December 16, 2011
The race for the Republican presidential nomination has been extraordinary thus far, with each candidate getting his or her 15-minutes of fame and then falling by the wayside as the ensuing attention highlighted their faults. First, there was a boomlet for Michele Bachman, followed by Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich. The only serious candidates yet to get their 15-minutes according to Real Clear Politics are Mitt Romney, who just keeps plodding along with about 20 percent support of the Republican electorate, and Ron Paul, who has also held steady at about 10 percent.
Although the Gingrich boomlet has pushed him above Perry’s 32 percent peak in mid-September, there is good reason to believe that he has peaked too soon for him to capitalize in the first large state primaries in South Carolina on January 21 and Florida on January 31. At the same time, Gingrich is peaking too late for it to help him raise money and build the sort of organization that is essential to winning the Iowa caucuses on January 3 or the New Hampshire primary on January 10. With such a short time left before those critical contests, the slow and steady Romney and Paul operations put them in a much stronger position despite lower national polls.
Gingrich is also coming in for heavy fire from the Republican and conservative establishments. They have held their tongues for years about Gingrich’s marital infidelities, eccentricities, wild flip-flops, extravagant promises, crackpot ideas, and lack of consistent support for conservative principles. Now they are pouring out—see the brutal editorial in National Review magazine on Wednesday. A key motivation for these attacks on Gingrich from the right is a fear that he not only has no chance of winning the general election, but also might lose so badly that he will drag down Republicans nationwide.
Therefore, we can assume that in coming weeks Gingrich will fade just as rapidly as Cain, Perry and the others who momentarily tickled the fancy of fickle Republican voters. That will leave Romney as the last man standing, in the view of most political professionals. But standing right next to him may be Paul, who has an impressive ground operation in Iowa and is well poised to pick up support in conservative New Hampshire as Gingrich falls sharply in coming weeks.
Gingrich fades rapidly
in the stretch, Paul
could be the principal
beneficiary because he has
yet to have his 15-minutes.
The problem for Romney is that he doesn’t seem to have much upside potential. He’ll win or lose with the support he has. In a divided field, that’s not a bad place to be. But clearly, a large swath of the Republican electorate is looking for anyone-but-Romney to be their standard-bearer against Barack Obama next year. If, as I expect, Gingrich fades rapidly in the stretch, Paul could be the principal beneficiary because he has yet to have his 15-minutes.
Ron Paul’s biggest advantage and biggest liability are exactly the same thing—his hard-core conservative views and his long record of absolute consistency and unwavering commitment to those principles. He can be criticized for many things, but being a flip-flopper is never going to be one of them.
I have some familiarity with Ron Paul because my first real job out of graduate school was working for him the first time he was elected to Congress in a special election in April 1976. He would go on to defeat in the general election that same year, come back two years later, leave in 1984 after an unsuccessful run for the Republican Senate nomination in Texas, and then be re-elected once again in a new district in 1996. Paul has announced his retirement from Congress at the end of this term.
Conservatives think if
a policy was right once
then it’s right for all time,
regardless of the circumstances.
Although Ron and I have not remained close over the years, having parted ways over various issues on which we have different priorities and views, I have always admired his doggedness in pursuing his agenda. As far as I can tell, Paul’s views on just about every issue are identical to those he had when I worked for him. Personally, I find this a little disturbing because the world today and its economic problems are vastly different from those of the mid-1970s, and therefore require different policies.
But most conservatives feel differently; they think if a policy was right once then it’s right for all time, regardless of the circumstances. Paul’s rock-solid consistency appeals strongly to those who don’t want to be bothered rethinking their views or believe that changing them in any way is a sign of weakness, perhaps even a moral failing.
With the rise of the Tea Party as a major force within the Republican Party, it is now dominated by those who believe in the sort of absolute commitment to principle that has personified Paul’s 35-year political career, including two previous runs for president—in 1988 as the Libertarian Party candidate and in 2008 for the Republican nomination. At the same time, the pragmatic wing of the GOP, which historically has been dominant, may be at its nadir, in part because Republicans are so convinced that Obama is a loser that they have given little thought to the electability of their eventual nominee.
Romney has suffered
most from the fact that
electability has not been
a major concern of most
Republicans in the race thus far.
Romney’s core strength is that he has always been viewed as the most electable candidate running. He has therefore suffered most from the fact that electability has not been a major concern of most Republicans in the race thus far. Most political professionals believe that ultimately, electability is the only thing that matters and that this fact will eventually lead to Romney’s victory.
In a more ordinary election year, the conventional wisdom would undoubtedly be true. But the politics in the Republican Party these days is anything but ordinary. Ron Paul’s slow-but-steady approach to the race, which has improved greatly since 2008, and the unwillingness of so many Republicans to compromise their principles for any reason, could make him a far more serious candidate all the way through to the Republican convention than political pros or what’s left of the party’s establishment believes.
I am not prepared to predict a Ron Paul victory. But I agree with my friend Andrew Sullivan that his campaign has the potential to improve the Republican race because he is willing to raise questions about issues, such as the efficacy of the war in Afghanistan and the war against drugs, that no other Republican candidate will do. At least, Paul deserves his 15-minutes.