Thursday, June 16, 2011

Outsiders vs. Insiders: The Struggle for the Soul of the GOP

"Barack Obama has failed America," Mitt Romney said unequivocally at his first New Hampshire town meeting, repeating the signature line of his presidential-campaign announcement speech a day earlier. Unequivocal is not a word that traditionally has been associated with the former Massachusetts governor, but that was then, and the retooled edition of candidate Romney is much improved. He proceeded to lay out the economic case against Obama: 16 million out of work, home values collapsed, higher gas and food prices.
In other words, Obama is the grandson of Herbert Hoover and the son of Jimmy Carter. "He's tried," Romney said sorrowfully, a lock of his less-slick-than-last-time hair falling over his forehead. "[But] what he did simply was wrong. He extended the downturn and made it deeper ... How is it that President Obama was so wrong? I happen to think that in part he took his inspiration from Europe," Romney continued, citing a litany of Obama's proposals like deficit spending and "federalizing" health care. "He has been awfully European. [But] you know what? European policies don't work there. They sure as heck aren't going to work here. I believe in America! I believe in free enterprise. I believe in capitalism. I believe in the Constitution." (See why the New Hampshire debate was Romney's first real test.)
Well, O.K. It wasn't exactly exhilarating, but it was the best of all possible Mitt Romneys. The crowd responded with respectful applause, but not rapture - I've never seen a Republican crowd actually blown away by Romney - and the respect grew as the candidate gave detailed answers to questions from the surprisingly sparse audience. When asked what he'd specifically do about the economy, he had a seven-point plan ready to roll. His answer on budget cutting was standard-issue GOP, but with a humane gloss: "There are lots of programs that I like, that we all like, but we can no longer afford." He barbed the Chinese for manipulating their currency, which was downright brazen for a free-trade Republican. He even challenged Limbaugh Law a bit by suggesting that climate change is real and perhaps even man-made, a little. (King Rush responded by dismissing Romney: "Bye-bye, nomination.") Romney's answers did not seem pretaped, though they obviously were. They seemed thoughtful and interesting - and far more nuanced than the current conservative repertoire, which allows for no "likable" government programs, no man-made global warming, no assumption of decent intent by a hardworking but wrong President Obama. It is this appeal, which he effectively repeated on June 13 in the first real Republican debate, that might actually attract some independent voters.
In a normal presidential campaign, this sort of focused and efficient candidacy would be just about all Mitt Romney needs to win the Republican nomination. He is, after all, next in line - just as John McCain was in 2008, and George W. Bush in 2000, and Bob Dole in 1996 and George H.W. Bush in 1988. Even Ronald Reagan, for all the revolutionary talk, was the primogeniture candidate in 1980, the next in line after Gerald Ford. Romney certainly has problems: he is a Mormon who passed a mandated, universal health care plan in Massachusetts, the direct precursor to Obama's health care reform. But McCain authored campaign-finance reform - sort of like serving pork for Passover, among conservatives - and he believed in global warming too, for a while. And while Romney is not nearly as well loved as Reagan or even George W., McCain wasn't much liked by the Republican establishment either - and Romney has the advantages of money, a smart managerial rÉsumÉ, mainstream conservative economic views ... and, well, he sort of looks like a Republican President should.(See "Does Mitt Romney Have a Prayer with Evangelicals?")
And yet there is a jittery sense among Republican savants that Romney is a straw man, ready to be toppled, because the party has changed irrevocably. It has traded in country-club aristocracy for pitchfork populism. The Tea Partyers and talk-show hosts who define the new Republican Party believe in the opposite of primogeniture. They believe in the moral purity of political virginity. After Sarah Palin, amateurism has become a Tea Party hallmark. Herman Cain, the African-American business executive who was the Teasies' flavor of the month - before the debate - emphasizes his total absence of governmental experience, to roars of laughter and approval on the stump. In addition, the very structure of the nominating process has changed. It won't be a stately procession from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Florida this time. It will look more like the NCAA basketball tournament, only with two instead of four brackets: the Iowa bracket, which will feature the social-conservative and populist candidates like Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum - and perhaps Sarah Palin and Texas Governor Rick Perry; and the New Hampshire bracket, which will feature more-moderate candidates like Romney and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, focused on the economy. Some, like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, will try to finesse the brackets and play in both, but they are likely to be pulled gravitationally toward one or the other vision of how to win the nomination - Iowa or New Hampshire, populist pitchforkery or center-right plausibility. (Chasing Sarah Palin's One Nation Road Trip)
Real Candidates vs. Marketing Geniuses
There was a third bracket, but it has pretty much imploded now. This was the celebrity/reality-TV/talk-show wing of the party - candidates more interested in promoting themselves (or their books, or their TV shows) than in actually running for President. They dominated the early campaign and created the impression that the Republican Party had gone bonkers. There was the Donald Trump moment, during which the sleazeball casino and construction Barnum rose to second in the horse-race polls by cynically questioning Barack Obama's nativity, then fled the field before anyone could investigate his own bona fides. There is the never ending, surreal Sarah Palin Marketing Tour, most recently conducted by bus, rudely stepping on Romney's official announcement by swooping into New Hampshire and stealing the press coverage. There was Newt Gingrich's latest meltdown: he seemed to envisage his campaign as a luxury cruise featuring his Tiffany-bedizened third wife. Worse for Republicans, he handed the Democrats a nuclear weapon when he called Paul Ryan's Medicare-privatization plan "right-wing social engineering."
