October 14, 2011
One of the purposes of elections is to force political parties to reassess themselves and figure out exactly what they stand for and how they wish to portray themselves to voters. While this reassessment is most obvious on the Republican side, as one candidate after another gets his or her 15 minutes of attention from the party faithful before being rejected, Democrats are also reassessing Barack Obama and thinking about the post-Obama era, whether it comes in 2013 or 2017.
The key to understanding the disorganization on the GOP side is that, rightly or wrongly, Republicans believe they have it in the bag in 2012. The party’s political professionals know better, but the rank and file is certain that Obama will be history when the last vote is counted in November.
Grassroots Republicans have always thought that Obama was a weak president whose policies have made the nation’s economic situation much worse. Whether that is true or not, it is indisputable that a poor economy tends to be blamed on the incumbent president and his party. An objective analysis of economic indicators such as the unemployment rate unquestionably make Obama’s reelection far more difficult than it would be if the economy had bounced back from the recession as it usually has done.
Some Democrats charge that Republicans are actively sabotaging the economy for their own political ends. By torpedoing stimulus measures and pressuring the Federal Reserve to maintain a tight money policy against nonexistent inflation, Republicans can have their cake and eat it too – blaming government for causing our economic problems, thus justifying their blockage of governmental efforts to fix those problems.
I don’t think Republicans are consciously trying to tank the economy even if that may in fact be the result of their policies. For more than three years, economists at Republican-leaning think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution have been telling them that cutting government spending will stimulate the economy, that the Federal Reserve’s monetary expansion would soon bring hyper-inflation, that the bulk of the unemployed could easily find jobs in a minute if they would just cut their wages enough and no longer had their joblessness subsidized by unemployment compensation, and so on. In other words, there is no reason to be conspiratorial when adherence to longstanding Republican dogma is a sufficient explanation for their actions.
Given that Republicans believe they are virtually guaranteed to win the White House next year due to a combination of economic anguish and Democratic incompetence, it stands to reason that they can afford to be choosey about who they hand their party’s nomination to. Since electability is not a factor in their calculation, Republicans can concentrate on finding the candidate who is the purest representative of their philosophy and will stand most firmly for principle and never compromise with Democrats on anything.
Such a strategy is
like drawing to an
inside straight –
but very unlikely to work.
Thus, we have seen a succession of Republican candidates rise to the top of the GOP popularity contest. Among those both running and not running, we have seen boomlets for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Iowa Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and, this week, pizza magnate Herman Cain. Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems perpetually stuck in second place while time is rapidly running out for the also-ran candidates to make an impression and at least get their 15 minutes of attention.
Clearly, the Romney strategy is to be the last man standing and almost all political pros believe he will be. What he lacks in popularity he makes up for in organization and fund-raising. Romney knows that many of his competitors have essentially no organization at all and are hoping that lightening will strike in an early primary state, which will propel them to the nomination. While not impossible, such a strategy is like drawing to an inside straight – theoretically possible, but very unlikely to work.
Consequently, Romney has been running a frontrunner campaign, with avoiding mistakes being his primary goal at this stage of the race. Secondarily, he wants to avoid being forced to take positions that might cripple him in the general election. Romney’s opponents, by contrast, are putting all of their efforts into securing the nomination, with no thought toward the general election. As a result, many have made promises that get cheers from Republican partisans but will be political albatrosses on Election Day.
While Romney is no doubt dismayed by the fact that so many Republicans seem to want anyone but him to be the Republican nominee, I think he is comforted by the fact that none have been able to sustain traction. I will be very surprised if Romney is not the nominee, but being consistently rejected by two-thirds of Republicans is going to make it very hard for him to motivate them to work and vote for him.
Republicans have nothing
to offer the unemployed
and all of their presidential
candidates support cutting
taxes on the rich.
Obama, on the other hand, can rest easy with no primary challenger and let the Republicans busy themselves attacking each other. While he is, no doubt, dismayed by the failure of his jobs plan, it was not unexpected. Obama now has the perfect contrast between himself and whoever his opponent is – he tried to help the unemployed by making millionaires pay a little more in taxes. Republicans have nothing to offer the unemployed and all of their presidential candidates support cutting taxes on the rich as virtually their only growth initiative.
From Obama’s point of view, things actually look pretty good. While he could hope for a better economy, he can draw comfort from polls showing that most people still primarily blame George W. Bush’s policies. Polls also show support for a jobs program and higher taxes on the rich. At the end of the day, Obama can depend on a unified Democratic Party and positions on the issues that are far more attractive to moderates and independents than those of the Republicans.
I think Obama will also benefit from a fractured GOP that has spent too much time pandering to Tea Party extremists for the last three years, which has put it out of touch with moderates, independents and non-Tea Party Republicans. Moreover, whoever wins the GOP nomination is either going to be widely disliked by many Republicans (Romney) or carrying so much ideological baggage they will be sitting ducks for Democratic attacks (all the rest). This being the case, it makes sense for Obama to sit tight and keep doing what he is doing. With a little bit of luck and even a modest upturn in the economy, I think he could win in a landslide.
-Bruce's new book is
The Benefit and The Burden: American Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take .