In light of the emergence of Rick Santorum as an actual contender for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney’s sudden resurgence in this week’s polling, and tonight’s debate – sure to be a major moment in the Michigan, Arizona, and Super Tuesday races – many liberals may be feeling a certain anxiety. Which Republican should we be rooting for to face President Obama? To answer this question, I humbly present this guide.
But before I get into the meat of this post, I feel it’s necessary to begin with a bit of biographical information about myself.
As a teenager, I was enamored with The West Wing, the long-running NBC drama about a fictional Democratic President and his key advisers. I loved everything about The West Wing, but nothing so much as the fact that all the characters were constantly involved in a dogged, earnest quest to use government to make our country better. Yes, there was a strong degree of “us-versus-them” partisan animosity, and yes, sometimes political or practical reality forced characters to compromise on or even abandon principles they deeply believed in. But even as Josh Lyman used power politics to beat adversaries (including his girlfriend) into submission and as President Bartlet gave orders that violated his conscience, there was a deep commitment to The Public Good; a bubbling idealism that said “we can succeed at politics and help the world too.”
It was this, more than anything else, that persuaded the 18-year-old me that I wanted nothing more than to join this amazing world of professional politics, where I could help lead the country to incredible heights of justice and prosperity. On the strength of a special essay about how I wanted to be James Carville when I grew up, I was admitted into the highly competitive Political Communications program at The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Despite the fact that GW was the worst-ranked school to which I was admitted, I decided to go. Political Communications at GW was supposed to be the practical equivalent of boot camp for up-and-coming political operatives, a place that would put me on the fast track to really relevant jobs in the way that a regular old Political Science degree from Tufts or USC or North Carolina never could.
In this, I was absolutely correct. In my four years at GW, I learned more about both the general theories of practical politics and the nuts and bolts of actually performing in the political arena than I could have hoped, and I would have been extremely well-prepared to work in a variety of arenas – campaign staffing, corporate communications, lobbying, political journalism, anything – if I wanted to.
Unfortunately, it turned out that I didn’t really want to. Unlike the world of The West Wing, the political world I was exposed to was a dark, cynical, quietly sad sort of a place, where the accumulation of power was the end in and of itself, not a means to some greater goal, where some of the more ethically questionable tools at a practitioner’s disposal were deployed more out of contempt for their targets than for any particular noble purpose. From an academic perspective, I was fascinated by the things I was learning, but I knew that the work of a professional political aide could never be my career.
So, this has all been a long and rather indulgent way of introducing the following point: ever since I decided that I couldn’t pursue a career in politics, there has been a war in my 23 year-old psyche between the idealism of my 18 year-old self and the pragmatic/cynical views of my 21 year-old self. The idealist fondly remembers “CNN can now project that Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become the 44th President of the United States” as perhaps the best moment of his life (and in fact, I got three distinct waves of goosebumps while writing that sentence; the memory is that powerful for my inner idealist) but now has vague wishes that “a real liberal” would challenge President Obama in the primaries. It was the idealist who angrily took to the SomeDisagree twitter account and the comments section of Wiesman’s story to denounce the President’s deal on contraception coverage. Meanwhile, the cynic was roaring his approval at the deft way the President had gotten Republicans to fall all over themselves to oppose him on contraception, of all things.
So, inuyesta, what does all of this have to do with rooting for GOP candidates? It seems to me that deciding which candidate you would like your own candidate to square off against in the general election is the ultimate test of idealism vs. cynicism, and particularly so in this specific election. I feel that in making this choice, many liberals must be feeling the same divide I experience on such a regular basis. To my mind, the key feature of this election is the intense vulnerability of President Obama’s position in office. Despite his recent uptick in the polls, the fact remains that Obama has presided over the most unemployment in decades and the highest national deficit of all time. Obama belongs to a party that was routed in midterm elections not two years ago and has only rarely creeped over the 50% mark in his approval rating. In this vein, though Obama has pretty much always been ahead of his specific potential rivals, polls have consistently found that “Generic Republican” would beat the President by a few points. Furthermore, looming above everything is The Potential Crisis in Europe, which every analyst says could cause another collapse in our economy that would surely doom Obama’s re-election chances. So all sober decision-making with regard to which Republican to root for should begin with this premise: there is a distinct chance President Obama might lose.
