Published: The Morning Call (November 21, 2011)
If I were a Republican, I would be very concerned right now about the future of my party.
Allow me to explain. As of the moment, President Barack Obama is an extremely vulnerable incumbent. Unemployment remains chronically high, his approval ratings are mired in the low 40s, and he has done a horrendous job of selling his signature achievements to the public. While other geese have been in far hotter water than this and still managed to escape uncooked, it’s clear that the Republicans can walk away with this thing if they nominate the right candidate.
That candidate is Mitt Romney. He is articulate, intelligent, squeaky-clean. His policy proposals are conservative enough to meet the basic economic, social, and foreign policy requirements of any Reaganite with realistic expectations (emphasis on the word “realistic”) and his strong business record is perfect for a political market defined by economic hardship.
He is, in short, the kind of inoffensive moderate conservative who is capable of swaying independents while remaining acceptable to party regulars (the latter quality being sorely absent from this year’s only other Republican moderate, Jon Huntsman). This is exactly what the GOP needs to win elections. If historical precedent wasn’t enough to illustrate that point, current polls consistently back it up.
And yet …
And yet because the word “moderate” appears before “conservative” in Romney’s ideological label, hard-line right-wingers are determined to find someone else. Hence the slew of month-and-a-half-long love affairs we’ve seen with a series of fad candidates. From late March through the end of April, the beau ideal was Donald Trump. They went through a lag period after he was deflated by his humiliation at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but in mid-July they flocked to Michele Bachmann, where they remained until the end of August. Rick Perry took her spot in the beginning of September, and there he stayed until mid-October, when it suddenly became Herman Cain’s time to shine. Now his four-to-six weeks are up, and Newt Gingrich is the latest craze.
Since the Iowa caucus is being held on Jan. 3, it’s unclear whether Gingrich will still be on top when it matters most, since the recent past suggests he’ll be right near the end of his month-and-a-half expiration date by that time. Barring any major gaffes on his part (not inconceivable given his track record), it’s entirely possible that he’ll be able to stay fresh just long enough to pull it off in Iowa and then take the whole thing. That said, it is equally conceivable that he’ll fizzle out shortly beforehand and thus either give the nomination to whichever lucky rebound candidate replaces him or, as happened post-Trump, cause a lag in the Anyone But Romney movement, allowing Mitt to emerge triumphant while the hard right scrambles for a suitable replacement.
This latter scenario is obviously in the best short-term interests of the party, but it doesn’t address its deeper problem. As groups like the tea party become increasingly powerful in the Republican organization, they keep knocking out moderate conservatives who would have been elected and replacing them with zealots who snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2010 this cost them the Senate, as the tea party spurned moderate conservatives four times in favor of extremists (Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware) and, in turn, lost general elections which by all indications Republicans could have otherwise won. Now this same habit threatens to cost them the presidency, for while Romney may still lose to Obama, it is delusional to believe that a Gingrich, Cain, Perry, Bachmann, or Trump could ever beat him.
It is this delusional quality that would make me a very concerned partisan indeed if I were a Republican. When the Democrats went through a comparable phase in the 1970s and 1980s, they nominated a series of liberal stalwarts — George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988 — who were beaten even in elections that data showed could have been won had they gone with a more moderate alternative (Ed Muskie instead of McGovern, Al Gore instead of Dukakis). Republicans would be well advised to learn from this recent historical lesson.
Matthew Rozsa, who resides in Forks Township, is a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark and will begin Lehigh University’s Ph.D. program in history in January.