Yesterday was a paradigmatic day in the GOP nominating contest: Mitt Romney underperformed in the state the media played up the most while still moving another big step down the road to his inevitable coronation. Which will continue a recent GOP streak of, frankly, horrible presidential nominees for another four years. Romney, like John McCain and George W. Bush before him, is a deeply flawed nominee, but what’s odd about these three men is how each time, Republicans have found a person that is flawed in a different but equal way. G.W. Bush was perhaps the most flawed of the bunch, someone who was qualified on paper (though most of his qualifications were overblown when not comical) while being absolutely unprepared to be president, and having some personality traits (e.g. machismo, overcertainty, ignorance) that made his presidency an unending series of calamities. McCain had better qualifications and was probably more prepared to do the job, but he also happened to be an erratic, crazy person who would trust the nuclear codes to someone he just met. Romney, funny enough, is probably the least flawed of the three. He’s well-qualified and prepared for the job, and his personality in many respects seems a good fit. But–there’s always a but–he is a craven, calculating hack who lacks both courage and integrity. Nominating someone for president is an act of trust–after it’s done, you give up most of your leverage over him (or her), so you have to be pretty darn sure that your candidate is going to protect your interests. Mitt Romney can’t be trusted to take any sort of stand that works against whatever electorate he faces. Republicans will live to regret this one.
Still, though, it’s pretty amazing to think that, assuming they pick someone decent in 2016 (which might well be an off-base assumption), Republicans will have gone 20 years between picking a respectable choice for president. In the 20 years before that, Republicans regularly nominated solid candidates, vote-getters with ample resumes and broad appeal. During roughly the same period, Democrats regularly nominated deeply flawed candidates. In retrospect, there is a pretty compelling explanation for why the Democrats–beginning in 1976 and ending in 1992–regularly nominated such poor candidates for the presidency. After losing two elections with relatively bold candidates who had actual ideas and visions and such, while facing an increasingly-conservative nation with deepening divides within their own party, Democratic party actors decided that the best way forward was to nominate bland technocrats who vowed to run things better than the other guys, who are just totally nuts, don’t you know? A boring, static party generates boring, static leaders, and the party of the time wanted it that way. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Democrats decided to be about something again, and while I’m of the opinion that the DLC experiment has largely failed, at least it was something, and didn’t involve continually fantasizing about some weak-kneed liberal hero candidate jumping into the ring.
So, the Democrats’ candidates during this period were really just a reflection of the crisis within their party. Republicans’ recent candidates say something about where they are as well. Well, a couple of things, actually:
- Electability isn’t everything, it’s the only thing: All three of these guys were nominated because they were considered the most electable. And it’s true that, based on the polling relative to their opponents. Their declared opponents, that is. As Jonathan Bernstein has noted, Republicans have become increasingly aggressive about winnowing their presidential fields, which meant an awful lot of possible candidates in 2000 and 2012 in particular didn’t run. Which I’ll get back to in a second.
Really, though, the idea that relative polling advantages are the sole indicator of electability is nuts. Bush’s 2000 campaign was in retrospect a slipshod thing, given the antipathy toward Gore displayed by the media. He didn’t wear well and had to have the Supreme Court hand him the election, didn’t win the popular vote and dropped what was once a huge polling lead against Gore (who, again, ran one of the most awful campaigns in modern history). It’s hard to imagine that a different candidate (McCain?) wouldn’t have done better. OTOH, McCain’s 2008 weakness with his own base forced him to bypass his preferred choices, Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge, and instead to pick someone who would help him solidify what he should already have solidified. Sarah Palin helped destroy McCain’s chances of being president, disobeyed orders and introduced a new strain of viciousness into the public sphere that has not yet abated. Ironically, Romney is better than those two and the best of a bad lot this year, but he’s still a Wall Street guy who can’t connect and can talk himself into anything. This is not an advantage. Which basically goes to show that Republicans have a pretty shallow grasp on the electability concept.
- Presidential nominations are the last place where “the establishment” holds power: The party’s congressional wing and its state legislature delegations have been completely taken over by radical rightists known as the Tea Party. But while the positions of Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain and Romney all indicate a party moving to the right, none of these guys are bombthrowers per se, and all represented the center of their party when nominated. Sadly, picking a Pat Buchanan or a Mike Huckabee (or Rick Santorum) could have disempowered the constituencies they represented by making their positions toxic. I suspect the party actors are very wary of letting this last measure of control slip from their fingers, and perhaps that’s for the best. I’m not really sure that early-80s Labour would have been better served by just letting Tony Benn have a spell at the top and run things into the ground.
- Like the Democrats of the ’70s and ’80s, better leaders are just not signing up for duty. Many of the weak nominating fields of those decades were due to the absence first of Ted Kennedy and then of Mario Cuomo, the two liberal lions that liberal Democrats believed would be able to revive a bolder, more assertive liberal approach within the party. Kennedy did actually run for the presidency, only he did it against a sitting president. Cuomo agonized but never ran. In both cases, the continuing reluctance of these men to run was partly personal, but the status of the Dems at that point was pretty similar to where Republicans are now: an unpopular party, deeply divided, and fighting vicious internal purity battles. This isn’t exactly what everybody wants to lead. I’d hesitate to put Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal in the same league as Kennedy and Cuomo–the latter two were vastly more accomplished–but you get the point.
I tend to think that nominating solid presidential candidates is a sign of a healthy party, one that is connected to it’s own side’s needs as well as to what the mainstream wants. And even the Democrats’ 70s and 80s picks weren’t awful so much as bland and uninspiring. Any of them would probably have done credit to the office, and arguably the least prepared for it was the one who actually won (i.e. Carter in ’76). Republicans, though, continue to nominate people who shouldn’t be let within a mile of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Mitt Romney is really just another symptom of a worse disease.
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