Of course, once you’ve established this fact, it can lead you to two very different conclusions, depending on how you choose to interpret it. I will call the first conclusion the “idealist” one and it goes like this: Because President Obama might lose, I should root for the Republicans to nominate the candidate who would be best for America should he win. The second conclusion is the “cynical” one: Because President Obama might lose, I should root for the Republicans to nominate the candidate who would be easiest to beat, so as to maximize Obama’s chances. In an ideal world, of course, the Republicans would have one candidate who is both very likely to be beaten in November and not so bad should he actually be elected. But do any of this crop fit that bill? And if not, how should we balance the idealist and cynical perspectives to determine who to root for?
I’ll start by stating emphatically who liberals should absolutely not be rooting for: Rick Santorum. Santorum is the worst of both worlds, an eminently electable Republican who would be absolutely horrible as Commander-in-Chief.
If that characterization strikes you as odd, I can’t blame you. Conventional wisdom, and the dominant narrative of the campaign to this point, says that there’s no way someone this far out of the mainstream could ever be elected President. (Note: normally I would have turned several of the words in that sentence into links to Rick Santorum saying crazy shit, but there’s so much of it out there, I couldn’t choose).
However, in this case, I believe the conventional wisdom is wrong. Nate Silver has a good analysis up about why Santorum might not be less electable than Romney, but I’m talking about something deeper than numbers. Watch this clip of Santorum’s victory speech in Iowa to get a sense of what I mean.
Santorum, like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan before him, is incredibly fluent in that particular language that only Republicans seem able to speak; that nostalgic-yet-hopeful language by which Republicans can connect with working class people on a deeply emotional level (while simultaneously advocating economic policies that rape those same working class people, of course). Santorum, like Romney, is a clean-cut, fresh-faced, highly telegenic man. Santorum, very much unlike Romney, comes off as sincere, passionate, and authentic when he talks about the problems beleaguering the middle class and his vision for getting America back on track. Read a couple of quotes I pulled out of the Iowa speech above:
What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts, and a plan that includes everyone. A plan that includes people from all across the economic spectrum. A plan that says, “We will work together to get America to work.”
I ran in a tough election year, when George Bush Sr. was losing the election by a landslide in my district. And I got 60% of the vote because I shared the values of the working people in that district. If we have someone who can go out to western Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Wisconsin and Iowa and Missouri and appeal to the voters who have been left behind by a Democratic Party that wants to make them dependent instead of valuing their work, we will win this election!
This election will not turn on social issues. If the Republicans can nominate a candidate who can talk like that, one who is from the Midwest, appeals to the conservative base, and has shown he knows how to win even when at a crushing financial disadvantage, President Obama is in for a hell of a fight no matter what that candidate thinks about contraception or homosexuals.
NOTE: The forgoing section was written last week, before Romney’s comeback in Michigan. Many are connecting Romney’s resurgence with the culture wars debates of the past week (and Santorum’s extreme positions on those culture wars issues). I won’t claim that that plays absolutely no role, but I would remind everyone that – as was the case in Romney’s comeback in Florida – Romney and his Super PACs have absolutely bombarded the Michigan airwaves with ads, dwarfing the output of the other candidates. These ads, which are largely attacks on Santorum’s penchant for earmarks, are likely the primary reason for Romney’s rise, not voters being turned off by Santorum’s extremity.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, is exactly the man the cynical liberal should be rooting for (though as I’ll discuss later, the downside of him winning is . I’ve noted on here before, the former Speaker has some of the worst favorability ratings anywhere in politics. Gingrich has been a polarizing figure ever since his Contract With America led the Republicans in a historic rout in the 1994 midterm elections. But things have become so bad for Gingrich that the Washington Post ran a piece two days ago calling Gingrich “the most disliked politician in America.”
The 38-point favorability gap is not without good reason either. Gingrich is the corporeal enshrinement of everything Americans hate about the Republican Party: Gingrich is mean, arrogant, petty, and openly hypocritical. He is a “family values” conservative who famously divorced his wife while she was in the hospital with cancer. And though playing on working-class white resentment (of minorities, of education, of science, of changing cultural norms, of “the liberal elite,” of Europe, inter alia) has long been integral to Republican success, voters outside the Republican base don’t tend to respond to that message when it is presented in Gingrich’s particularly angry, ugly, naked style. To the extent that head-to-head polling is relevant at this stage of the campaign, the head-to-head numbers bear out Gingrich’s unelectability: he performs the worst against President Obama in the polls at this point.
