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Jan 19, 2012 4:04 pm

A Referendum on the Republican Party -- Not Just its Leaders

After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As always, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.

Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con  is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.”  But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.

This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement -- there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.  

Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.

Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile, who has now been tagged by his ex-wife as an advocate of “open marriage.”

The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that in the US today, a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitan moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere -- members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation.  Of course, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.

So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.

Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned. 

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