The Republican crack-up
The Washington Post, February 29, 2012
Put aside Mitt Romney's wife's Cadillacs and Rick Santorum's fringe fetishes, and the Republican predicament as we head toward Super Tuesday is clear. Despite Romney's wins Tuesday, the GOP is cracking up because the party's most fervent supporters are misguided or clueless about what the country needs to do to solve its biggest problems, and none of the Republican candidates has the wit or courage to tell them. We are watching a party implode at the hands of its base.
Bob Kerrey—who I hope will announce he's back in politics this week—told me once that a campaign is not the time to try to convince voters of anything they don't already believe. A campaign is about showing how your values align with theirs. "In a political campaign it's too risky to lead them," Kerrey said, speaking of the undecided voters who in the final sprint decide most contests. "And so what you do is pretend to lead while basically you're trying to follow their opinions."
Let's savor that truth for a moment: You pretend to lead while basically you're trying to follow their opinions.
If ever there was a Unified Theory of Political Ambition, this is it.
Seen this way, Mitt Romney's tragedy has been to choose the wrong voters for his path to power.
Consider a thought experiment. Suppose Romney were running for the Americans Elect nomination—which, by time the first votes in that process are cast in mid-May, would likely mean appealing to a few million independent and centrist voters. In seeking that nomination, does anyone think Romney would have spent all year running away from his signature universal health reform in Massachusetts instead of touting it as a bipartisan triumph? Would Romney have agreed that a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases was too liberal a deficit fix for his taste? Would he have been singing "America the Beautiful" at every stop while assuring people he's a "severe" conservative?
Obviously he wouldn't have done any of those things (well, maybe he'd still have been singing—that may be the one glimpse of the true Mitt we've had). Romney has struck various poses because he wants to be president, and these are the positions his gatekeepers insist on. He's been doing what he thinks he has to do to get the power. And his endless pandering hasn't nearly closed the sale.
By sealing his image for phoniness, Romney's courtship of the Republican base has diminished him. Yet by elevating Santorum—a man whose views on contraception, college and much else are at odds with the views of the vast majority of Americans -- the base seems indifferent to the prospect of epic defeat.
There are only two options ahead for the GOP. Either the wounded Romney limps across the finish line. Or party bigwigs pull a rabbit from the hat and find a more palatable alternative at the convention or before.
Either way, Barack Obama continues his streak as the luckiest candidate on earth. His Senate foe in Illinois imploded in a sex scandal. John McCain self-destructed in the days after Lehman Brothers collapsed. And now Obama's most plausible foe at a time of economic distress has been wrecked by his base.
None of this means Obama is a shoo-in. If we've learned anything in recent years, it's that voters are angry and reversals of political fortune can thus take place with head-spinning speed. With nearly 25 million Americans who want full-time work still unable to find it, the notion that the economy is on an upswing has been ludicrously hyped. There's every chance frustrated Americans will vote for "change" again.
Which is why the GOP mess leaves the field open for an independent candidate. My preference is an independent who cares less about winning than about changing the way we think—the precise opposite, in other words, of the Kerrey axiom cited above. A campaign that dares to teach Americans what neither party will risk teaching them about our challenges and their potential cures could improve public opinion, expand the boundaries of debate and force both parties to embrace a serious agenda of national renewal. (I've laid out before what that might sound like).
If Romney had coasted to the nomination, it would have kept independents of stature on the sidelines. That's because everyone knows Romney is basically a pragmatic centrist, so there would have been little open terrain for a run up the "extreme center."
But as Tuesday's narrow escape in his home state proves, Romney's dream of quick closure has faded. Even if he wins the nod, he's been severely damaged. As a result, the next 90 days may be the most interesting we've seen in presidential politics in a generation.