That said, the problem with rooting for Gingrich to prevail is that the downside of his election would be absolutely huge, perhaps the largest among the Republicans still in the race. I could spend this section talking about any of Newt’s horrible policy ideas, which are indeed worse than those of the “average” Republican; Newt’s incredibly, ridiculously, unfathomably draconian position on the War on Drugs comes rapidly to mind. But that’s not even what I’m most worried about. As I’ve discussed before, the most worrying aspect of a Gingrich Presidency would be the degree to which President Gingrich would be beholden to Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas Sands CEO who has personally kept Gingrich’s campaign alive by writing massive checks to “a pro-Gingrich Super PAC.” We already worry about the undue influence interest groups and lobbyists and others who can write checks to politicians have; how much more should we be concerned about one individual owning a President the way Adelson would own Gingrich? We’ve already seen how Adelson’s influence has forced Gingrich into a hard-line position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so what else might Adelson demand? Whether its something as “benign” as a more favorable trading environment to boost Adelson’s interests in Macau or something more sinister (am I crazy to think President Gingrich would be much more likely than President Romney or President Obama to send in US troops if tensions between Israel and Iran boil over? Am I crazy to think Adelson might play just a teensy role in that?), one man having that level of control over the President is unacceptable.
Ron Paul, meanwhile, is something of a wild card. My political sense tells me that no committed libertarian such as Paul could ever win the Presidency; there’s just no way someone who wants to abolish the social safety net, put us back on the gold standard, legalize drugs, shrink the military, repeal the Civil Rights Act, et cetera, could capture enough voters, not in 2012. That said, Paul’s favorability splits – though negative – are second best in the Republican field, behind only Santorum. Similarly, Paul is faring pretty well in head-to-head polling against Obama, losing by 8.2 percent. This sounds bad, but when you consider that Romney loses by 5.9 percent and Santorum loses by 8 percent, this really isn’t a bad showing.
I think the bottom line with Paul is that rooting for him is a bit like rooting for a Cleveland sports team, it’s just not going to be a winner. As I posted last week, I can see no path to the nomination for Paul; thinking too much about him either way seems pointless.
Thus, we come at long last to Mitt Romney, the long-time front-runner who has slipped in (on?) the Santorum Surge, but has come back to life lately. To my mind, Mitt qualifies for both the cynic and idealist and thus, should be the one liberals are rooting for this primary season.
I’ll start with why the cynic should like Mitt Romney: I just don’t see how he can win a general election under normal circumstances. Romney’s “electability” argument has always been predicated on the idea that he can pull in independents the way no other Republican can. That might be true (although recent polling has cast doubt on that assertion), but there must be a great deal of concern about Romney’s ability to drive conservative voters to the polls. Romney’s team has consistently argued that antipathy toward President Obama will do their turnout work for them, but as Democrats who remember 2004 can attest, mere hatred of the President is not enough to unseat him. You have to have a candidate who is generally inspiring, somebody that party loyalists are actually excited to go out there and work and organize for, not just an opposing candidate they want to vote against. You would think that everyone would have learned this lesson in 2008, but apparently not. As I’ve been noting since this blog began, GOP turnout in contests held in blue or battleground states has been significantly down this cycle, despite a competitive nomination race and professed loathing of President Obama. Romney’s deficiencies in the eyes of conservatives must be considered a major part of this.
Furthermore, Romney is incredibly vulnerable to a host of populist arguments that President Obama has already begun making. Romney is the consummate 1%er, the guy Mike Huckabee once famously said “looks like the guy who laid you off” and who, by his own admission, “likes firing people.” He has consistently demonstrated a complete lack of any ability to relate to normal people. And of course, there is the standard perception of Romney as the unprincipled, flip-flopping, twisting-in-the-wind career politician who stands for nothing besides his own election prospects. The playbook against Romney is both obvious and obviously effective.
Lastly, it should be noted that Romney is yet to win any state outside of New England in which he did not use a massive fundraising edge to carpet-bomb his opponents into submission. That strategy may be effective against the underfunded Santorum and Gingrich campaigns, but it will not fly against the well-financed President Obama, who may be posed once again to run the richest campaign in history.
So, put succinctly, I really don’t think Romney’s election chances are as high as advertised.
Meanwhile, I think it’s relatively clear that Romney would make the best President of the Republican candidates. His flakiness and lack of backbone make me concerned about the things a Republican-controlled Congress would impose on a President Romney, but we should remember that many of the things conservatives hate about Romney are the things that would make him moderately tolerable as President. Remember that as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney not only instituted the successful “Romneycare” program, but also governed with respect for abortion rights and other reproductive freedoms and took relatively sensible positions on gun control, global warming, and gay rights. Just today, Romney paid lip service to the value of a progressive tax code, a move that will surely be derided as an “embrace of socialism” or something similar in tonight’s debate. I would still never vote for Romney, especially not over President Obama, but the prospect of his election doesn’t make me want to leave the country, either.
So there you have it. In my opinion, Mitt Romney is the one liberals should be rooting for this spring.