The adolescent, steroid-enhanced narcissism of the reality-TV bracket must have been a horrific jolt to actual conservatives - that is, people who are subdued in demeanor, fiscally prudent and skeptical of change. It raised the very un-Republican possibility of chaos. "People say this is a weak field, and that's true: it's not a Hall of Fame field, but we've seen worse, and candidates challenging an incumbent President always seem weak," says Dan Schnur, a former Republican operative and now director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were both considered weak at this point in the process." (See which numbers matter in the presidential race.)
Schnur believes the mild panic over the quality of the Republican field actually represents a deeper anxiety. "What Republicans are really concerned about is the lack of clarity," he says. "Republicans are used to knowing what - and who - comes next. This time, they have no idea." There is, even among Romney admirers, the belief that he lacks the deftness to surf the new wave. "You get the sense that he'll be hanging on by his fingernails in New Hampshire and some new face - who knows who? - will suddenly catch fire in Iowa or pop in New Hampshire," says Mark McKinnon, a strategist who worked on both George W. Bush campaigns. "That's a Democratic sort of scenario. It happened to the Dems in 2004, when John Kerry emerged at the last moment. This is uncharted territory for Republicans."
Economic Conservatives vs. Social Conservatives
There was some expectation in the media that the riot of narcissism would continue in the first real Republican debate, in New Hampshire on June 13, starring Romney as the designated piÑata. But that didn't happen. Initial debates are usually tepid affairs, with the candidates hoping to make a pleasant first impression, knowing that there will be a mind-numbing number of similar contests down the road, saving their ammunition for the appropriate moment. Indeed, this debate was defined by a flinch: Pawlenty was asked to elaborate on his snide attack on Romney's Massachusetts health care plan - he had called it Obamneycare - but he demurred, awkwardly. Pawlenty was thereby caught in the act of acting like a politician, which is the most common mistake inexperienced candidates make when the big lights go on. Romney, by contrast, seemed comfortable in his own skin - the most important positive quality a candidate can display - a far cry from his sweaty robot impersonations in 2008. (This is Romney's not-so-secret advantage over his most plausible opponents: he's done it before.) (See why it's tough to take on Obama in 2012.)
But if the debate lacked flash, it was instructive. It set the ideological parameters for the coming campaign. The candidates locked themselves in a philosophical space about the size of Rush Limbaugh's radio studio. It took nearly an hour before any of them spoke well of a government program, when Herman Cain grudgingly acknowledged that the Food and Drug Administration's meat and vegetable inspections were probably a good thing. At one point, Romney made this statement: "I think fundamentally there are some people - and most of them are Democrats, but not all - who really believe that the government knows how to do things better than the private sector. And they happen to be wrong." Which raised the possibility that Romney might want to privatize the military. Everything else certainly seems to be on the table - Cain wants to privatize Social Security; Gingrich wants to privatize NASA; most seem willing to voucherize Medicare along Congressman Paul Ryan's lines.
This ideological purity worked to the advantage of Michele Bachmann, by making her seem less extreme. Bachmann is often linked with Palin as a Tea Party pinup, but she is a different breed of cat: she knows her stuff. She actually gives factual, informed answers. She lacks Palin's bitter, solipsistic edge. She skillfully framed even her most extreme responses in an amenable way, smothering her opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest within a paean to the sanctity of life. Bachmann also led the pack in opposition to the Libya intervention - and it should be noted that the Republican field was sounding remarkably dovish, with the exception of Santorum, on the subject of foreign wars. Romney said he wants the troops home from Afghanistan "as quickly as possible," but then remembered he'd better consult the generals first. Newt Gingrich, a traditional war lover, called for a review of U.S. policy in the region rather than plumping for more military kinetics. No one mentioned Iran. This is a fascinating development: the only plausible space for Republicans in the national-defense debate may be to Barack Obama's left.
