GOP Race: So Far, A Lot Of Sound And Fury Signifying Very Little

Column

on March 18 2012 4:19 PM

Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller have to be turning over in their graves.

Can one imagine how the aforementioned giants of the Republican Party -- who campaigned or governed when the nominating process was dominated by the party's pros, not the public -- would fare if they ran for the 2012 GOP nomination for U.S. president against the current batch of contenders?

Nixon, Goldwater, and their kind would have a field day.

The current batch -- Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney -- is a motley crew. They're all second-tier candidates who would not have had a chance to win the nomination under the old, pre-1972 nominating system.

Further, it's little surprise that Republican voters can't make up their minds and support one candidate decisively: They probably sense that the current field is not stellar, and that fact, when combined with a desire to nominate a conservative who is also a strong candidate, has led to the current fix the party is in: halfway through the 2012 nomination process, the numbers game is only slightly more-telling regarding who snares the nomination prize: Romney has amassed 496 delegates; Santorum, 236; Gingrich, 141; and Paul, 66, according to RealClearPolitics. Delegates needed to nominate: 1,144.

Let's put on the old political-science hat for a moment and see if the primary and caucus events to date have yielded any profound insights regarding the mood of GOP voters and the condition of the Republican Party, a bit more than five months before its national convention in August.

Newt Gingrich: Gingrich, at least in theory, has the intellect and the Washington experience to lead the conservative movement, but his previous vindictiveness (against his own U.S. House of Representatives caucus), inappropriate behavior (against his former wife), and pettiness (his petulance triggered a loss to President Bill Clinton in the 1995 U.S. government shutdown) has led to less than overwhelming support from conservatives.  

Gingrich's conservatism would be suitable for President Ronald Reagan's era of the 1980s -- not today's conservatism, which advocates an extreme minimalism: no tax increases, ever; and no additional federal spending for social programs, ever. Today's conservatism is neither credible nor tenable, but until GOP voters wake up and reconcile their extreme ideology with the realities of governance and problem-solving, the voices whose polices are more appropriate for 1912 than 2012 will continue to hold sway, which means the best that Gingrich can do is finish second, perhaps as vice president.

But don't misunderstand -- for the conservative in today's extremely right-wing Republican Party -- there are valid ideological reasons to oppose Gingrich. In a burst of creativity and effective problem-solving that Gingrich occasionally flashes, the former House speaker might sign an executive order that shocks conservatives -- such as granting every welfare benefit recipient a $15,000 per year salary, in exchange for the abolishment of welfare civil-service employees, whom Gingrich calls the welfare bureaucracy.

The latter, if implemented, would numb and outrage today's Tea Party-dominated conservative faction, which is still more of a psychological protest than an ideology with a practical governing philosophy. The Tea Party faction would view an innovative idea with liberal values that solves a problem as even worse than the problem itself -- it is that callous, reckless, and irresponsible -- which is why it hasn't made Gingrich the 2012 nomination front-runner. The faction is scared of him: Space-age, technologically interested Newt might implement counter-coalition policies that solve problems and throw sunlight on long-discredited conservative attitudes, ideas, and beliefs -- to the consternation of the faction, and other Ayn Rand followers.

Ron Paul: Simply, Ron Paul is one of the strangest individuals ever to seek a major party's nomination for president of the United States.

In a normal presidential-election cycle, Paul would not even be on the radar screen, let alone be a contender halfway through the 2012 GOP nomination process. However, as most readers/voters know, these are not normal times -- we're in the post-financial-crisis era, in recovery mode after the worst recession since the Great Depression -- and that fact, combined with new campaign-funding rules that give organizations (Super PACs) more power, has helped elongate the campaigns of even the weakest fringe candidates, of which Paul is a poster child.

But if there ever was a campaign that should have ended months ago, it is the libertarian Paul's. His policies are more appropriate to 1912 than to 2012. For example, Paul wants to return the United States to the gold standard -- one of the causes of the Great Depression -- and a policy that, if enacted, could trigger a dreaded deflationary cycle (i.e., falling prices and wages) that would lead to a surge in unemployment and make it very hard if not impossible for citizens in debt to get out of debt.

Paul also wants to abolish the U.S. Federal Reserve, the institution whose interventionist policies from 2008 to the present are perhaps most responsible for preventing the collapse of the global financial system in our epoch.  

