Choices – The Republican Dilemma

by George Kennedy on December 7, 2011

Choices – The Republican Dilemma

It must be tough being a Republican these days.  You have still too many presidential candidates, none of whom actually inspires confidence among the base nor in their ability to take on the cerebral, unflappable, and formidable occupant in the White House.  President Obama might appear to be weak, even vulnerable, but he will be a formidable competitor.  This is the Republican dilemma.

You looked over the field early on and you felt reasonably sure your party could  go the distance this time.  The level of clarity about issues and values that more than half-a-dozen candidates brought to the process was unambiguous.  The answers to questions in every debate were based on a single theme:  Obama has failed and any Republican candidate would be preferable.

However, debate mistakes and allegations of sexual misconduct has narrowed your field.  The media, meanwhile, has loved every moment of it.  You know that endless replays of the gaffes by all of your candidates surely will appear in Democratic ads.  The frontrunners are now Mitt Romney, who has the personality of a chalkboard and is, well, patrician to his core, and Newt Gingrich, whose financial and sexual excesses provide excellent material for late-night comedians and Democratic strategists.

A palpable level of anxiety is quietly rippling through your party.  This is uncharacteristic and you’re beginning to feel it yourself.  You wonder why the party is facing this difficult situation.

Perhaps one reason is the outsized impact of the Tea Party.  The core electorate of your party has changed, at least since 2009.  Your traditional base of wealthy whites, Christian conservatives/evangelicals, white southerners and the NRA now includes the Tea Party.

Philosophically, they are at odds with you, your political and financial elites and rule by oligarchy.  You thought you could co-opt them back in 2009 when they were vocal opponents of health-care reform.  You allowed the camel to stick its nose in the tent and now it is inviting you back in, provided that you approve their candidates.  They changed the political landscape in the country.  In the House, the Tea Party caucus determines the flow and content of legislation on the Speaker’s agenda.

In the Senate, several high-profile Republicans have hewed closer to the Tea Party line to ward off a primary challenger in 2012.  The Tea Party now owns the tent and is demanding to write the party’s talking points.

Another reason is the conservatives are currently experiencing difficulty framing and controlling the national discussion as they did in 2010.  That year, the Democrats were in disarray and the Tea Party and the conservatives effectively shut down the Democrat’s message.

You’re astute enough to read danger signs.  One red flag is the growing influence of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  You heard Bill O’Reilly say “the Occupy Wall Street Movement is dead!”, but you know that is spin.  Many Republicans fear the linkage between their movement and the 99 percenters’ successes in Wisconsin and Ohio and several other states with Republican-controlled state houses.  Moreover, you know there is a likelihood that Scott Walker, the immensely unpopular Republican Governor of Wisconsin, will be recalled as early as March 2012.  If the Democrats succeed in ousting Walker, this will ignite a firestorm of enthusiasm among their base that will be difficult for your nominee’s candidacy to extinguish or neutralize.

Collectively, each segment of your party shares a deep-seated desire to unseat Obama, but more parochial interests thwarted the early selection of a single candidate.  The Tea Partyers are purists and fear continued Wall Street dominance and bailouts, but they want to preserve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  Moreover, they want smaller, less intrusive, government.  They have not reconciled this with the need for new revenue, but, that’s another issue.  The evangelicals insist that God, Gays, Guns, and the sanctity of life should be the primary issues.

Each of the candidates still standing taps into the emotional core of a segment of the Republican base even though their candidacy has long since peaked.  While the candidates do not cancel out each other, they do resemble the proverbial crabs in the barrel.  Again, what is a good Republican to do?

The Republican candidate field has to be whittled down – and soon.  Early winners from Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina may not be enough to send all but Romney and Gingrich to the locker room.   The invisible tsunami of SuperPac money, however, will begin to promote the electability of a preferred candidate through issue ads that will flood the airwaves.  This sea of cash will finance the bite-size sound-bytes the Republican electorate will digest with the surround sound of FOX News.  This may infuriate some on the Right, but big money still talks big.

Ultimately, Republicans will have only one choice:  vote for the candidate backed by the Republican “money machine” or sit this one out.  Let’s discount the second option.  You are unified in your antipathy toward the President.

The political and financial elite and an army of lobbyists fear a mounting unease within the 99 percent and the changes it could bring.  Therefore, they insist upon a candidate who can slug it out intellectually with the President for the reasonable middle while appearing moderate enough to emerge victorious next November.  Romney fills that bill.  You know he is where Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, and Wall Street will place their bets.  The Republican establishment may not be as powerless as it appears.

Gingrich is a loose cannon who terrifies the old establishment types, and he has more personal baggage than a Pullman sleeping car porter.  His massive ego combined with a penchant for outrageous opinions unnerves not just them, but Progressives and independents as well.  This is the winning combination within the electorate it takes to send Obama back to Chicago.

Romney can be forgiven for his embarrassing inconsistency on issues.  That is not a liability for a Republican.  Those who unfairly criticize his religion will hold their noses and pull the lever if that means a win.  He is, after all, one of the 1 percent and would be a good custodian for their interests.  Maybe the magic you’re hoping for is that Romney could crowd Obama for the middle and muddy the water enough to improve Republican odds.  The patrician from Massachusetts may not excite you but he is the safe choice.  Gingrich, on the other hand, is less disciplined than Romney and that makes him a wild card.  The 99 percent don’t envy you.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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