The burning question after last week's Iowa caucuses was whether the anti-non-Mitt assassination squads would open up on Rick Santorum after he came within eight votes of defeating Mitt. These serried ranks are led in predictability, volume of small arms fire, and giggly abandon -- if not in analytical insight -- by Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.
The thought of the Republicans nominating anyone other than the man named Mitt who drove from Boston to Montreal with the benighted, lionized, family dog, Seamus, the Fala and Checkers of our time, on the roof of the family station wagon, transforms both women into trigger-happy snipers -- as determined in their purpose as the defenders of the Alamo, that Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich, would be too riddled by their marksmanship to hold a glass of water.
Even New Jersey governor Chris Christie was subjected to a preliminary fusillade on the evils of obesity and the non-receptivity of the proverbial Republican base to the concepts of human decency to which Christie had given a gentlemanly doffing of his cap in a speech at the Reagan Library. But he was spared the fate of the declared candidates by deciding, like most of the other best qualified Republican challengers, not to make the race.
The fierce protectiveness of the anti-non-Mitts is not derived from concern for Governor Romney, but rather from fear that someone might spoil the fun that has caused them to salivate, twitch, and levitate for over four years at the thought of tearing Mitt as a nominee limb from limb, themselves. Ms. Dowd and Ms. Collins are not shielding a protégé like lionesses defending their cubs; they are hoarding their own prey like leopardesses defending the tree where they have hoarded the succulent carcass they intend to turn into an overpowering banquet.
The litmus test of the credibility of the non-Mitts is whether they elicit the hale of fire of the assassination squads. Rick Santorum was only on the cusp on Saturday. Gail Collins gave him a belated column trashing his book (It Takes a Family, supposedly a family values response to Hillary Clinton's It takes a Village). But Ms. Collins was just shooting in her guns and doing a little target practice, and plaintively concluded her column on January 7, asking if it might not be "possible to criticize the president without insisting that everything he does is propelled by sinister motives and bad character."
This is a perfectly reasonable question. The compulsion to impute everything Mr. Obama says or does to racism, Islamic belligerence, diffuse anti-Americanism, Marxist biases imbibed at the knee of Bill Ayers, or a variation of the Manchurian Candidate theory, though often amusing, is uncalled for and tiresome. In the spirit of reciprocity, Ms. Collins might want to let a Republican get solidly into double digits in the polls before assaulting him/her as a knuckle-dragging sociopath whose I.Q. has not mastered the parallel ambition of breasting the tape upwards into double figures.
The Obama-bashers and apologists should allow the great reasonable majority who disapprove of President Obama's performance to object to the president's simple errors and even well-intentioned incompetence. And in a better world, the New York Times' pollster, Charles Blow, who seems to exercise a baneful Mephistophelean influence on the columnists who bracket him on the op-ed page, would not, as he did in a side-kick piece to the Collins offering just mentioned, accuse the Republican Party (of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Herman Cain)-- which abolished slavery and began and concluded desegregation -- of being a dyed-in-the-wool racist enterprise.
In support of this outrageous charge he produced implausible citations that do not even work as sophomoric mousetraps, for the theory that there is a straight line of phobic and defamatory anti-African American Republican typecasting from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum. This is the liberal Democratic grand slam: smash an icon, put a bullet in the head of a still-writhing victim of the assassins and perform a preemptive hit job on a potentially viable non-Mitt.
This is also the trifecta for the Times liberal Sanhedrin, from the keyboard of the only pollster or poll-interpreter in America who has always found a majority of Americans who think that Obama is doing as great a job as his predecessor thought Brownie was doing in New Orleans during the hurricane.
But Santorum joined the ranks of the authentic non-Mitts on Sunday January 8, when Ms. Dowd took the bait. America's most vocal and sorrowful apostate Catholic tore into the "antediluvian abrasiveness" and "wacky world view" of Santorum's religiosity.
She loaded and fired a fairly full magazine for an opening salvo: a patronage-dispensing cat's paw of a local company, ripping off the Pennsylvania education department, chumminess with former football coach Joe Paterno, and imputations of racism. But there was a happy ending: he would be a quick hit, leaving the field to "Mittens...the calculating consultant type unpersuasive in premium denim mom jeans, his hair slicked and gray, a lead in a '50s B movie." She may be right. In fairness, elsewhere in the same issue, Ross Douthat, always a voice of reason, debunked some more hysterical attacks on Santorum's Catholicism from less influential media outlets than the Times.
The importance of the Times's Kremlinology, in so far as it has any, is not that it or its writers influence any swing voters, but that they tip the gun-toting hand of the Democratic front-line of skirmishers, to whom waiting to see the whites of the Republicans' eyes is an act of cowardice that is the first step into a thousand years of darkness. Last week they were still clearly hoping that Mitt would win big enough in New Hampshire to be believable as an unstoppable juggernaut proceeding, dog on roof, toward the Republican convention in Tampa.
His victory in New Hampshire brought out the vanguard of the coronation squads, such as Chris Matthews, who stopped just short of composing his election night concession speech to Obama.
Mr. Romney may be the candidate in the end, but at this point the only real juggernaut is in the most febrile imaginations of the most perfervid Mittsters, including the declared and furtive Democrats preserving him for a ritualistic sacrifice, like Caesar protecting Vercingetorix for his public garrotting before the Roman mobs.
Most Republicans are unconvinced Mitt can win, in a year when the ineptitude of the Democrats has made the election winnable. This isn't the selection of a sacrificial offering against an invincible incumbent like FDR, Ike, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, or even Clinton, (as long as Perot was cluttering the race). Obama can be had, but perhaps not by Mitt. Nothing will really be clear, including whether Santorum has legs, until South Carolina and Florida are in, if then. Mitt is close to the nomination, and his rivals are not plausible, other than in a possible ability to deny him a majority by their joint efforts and hang the convention. The last active alternative Mitt was Newt.
And if Mitt can't close the deal before he gets to the convention, even the most pyrotechnic antics of the Democrats for Mitt won't prevent a review by the party barons in the clean air of smoke-free Tampa hotel rooms, of the potential for their best possible candidates, who will have chosen, until then, not to make the race.
In that case, prepare for a crescendo of whining from Times Square noisier and more grating than a thousand windmills off the shore of Hyannisport, on the evils of a brokered convention. And prepare also, finally, for an interesting election.