Paul also wants to abolish the U.S. income tax, a truly mind-numbing, primitive stance that would prevent the U.S. government from operating major social-service programs and redistributive policies that are essential to achieving a compassionate, more-just society and reducing the harshness that is U.S. corporate capitalism.

And it goes without saying that Paul sees little role for the U.S. government in education, job training, and regulation of interstate commerce -- or in eliminating poverty. His limited government philosophy assumes that the private sector and nonprofit organizations will take care of the nation's social problems, but he offers no philosophically rigorous and satisfactory solution to the following problem: the fact that despite its more than $50 trillion in wealth, and a more than doubling of wealth in the past 30 years, poverty is rising in the United States.

Because Paul is a person who would no doubt seek to dismantle much of the U.S. government, the Republican establishment is only slightly less opposed to him than are liberals, Keynesians, and advocates of the positive state. And with good reason. The GOP establishment, primarily through needless defense spending and other corporate-welfare programs (including farm subsidies), has benefited enormously from federal spending: Paul represents a threat to those programs, which is why he is not going to come close to winning the GOP nomination.

Rick Santorum: Santorum is the Republican Party's latest flavor of the month, as the phrase relates to preferred, conservative candidates. The conservative faction of the Republican Party just cannot bring itself to support someone who is not conservative, and as a result it has been flinging itself toward any candidate who has the vocalization power to utter the words no tax increase, ever and eliminate all federal spending, especially food stamps and NPR.

Unfortunately for conservative voters, every conservative candidate to date has been deeply flawed, and Santorum is no exception. Santorum's strokes of nongenius? Santorum has emphasized social issues, in an apparent effort to distinguish his brand of conservatism from others.

For Santorum, the key problems facing the United States apparently are contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and pornography. However, although he has drawn considerable support from social conservatives and rural citizens in the GOP camp, his support among GOP conservatives who emphasize economic issues is understandably less, and a substantial segment of the GOP has concluded that the strongest platform by the ultimate GOP nominee is one that emphasizes economic and fiscal issues, not social issues. Many of these economic conservatives have concluded that the United States of 2012 is a much more tolerant and diverse society than it was in 1992 -- and certainly more so than it was in 1980 -- which indicates a social  platform is not likely to resonate as strongly with voters as an economic platform. And that lack of enthusiasm for the social agenda means Santorum's chance of securing the GOP nod is slim.

Willard Mitt Romney: Romney, like Gingrich, has the experience, knowledge, and worldview to lead a modern, complex government and society.

Unfortunately, however, Romney has been tripping over himself trying to convince Republican voters that he's a conservative, and it's just not working. Given Romney's credentials as a governor who fought for and helped pass an effective, compassionate, and appropriate universal health-care insurance program in Massachusetts, conservatives are understandably skeptical regarding his claim that he's a Reagan conservative. Every chance conservative GOP voters get, they flee Romney for another candidate -- any warm body (or so it seems) that sounds more conservative than Romney, which is easy to do, and that's the major reason Romney has not been able to win the support of a supermajority of delegates.

Simultaneously, Romney has been tripping over himself trying to convince the American people that he's a regular guy, and that's just not working, either. Whether it's casually mentioning that he'd make a $10,000 bet, that his tax rate is close to a hedge-fund-carried-interestesque 15 percent, or that his wife has a couple of Cadillacs, Romney digs himself in deeper every time he tries to convince voters he understands the typical person's problems and concerns -- and the less he looks like a typical person.

Romney is not conservative enough for the conservative faction in the GOP, nor typical enough for ordinary Americans, but he is by far the candidate most qualified to be the 2012 Republican nominee. He projects an energy and contemporaneousness that Paul and Santorum do not; his experience and knowledge of the private sector dwarfs that of Gingrich; and he gives the Republican Party establishment great confidence that he would be a prudent, cautious, worthy steward of the $30 trillion to $35 trillion in investment capital controlled by GOP interests. Or, as one Republican colleague put it, You don't go to sleep at night worrying that Mitt is going to take away your trust fund.

The Republican Party In Early 2012

The current GOP field is a lamentable group -- perhaps the least qualified and worst field of presidential candidates in the modern/postmodern era.

It's a field that reflects a party whose identifiers favor local control of schools, the end of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a strong stance versus Soviet communism. But the nation has moved on.

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