March 5, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2012

The debates and the primary and caucus season have produced a lot of adjectives in the mainstream media conversation: wild, freewheeling, unsettled, raucous. These are not words one usually associates with the Republican Party, and certainly not the kind of descriptions the GOP has gone out of its way to seek during our lifetime.

On the contrary, the Republican Party historically prefers a process that settles the business of delegate selection--and a de facto nominee--early. It is a time-honored, nearly hallowed tradition, and it works reliably. Since Dwight Eisenhower's election to his first term in 1952, the GOP has controlled the White House for 36 of those 60 years. During those six decades the GOP has faced two dramatic intra-party showdowns between the major factions--once in 1964 and again in 1976--and on both occasions Republicans lost in November.

In 1992 incumbent George Herbert Walker Bush faced an insurrectionist challenge from Patrick Buchanan, a rebellion fueled largely by the issue of tax increases by a President who had promised to not raise taxes. Buchanan's deep penetrations in the GOP primaries and caucuses, though not wounding Bush mortally from an intra-party perspective, nevertheless created the breach which Ross Perot was later able to exploit. Buchanan's demagogic and anti-establishment appeal had inflicted its damage.

This is why the GOP and its strategists have always preferred to leave adjectives like freewheeling and raucous to the Democrats.

In contemporary times Republicans are traditionally better at channeling the restless energies of the idealists and the insurgents back into the party's mainstream flow to produce a positive outcome for the eventual nominee, and without sacrificing outreach to the undecided voters and independent voters who make up the essential center in a general election.

Even Ronald Reagan, the great icon of the modern conservatives and the president whose message reached the farthest for Republicans, sought the approval of moderate elements in the electorate, recognizing that a bit of flexibility on some issues would go a long way toward success on the larger stage. It is unlikely that Reagan would have defeated the incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980--despite Carter's weak performance and low approval ratings--had the former California governor not discarded his fundamental dislikes of Social Security, Medicare and other well-established and politically popular forms of entitlement.

So now, are Republicans are reaping the bitter rewards of immoderation? Polls conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, which concluded this weekend and were released today, show an ominous problem for the GOP, and especially Mitt Romney. Romney's negative scores outweigh his positive scores. Further, voters in all categories--Republicans, Democrats and Independents--feel that the long exposure to the GOP debate has reduced their opinion of the candidates, rather than enhanced it. Despite the positive spin from last Tuesday's victories in Michigan, Arizona, and Saturday's Washington state primary, Romney has the lowest early March voter perception score since Bob Dole in 1996.

Some of this negative data, no doubt, is transient in nature: three weeks of being hammered on social issues in the media has left all four Republican candidates bruised. The inertia created when reporters, analysts, television talking heads and the Washington chatterboxes enter into that circular storm of controversy is--well--inescapable. Ratings and readership numbers spike, but eventually the storm will pass.

Only a few months ago, despite the revolving door spectacle of various challengers jousting with Romney, Republicans were seen as having a better-than-average chance of unseating a Democratic president in November. Someone in the room would be the GOP nominee, and despite the sometimes amuck mood of the debates and the feral public exchanges, an economy still stuck deeply in the doldrums meant that voters would want to punish someone, and that someone would surely be President Obama.

So for Republicans it was simply a matter of channeling the frustrations and angst of Tea Partiers, social conservatives, the religious right, the evangelical right, and the constitutional purists back into the GOP engine. Romney was still the man to beat, and the economy and job creation were still the issues with a most traction. Idealistic differences could be settled--and settled quietly. There was an election to win.

Much has changed.

The freewheeling nature of the GOP competition last summer and fall was not unlike the scene four years earlier. After all, Sen. John McCain had been the presumptive front-runner long before the primaries and caucuses approached. Then, in a similar plotline to today's story, a series of competitors entered the fight, each in turn getting a few weeks at the top of the narrative. John McCain actually faded to last place, as Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and others grabbed the spotlight. At the midsummer mark, with uncertainty mounting, the talk surrounding Fred Thompson's possible entry was so strong that many considered him an instant front runner and potential savior, if only he would commit to the fight. He did. And that was his high water mark.

After Iowa, John McCain fought his way slowly back to the forefront, overcoming an insurgency by Huckabee and besting Romney on Super Tuesday. A cabal of conservative opinion-makers and commentators denounced McCain as a charlatan and an apostate and implored the GOP primary voters to make a last effort to save Romney--the true conservative--from extinction. But McCain prevailed, and Romney wasted little time giving McCain his endorsement. But McCain turned further inward rather than reach outward. His efforts to appease the restless conservatives who were bordering on rebellion (some would say apoplexy) produced a strident convention and facilitated an irrational process for the selection of a running mate.

What should have been a valuable lesson for the GOP has been instead largely ignored.

Starting last summer, the televised debates seemed to hold a lot of promise. Seen as particularly vulnerable on the issue of a weak economy, it was not inevitable that President Obama would be rewarded with a second term. And after the GOP scored gains in Congressional elections in 2010--with Tea Party-aligned candidates among the winners--the stage seemed to be set for a showdown. If Tea Party dogmas were powerful enough to help Republicans add muscle in the House and Senate, then did it not follow logically that those seeking the presidential nomination of the GOP align themselves to this template.

Then, an odd thing happened. People started tuning in to watch the Republican debates--and viewership reached unusually high numbers. The debates, thanks largely to the glittering sets, electronic razzle-dazzle and Survivor-style theatrics of Fox News and CNN, became great entertainment, a kind of rolling reality show where candidates competed, week after week, to prove who had been the most "consistent" or "courageous" conservative. The arrival of candidates like Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain pushed the tenor of the debate substantially to the right, and opened the door for further flanking movement by survivors Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum--all at the same time that larger audiences were tuning in to watch.

This merger of large television audiences and increasingly strident talking points in the debates fueled frenetic media scrutiny and conversation, and the result was a revved-up process. The debates became steroid-enhanced politics as live combat, with even the soft-spoken candidates forced to sharpen their attacks and add poison to their darts. Romney, as the presumed front-runner, found himself challenged relentlessly at every step, and soon, found himself tagged ironically as "the establishment candidate," despite having never served in a Washington capacity and having served only one term as a governor. And despite Romney's Herculean and sometimes stringent efforts to position his footprint as far as possible to the right, a perception among some Republicans hardened into fact: the former head of the Olympics was a vacillator and a moderate and, worse, a tool of the elites.

More recent debates in Jacksonville and Mesa seemed to drive the conversation even further to the right, and gave viewers--the casual and the politically astute alike--a sense of a Republican Party with a center of gravity decidedly stridently right of the comfort zone needed for reasonable outreach in November.

Super Tuesday may either serve to halt this process, or perhaps accelerate it. If Romney is able to conclude his business with GOP voters by clinching not only his already favored states (Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia) but also the much-discussed and much-coveted Ohio, he may finally be able to free himself of the need to succumb to the insurrectionist taunts and challenges. A big win in at least five states could give him a numerical advantage in the delegate count that will be difficult for his opponents to overcome.

On the other hand, if Romney is unable to close the deal, and Rick Santorum pulls more than four states into his column--including Ohio, where polls are now too close to call--then the race continues with no end in sight. Santorum can still make a powerful case, despite Romney's clear lead in delegate math, that his sweeping inroads into the heartland of the American map is what really counts for the GOP, and what may matter most in the fall.

In either outcome, Republicans must soon untie the Gordian knot that the so-called social issues have wrought. The ever-elusive independent voter is out there watching and waiting.

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review


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