Looks Like Buyer’s Remorse For Republicans
By Michael MaherFebruary 17, 2012
American conservatives are under-whelmed by the Republican candidates for President. The party’s nomination process is messy and not making much progress. But, hey, how ’bout that field for 2016?
A new term has entered American political parlance: "severely conservative".
Its source is Mitt Romney, who coined the phrase in a bid to quash fellow Republicans' suspicions that he's not really a red-meat-eating conservative. "I was a severely conservative Republican governor," he said, emphasising severely. Still, the perception remains that he's a coiffed silver-tail from liberal Massachusetts. It's no help that Romney, while governor of that state, introduced health-care legislation similar in nature to President Obama's. The health-care issue accounts for much of the indecision now plaguing the Republican Party about who to select as its presidential candidate.
"Romney is the one who seems to have the major gaping holes in his platform," says Robert Costa, a Washington-based reporter for American conservatism's flagship magazine, National Review. "As much as he may have had a conservative record in Massachusetts, it's his health-care program - Romneycare - that really seems to be a burden upon his campaign."
Less than two years ago this was the party that was sweeping all before it, winning control of the Congress and making Obama look like a one-term president for all money. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was in the midst of her will-I-or-won't-I-run tease, and the Tea Party's favourite, Michele Bachmann, was delivering her own State of the Union address on national television, making it plain from the start that she'd be joining the race for the Republican nomination.
But well into that nomination process, a very different picture has emerged. It's one of a party at odds with itself, a party grappling to merge myriad, competing currents. Of course, Palin never joined the race and Bachmann's run was short-lived. Of the four candidates left - Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul - none has yet managed to galvanise the party's base.
According to Costa, this drawn-out primary process is a microcosm of the wider cleavages within the party itself: "The past few years we've seen the rise of the Tea Party and that's truly changed the dynamics of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney is seen as the establishment. Rick Santorum is seen as the insurgent. Ron Paul is the libertarian and Newt Gingrich is the Old Guard," he says. "Whoever wins this fight right now is really going to say a lot about where this party stands."
So intense is this struggle, there's growing doubt within Republican ranks about whether the state-by-state primaries and caucuses now underway can deliver a coronation. If not, the party's candidate would have to be chosen on the floor of the Republican convention in late August - not even three months before the November presidential poll. A genuine floor vote is a rare event in these days of micro-managed campaigns and outcomes. "It's unlikely to go to the convention, but it's far from impossible this year. You could see how it could happen," says Larry Sabato, author ofPendulum Swing, a book about the Tea Party-led Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections.
Sabato attributes the uncertainty surrounding the Republican race to a single, fundamental problem: "This is a weak field."
"You need to understand that before you talk about anything else," he goes on. "If the field had a truly strong candidate, you would not have Republican voters dashing hither and yon from week to week favouring first one candidate and then another and then another. They're just not satisfied with the field. The strongest candidates didn't run."
Potentially stronger candidates who chose not to run include Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and another Bush scion, former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush. If the leadership issue remains deadlocked by the time of the party convention, there is an outside chance that one of these figures could be drafted.
"They'd be willing to be drafted at the convention all right," says Sabato, "but that would require a full-out deadlock. It's way too early to say that's going to happen. The odds are against it - but it is a possibility."
Coming up in the weeks ahead are the Michigan primary and, on March 6, what's called Super Tuesday - when 10 states cast their votes for the Republican leadership. Romney is a native of Michigan and would be banking on the support of his home state. Yet rival Rick Santorum is marginally ahead in the Michigan polls. A loss for Romney in Michigan would be an embarrassment as well as a momentum-stopper on the eve of the critical Super Tuesday votes.
"Santorum seems to be capturing all the fractured Tea Party votes into his camp," observes Robert Costa. "It's not an easy chore with Gingrich and Ron Paul still in the race, but Santorum seems to be capturing much of that support by saying, 'I'm the Tea Party candidate now. I've got the best shot to beat Romney.'"
It's a gruelling nomination process. But at the National Review, founded byone of the leading voices of American conservatism, the late William F. Buckley Jr., a silver lining is spinning into view. "It may make Republican honchos in Washington quite nervous that this primary doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon," the Review's Robert Costa told The Global Mail, "but an extended primary is a good thing because it makes you open up the dusty drawer of American conservatism and makes sure that it remains vibrant and relevant to the time."
Others with a close eye on all things Republican have a more prosaic view. Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. She also suggests the Republicans aren't running with their best candidates in 2012.
"If the Republicans lose in November then first of all you're going to see a firing squad - everyone will blame everyone else - and after that they'll begin to look seriously at where their party is," says Bowman. "There is a very attractive group of younger republicans who many people hoped would run this time but a lot of them decided not to, so I think it's going to be a much stronger field in 2016."
There's still a long way to go before the presidential poll. But in canvassing Republican opinion on their own candidates, eight months out from the election it would appear the Grand Old Party is girding itself for a bout of buyer's remorse.