But a nomination race that is comfortable for Bachmann has to be uncomfortable, sooner or later, for the more moderate politicians in the field. Gingrich, amazingly, was the only candidate willing to fly in the face of Limbaugh Law, repeating his worries about Ryan's Medicare plan: "Remember, we all got mad at Obama because he ran over us [on health care reform] when we said don't do it. Well, the Republicans ought to follow the same ground rule. If you can't convince the American people it's a good idea, maybe it's not a good idea." When Newt Gingrich is the voice of reason on a Republican stage, the rightward lurch of the party has become a dangerous, inbred, self-destructive thing. (See the top 10 debate flubs.)
Establishment Republicans vs. Pitchfork Populists
On the morning of the debate, Romney unfurled a truly striking campaign ad, in which he blasted Obama for (foolishly) calling the latest awful jobs report "a bump in the road." The ad was set in the desert, with people lying parallel on a lonely highway; at first I thought they were dead, but no, they were human speed bumps. And one by one they got up, holding pieces of paper that told their stories: laid off, recent college graduate, single mom, working three jobs, company gone bankrupt. It was the sort of ad a Democrat might have run in a different cycle, and it effectively hammered home Romney's theme: Obama is Hoover­Carter. This is the single strongest argument the Republicans have going for them in 2012.
But it's only the opening bid. Sooner or later, Romney - or whoever takes him down - is going to have to provide some alternatives, and this is where the party's ideological straitjacket will pinch the tightest. The standard Republican mantra of smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation is nearly as tattered as Obama's Keynesian spending in the face of a fierce recession, and yet this crop of candidates seems to be doubling down on it. Bachmann promised to repeal Obamacare, as did Romney, and she wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency too. Gingrich wants to defund the National Labor Relations Board. All of them blasted government regulation of the private sector in the debate; the vision of federal twerps descending on hardworking businesspeople and sanctioning them for not filling out every form in triplicate is a powerful image. But it also places the GOP against the regulation of Wall Street, whose excesses caused this mess, and against the protection of consumers from the depredations of credit-card mongers and payday lenders. There was also some free-range union bashing, which may work in New Hampshire but might not go down so well with the blue collar Reagan Democrats who have provided the margin of victory in more than a few recent elections. (See how Bachmann stole the show in New Hampshire.)
There are, I'm happy to report, some limits to all the repealing and defunding. At a New Hampshire campaign stop a few days before the debate, Ron Paul was asked if he would privatize the Grand Canyon. He thought for a second, then said no. "That was a trick question," he asked, "wasn't it?" Indeed, for relatively moderate candidates like Romney and Pawlenty, all the tests of ideological purity are trick questions that will leave them either unworthy of Tea Party support now or untenable in a general election. And so they are forced to endure implausible ideological purification rituals - Pawlenty's recent, silly tax-lowering scheme, for example - or empretzel themselves in order to explain past bouts of political sanity. Romney's latest defense of his successful universal health care plan in Massachusetts is a particularly grisly example of the latter: it was O.K. for him to impose an individual mandate but wrong for the President to do the exact same thing, because health care is a problem that should be left to the states to solve in their own ways. That leaves Romney open to an obvious question: Does he also intend to destroy Medicare by sending it back to the states?
The other option for Republican moderates is to tap-dance. In the debate, Romney walked the tightrope on raising the federal government's debt ceiling. "I believe we will not raise the debt ceiling unless the President finally, finally is willing to be a leader on issues that the American people care about ... And the American people and Congress and every person elected in Washington has to understand, we want to see a President finally lay out plans for reining in the excesses of government," he said. That leaves some wiggle room for Romney when the inevitable debt-ceiling compromise is reached, but his potential support for that compromise is not likely to please the Teasies. These and other inconsistencies will be exploited by the President - who will be forced to run a campaign very much the opposite of 2008's, a counterpunching, negative attack on Republican extremism, which fits his character about as comfortably as pitchfork populism fits Romney's. Some presidential campaigns - 1960, 1980, 1992, 2008 - are exhilarating, suffused with hope and excitement. This is not likely to be one of those. It is likely to be an election that no one wins but someone loses. It will be a reversal of politics past: a pragmatic Democrat will be facing a Republican with all sorts of big ideas, promising an unregulated, laissez-faire American paradise.
Obama will have to come up with a stronger argument than "It could have been worse," but in tough times, the continuing presence of a government safety net is far more reassuring than the message that you're on your own. And in the end, all the Republican talk of repealing and defunding may prove too radical for an American public that is conservative in the traditional sense, and wary of sudden lurches to the left or right.

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