Columnist David Shribman: The bright promise of winter and political storms
NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — The snow, soft and silent, fell overnight, leaving this old ski village covered in white, recasting the landscape, altering the view, adjusting the mood, transforming the outlook. Now we know why the Aubuchon Hardware store over in nearby Center Ossipee has been advertising snow blowers, shovels, firewood and heating-stove pellets on its roadside sign. Now we know why the migratory birds have fled, the drizzles have had an icy edge, the storm warnings in these parts suddenly have taken on an air of peril.
And while the winter solstice — traditionally regarded as the time the season changes — is still nearly three weeks away, meteorologists (and political scientists) have their own perspectives and calendars. “Meteorological winter” — yes, that’s a thing — officially began Friday. Political winter begins just about now as well. If the old crooner Andy Williams were still with us — he held a campaign event with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the very Los Angeles hotel where the 1968 presidential candidate would be shot three days later — he would tell us that we are now in “the most wonderful time of the year.”
At least, we political columnists feel that way.
In this new season, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew these hills, put it in 1847, “the whited air/Hides hills and woods.” Though the snow provides a baby-powder application over the lake ice rime, writers and voters alike get to see the candidates with fresh clarity.
We also get to ponder one of the mysteries of winter life, along with why the planar surfaces of snowflakes defy any logical architecture or even explanation: the perennial, or rather quadrennial, question of why the American presidential election season begins in Iowa, where the average January low temperature is 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the town of Cresco, and here in New Hampshire, where the average January low temperature on Mount Washington is minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. (The average low for the state capital of Concord, New Hampshire, for Jan. 23, the date of this year’s primary, is 10 degrees.)
But now the political season takes its cue, if not its rhythmic upbeat, from Frosty the Snowman, who, after all, was “alive as he could be.” And so, with the new perspective that winter brings, here is a look at the altered political landscape:
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has won two important endorsements, one from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (a political force in her state) and another from Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats (whose support has boosted the last three contested Republican Iowa caucus winners to victory). Those are important, and they both infuriate Donald Trump. DeSantis’ volunteers and paid staffers have knocked on nearly three-quarters of a million Iowa doors and have assembled some 30,000 commitments to support him in caucuses. But something feels hollow in the DeSantis campaign. He seems for all the world like the Tin Man of this season, lacking a heart and feeling. If he fails, it will be because voters sense that.
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley is soaring right now, but the question is whether her campaign has a ceiling. Her moderate profile seems to resonate among traditional Republicans, but truly, how many traditional Republicans are there anymore? Among her supporters are the sort of people who used to be regarded as public influencers, but their influence hasn’t prevented Trump from maintaining his strong position despite 91 indictments, charges of rape, increasingly intemperate behavior and rhetoric, and the sort of post-election vision that terrifies even the old Republican establishment.
Vivek Ramaswamy is moving rightward at supersonic speed. The other day, he scheduled an event at the Granite State Indoor Gun Range and Gun Shop in Hudson, New Hampshire, with a special offer: The first 50 people showing up were offered a free full-day pass at the range. (Helpful caveat: “This does not include weaponry, firearms, ammunition or safety equipment.”) Purpose of the event: Celebrate the Second Amendment, which he argues is the one that “gives teeth to every other amendment in the Constitution.” Ramaswamy is both enfant terrible and agent provocateur of the Republican undercard. He seems to be gunning to be Trump’s running mate. As a New Hampshire political observer put it to me: Why vote for Vivek Ramaswamy if you can have the real thing in Donald Trump?
Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is everyone’s favorite Trump basher, and he clearly has the range and intelligence to be an American president, but neither of those characteristics is a prerequisite for the nomination. Look for him to endorse Haley in the period between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Indeed, the two might team up just then and say they will run together, she for president, he for vice president, and consolidate their vote — and maybe appeal to some GOP undecideds.
Trump remains the front-runner and the beneficiary of the Damon Runyon theory: “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” Here’s one reason why: What would happen to the anti-Trump forces if DeSantis, who has made a deep investment in Iowa, does well there, while Haley, who is gathering support in New Hampshire, wins that state — and each comes in second in the other’s strong spot? Does that guarantee that the two of them continue in the race, essentially fighting each other rather than Trump, and as a result defeat each other and ensure the nomination of the man they both would like to see dethroned?
Every campaign has a mystery, and this one, along with the persistent appeal of Trump, is how the anti-Trump forces sort themselves out. All these candidates cannot continue their campaigns without assuring that they all lose.
Now a meteorological update: That early snow that hugged the trees and garlanded the mountains here — the “frolic architecture of the snow,” in Emerson’s characterization — was beautiful to behold. But then the snow turned to rain, and the roads were clogged with sloppy residue that in some spots was impassable.
What started out with wintry promise — how bright the white, how festive the scene through the frosted windows! — turned out to be a forbidding mess. The road ahead was obscure until the slush was cleared away. So, too, with the Republican presidential field in Iowa and here in New Hampshire.