects of it. I have nothing at all against people in this hemisphere who want to immigrate."
But what about immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere? Santorum seemed to be implying that he was uncomfortable with immigrants from other parts of the world—namely Muslims—who do not share America's Judeo-Christian values. Santorum has previously stated that Islamic "Shariah law is incompatible with the Constitution"—and, as the event in Salem progressed, Santorum's view of a civilizational clash between the Muslim and Western worlds came further into focus.
While talking about Iran—whose nuclear facilities the former Pennsylvania senator recently said he would bomb if they weren't opened to international arms inspectors—Santorum noted that one of the regime's enrichment facilities is located near the city of Qom, home to the Jamkaran mosque, which houses an ancient well considered sacred to some Shia Muslims. According to local belief, Santorum said, the Mahdi—"he's the equivalent in some respects to a Jesus figure—was going to come back at the end of times and lead Shia Islam to the ruin of the world and peace and justice. That's what their end of times scenario is." He continued:
Well he comes back at a time of great chaos. So there are many who speculate that there are folks over in Iran who wouldn't mind creating a time of great chaos for religious reasons. And the fact they built this nuclear program in the city next to where this man is supposed to return leads one to the think that there may be more to it because they could have picked anywhere else in the...country...to do so...
Contrary to what Santorum suggests, this is not a mainstream theory, but a fringe one that holds that the Iranian regime is trying mightily to sow chaos in the world—through any means at its disposal—to usher in the arrival of the Shia messiah. The fact that there's an enrichment site near Qom is hardly evidence of an Iranian strategy to bring about the Islamic apocalypse. That Santorum suggests it is speaks only to his perception of the Muslim faith as one either intent on undermining American values or eradicating America outright.
Perhaps it's lack of sleep, or perhaps he realized that his above-the-fray strategy was failing to dampen Mitt Romney's aura of inevitability in New Hampshire, but Newt Gingrich flashed his fangs early in Sunday's NBC News/Facebook debate. After Romney exceeded his allotted time, emphasizing—as he has throughout the campaign—that he is not a career politician but a businessman whose conscience called him to service, Gingrich erupted: "I realize the red light doesn't mean anything to you because you're the front-runner. But can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?"
The fact is you had a very bad re-election rating. You dropped out of office. You had been out of state for something like 200 days preparing to run for president... You were running for president while you were governor. You were gone all over the country. You were out of state consistently.
You then promptly re-entered politics. You happened to lose to McCain as you had lost to Kennedy. Now you're back running. You've been running consistently for years and years and years. So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind, just level with the American people. You've been running for—so at least since the 1990s.
Then, after coming out strong and showing a glimpse of classic, brawling Gingrich, the former House speaker reverted to his positive, professorial pose.
Since placing fourth in Iowa in the wake of a slew of attack ads launched by a pro-Romney super-PAC, Restore Our Future, Gingrich has vowed he would not go negative. He has vowed, however, to "engage in great clarity," as he put it the other day during a town hall meeting in Salem.
But while Gingrich may be reluctant to put his pugilistic side on full display, now, thanks to Sheldon Adelson, he may be able to leave most of the body blows to his surrogates. News broke on Saturday that the casino mogul had donated $5 million to a pro-Gingrich super-PAC, Winning Our Future, run by former Gingrich aide Rick Tyler. Winning Our Future is planning to roll out a blistering, 27-minute movie eviscerating Romney's record at Bain Capital. "I'm trying to save the people of New Hampshire from being embarrassed," Tyler told NBC. "When they see this movie, and see what a predator Romney is, they're going to be embarrassed."
Near the end of the debate, moderator David Gregory raised the escalating super-PAC wars, asking Gingrich whether his complaints about Restore Our Future's Iowa ads weren't hypocritical given the movie produced by the super-PAC backing his own candidacy. "I'm consistent because I think you ought to have fact-based campaigns," Gingrich responded.
Romney defended the ads launched by Restore Our Future, which is run by former Romney campaign staffers. He added, however, "Anything wrong I'm opposed to."
Gregory pointedly asked the candidates whether they would both ask their respective super-PACs to cease the attacks. Predictably, neither Gingrich nor Romney signaled that they would call for a super-PAC detente. "I agree with him: it takes broad shoulders to run," Gingrich remarked, referring to Romney's recent comments criticizing Gingrich for "whining" about the super-PAC onslaught.