A common theme during this primary season is the importance of the upcoming 2012 election. Will Obama be elected again, or will the Republicans find someone who can challenge him in the general election? When I listen to the Republican candidates, or pay attention to nearly any right-wing media outlet, or talk to my Republican friends and family, I come away convinced of three things. First, Obama is a socialist nutcase and if he’s re-elected, he’ll ruin the country. Second, given that, this is the most important election of all time!! Third, all of the current Republican candidates are woefully inadequate for the task at hand.
With this in mind, I savored this quote in a recent WSJ article surveying the Republican field:
Finally, there are the men not in the field: Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour. This was the GOP A-Team, the guys who should have showed up to the first debate but didn’t because running for president is hard and the spouses were reluctant. Nothing commends them for it. If this election is as important as they all say it is, they had a duty to step up. Abraham Lincoln did not shy from the contest of 1860 because of Mary Todd. If Mr. Obama wins in November—or, rather, when he does—the failure will lie as heavily on their shoulders as it will with the nominee.
My guess is that the A-Team decided not to “step up” for two reasons, neither of them having anything to do with their spouses.
First, it’s actually not the most important election of all time. Hyperventilating aside, Obama is a relatively middle-of-the-road President pursuing a relatively middle-of-the-road policy platform. He wants to raise taxes slightly – to levels in line with those during the Clinton administration, which were already low in an historical context. He authored a Heritage Foundation-inspired health care plan well to the right of HilaryCare. He has pursued a militarily aggressive foreign policy, and has instituted a far tougher anti-illegal immigration policy than ever before. GOP candidates are campaigning against a version of Obama that wants to raise taxes to historically high levels, nationalize healthcare, is an “appeaser” when it comes to foreign policy, and has a lax immigration policy. That strawman doesn’t exist, the GOP A-Team knows it, and knew that their policy platform would actually not be much different than Obama’s.
Second, the Republican party has changed dramatically over the last decade, change that has accelerated over the last three years. What has changed? Well, the party has splintered, held together only by its hatred of all things Obama. As Matt Steinglass, writing in the Economist puts it:
Republicans’ disenchantment with their current presidential candidates is not an incidental characteristic of this crop of candidates. It’s a structural feature of a contemporary Republican Party whose pieces don’t hang together.
Steinglass describes the different factions, then writes (with my emphasis):
These factions have been glued together over the past three years by the intensity of their partisan hatred for Barack Obama, and all of the underlying resentments that antipathy masks. Republicans have buried their differences by assaulting everything Mr Obama supports, and because Mr Obama is a pretty middle-of-the-road politician, that includes a whole lot of things that many Republicans used to support.
Only Romney and Gingrich have been willing to disavow their entire past in order to appeal to the current Republican base. And they are paying for it – everyone dislikes them. I think the Republican A-Team took one look at the current environment, one look at their records, and reasonably decided that running with their records in this environment would be political suicide. Gingrich was already politically dead, so he’s playing with house money (or Sheldon Adelson’s money). And Romney, already the presumed front runner, apparently decided several years ago to totally disown his previous persona. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are both consistent, but neither are serious contenders.
In the end, this is an important election year. But it’s only important because the Republican candidates are so extreme in their views, and the Republican base is so incoherent.