Smart v. Stupid
Republicans candidates fear drowning in Tea
This may be the most interesting Republican primary contest in our lifetime. If you are not yet convinced that conservatives are driven by fear, witness the water’s-edge, tiptoe dance of their few viable presidential candidates. Everyone who has a chance of beating Obama is lingering on the sidelines despite an economy that should make him easy to beat. But it’s not the likelihood of winning that’s holding them back; it’s the high price of trying.
First, I’m not talking about meatheads like Trump or Gingrich, or dilettantes like Cain or lazy complainers like Palin or Huckabee. They have no chance of being elected. In the case of the candidates from Fox News, they have no interest in even running, much less in governing. They’ve turned out to be Rupert Murdoch’s worst investment (even worse than MySpace, if you can imagine that.)
What troubles the actual candidates—Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitch Daniels (who just said he won't run)—is the crazy Tea Party dogma they will have to endorse to secure the Republican nomination. Because now, what you say lasts forever. “On the record” means in the permanent record. They’d all like to avoid that. Romney is even trying to skip the Iowa Caucus. It’s the first place these guys can’t avoid the crazy talk. But those peculiar Iowans—they are a darned good argument for a two country solution, by the way—are already on his case. Romney might well be trapped.
Tim Pawlenty is also trapped. He’s leaked he’ll enter the race in the next few days. But it’s not because he really wants to. It’s because a profile in Time Magazine makes him seem somewhat unsure of himself. Though generally favorable, it paints a less than flattering picture of his interest in the presidency. So he’s stuck jumping in in an effort to control the story.
For the first time in my memory, this year’s Republican presidential candidates are basing their decisions on whether they can win the general election, not simply whether they can win the nomination. The potential nomination winners (and some say Huntsman fits here, but I don’t) are asking themselves whether they can beat Obama, not just whether they can win the nomination.
It wasn’t always so. Nixon, famously, lost the presidential election eight years before he won. Reagan lost his bid for the Republican nomination twice before winning in 1981. To be the Democrat who lost a presidential election is generally career-ending. But in the Republican Party, it just means you got some good practice for next time. Until now, there was no price for trying and failing. Just the opposite was true. Winning the nomination had its own value, whether or not the nominee won the general election.
Not this time. If they beat the president, it was worth talking the nutty talk. But if they lose, saying all that stuff might prove to be the biggest mistake of a lifetime.
If they win the nomination but don’t defeat the president their political career is over. No candidate will be able to pander to Dick Armey’s Tea Party™ and win any election after this one. Winning this nomination without winning the presidential election is a net loser. The Tea Party baggage will follow them forever. The Tea Party support only has value right now. Its value doesn’t even extend into the general election, much less further down the road. So goes the thinking anyway.
In fact, the electoral influence of Dick Armey’s Tea Party™ may already have peaked. Armey is now traveling around the country doing little local events to gin up continuing interest. Birtherism is now firmly equated with stupidity. Bin Laden’s death effectively blunts the notion that Obama is a terrorist sleeper agent. Nutbaggery—still necessary to win the Republican nomination—is getting the reputation it deserves.
And there is more direct evidence. In a special election in New York’s forever-conservative 26th District, longshot Democratic candidate Kathleen Hochul might just win her tight race. And for the first time in twenty years, Jacksonville Florida just elected a Democratic mayor. Jacksonville, a sixty percent white, largely conservative, military town even elected a black Democrat. It could turn out to be a bellwether. Mayor-elect Alvin Brown had run against Mike Hogan, who ran on the “I’m a member of the Tea Party” platform. Hogan had even used a Tea Party phone-in event as an excuse to decline a televised debate. Then he lost.
So now the viable potential nominees—who each have something big to lose—are waiting to enter the race. They want two things to happen. One, they want the president to stumble. Killing Bin Laden just set them back on their heels. And two, they want to duck as many ridiculous policy positions—like busting the debt ceiling and killing Medicare—as they can. They want to protect future electability.
The Republican candidate who loses to President Obama has a good chance of losing everything. That’s scary. Romney, Pawlenty, and even Daniels want a career after the Dick Armey’s Tea Party™ era. They don’t want whatever they say now to make them dead men walking. So they sit quietly. And wait…
Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”