The Campaign Spectator

Republicans on Uneasy Street

With Obama vulnerable, we're now looking at an important, and unpredictable, Republican primary.

By From the July/August 2011 issue

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There is a sense of unease about the cast and storyline of the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Something is off. Things have started too early. Or maybe they haven’t started yet. "No one" is running. Too many candidates are on or near the stage. Things just are not right.

This discomfort is disappointing. Obama is vulnerable. He has governed poorly. Since his $800 billion stimulus, another 2 million Americans have lost their jobs. Inflation looms. His government takeover of health care has become less popular since Nancy Pelosi passed it and allowed Americans to read the 2,500 pages of small print. The 2010 Tea Party/Republican landslides should have signaled victory in 2012. Republicans gained 63 House members, six senators, six governorships, and 715 state legislators (taking into account the 25 party switchers from the Democratic side). Next: the presidency, for sure.

And yet…

Herein, four thoughts on why we seem adrift in what should be the dash to victory.

First, the once grand post-FDR tradition of GOP nomination fights is largely behind us. The contest between the East Coast establishment and the conservative movement is no longer played out every four years. Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey won for the establishment in 1940, 1944, and 1948. War hero and moderate Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 stopped Robert Taft from being the man who won the party for the right. In 1960, Nixon was only sort of "us," but Rockefeller was certainly "them." Goldwater broke through as an unabashed conservative in 1964, but failed to win the presidency. Nixon again beat Rockefeller Republicanism in 1968. The establishment held off Reagan in 1976, but Reagan won in 1980 and George H. W. Bush won in 1988 as Patroclus wearing Reagan’s armor. In 2000, George W. Bush was the conservative alternative to "establishment friendly" John McCain. And in 2008, the conservative vote splintered among several candidates, with many social conservatives following the pied piper of Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee, off the playing field and into irrelevancy long enough for McCain to win a nomination he could not have won in a two-way, right vs. establishment campaign.

For almost half a century, the liberal establishment vs. conservative battle lines within the Republican Party, like the old Cold War face-off with the Soviet Union, provided clarity. We knew there were two teams. Conservatives knew what was expected of them.

Now, every candidate is running as a Reagan Republican. The Rockefeller wing cannot win a primary in Delaware against a witch.

Second, there are new faces and names in Republican leadership. Since 1952, when Ike ran with Nixon, through 2004, when George W. Bush won reelection, there was only one election -- 1964 -- when the Republican ticket did not include a Nixon, a Bush, or a Dole. The list of presidential and vice-presidential candidates reads like the Monty Python skit about Spam, Eggs, Bacon, and Spam -- 1952 and 1956: Ike and Nixon; 1960: Nixon and Lodge; 1968 and 1972: Nixon and Agnew; 1976: Ford and Dole; 1980 and 1984: Reagan and Bush; 1988 and 1992: Bush and Quayle; 1996: Dole and Kemp; 2000 and 2004: Bush and Cheney.

In the days when there were only three national television networks, reading from a teleprompter informed by that morning's New York Times, it was difficult for a Republican to break into the national consciousness. CNN began in 1980. Conservative talk radio was only legalized in 1987 with the abolition of the "Fairness Doctrine." Rush Limbaugh was nationally syndicated in 1988. Fox News Channel began broadcasting in 1996.

At the beginning of 2011, the number of famous Republicans with the name ID to consider a presidential bid included previous candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin, and Ron Paul, as well as Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, and Texas governor Rick Perry.

Third, the Republican field of announced and potential presidential candidates has been cluttered up with a large number of "candidates" who are not actually running for the presidency. They are running or "thinking of running" in order to sell books, or in the hopes of "winning" a gig as a radio talk show host or talking head on Fox or MSNBC.

In Mel Brooks’s classic film The Producers, a less-than-successful Broadway producer and his clever but dishonest accountant discover that they can make more money financing a play that closes on opening night than a more successful play that runs for months. Same money raised; fewer expenses.

Over the past few election cycles politicians have discovered that you can make a great deal more money as a failed presidential candidate than if you get stuck actually being elected to the presidency with its capped $400,000-a-year salary. (True, the job comes with a $50,000 expense account, free room and board above the office, and Air Force One.)

Still, the financial benefits of coming in second, third, or 12th in the race for the presidency are sometimes considerably higher than those of the winner. And if you never really had a realistic chance to win, running and losing is all benefit, no cost. Donald Trump signed a two-year, $120 million contract to continue his Apprentice reality show after benefiting from a few weeks of national attention as he flirted with thinking about running for president. Mike Huckabee, not long ago an unknown former governor of a rather small state, lost in the primaries in 2008 but won his own television show on Fox. In the two years since she lost the campaign for vice president, Governor Sarah Palin has made more money and wielded more political clout than current vice president Joe Biden.

As Palin demonstrates, not all the benefits of running a "failed" presidential or vice-presidential bid are financial. Jesse Jackson made himself a power broker in the Democratic Party by running twice for president without ever having to win the nomination or be elected to anything. Rev. Pat Robertson turned his "losing" campaign in 1988 into the Christian Coalition and led, with Ralph Reed, the movement of Southern Evangelicals permanently into the modern Republican Party. Ron Paul put his concerns about the Federal Reserve System front and center, identified and organized a libertarian wing of the Republican Party, and won rock-star status.

Perhaps the best political use of a "maybe" presidential campaign bid was run by Indiana congressman Mike Pence, who used his public consideration of running for president to build up name ID, popular and financial support, a national audience, and then transferred those assets to his campaign for the governorship of Indiana.

Fourth, and lastly, the job description of a Republican president has changed. During the Cold War against Soviet imperialism, Republicans knew two things; one, the Soviet Union wanted to destroy America, and two, Republicans could never control Congress. That meant the party had to throw everything into winning the presidency in order to run foreign policy and wield the veto to slow the Democratic Congress's drive toward socialism.

Before Newt Gingrich brought the GOP the House and Senate in 1994, the only power the Republican caucus had was to hold on tight to the president’s coattails and provide the one third-plus to sustain vetoes. The president led. Republican congressmen and senators followed the White House.

When Bush won the presidency in 2000, the Republican congressmen reverted to their minority mindset and went to work to enact the Bush agenda: Bush's tax cut, Bush’s "No Child Left Behind," and Bush’s Medicare expansion. They supported first Bush's "humble" foreign policy, rejecting nation-building, and then, after 9/11, the same Republican congressmen unquestioningly followed the Bush occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, nation-building and all. Congressional GOP loyalty went to the extremes of following Bush's spending and foreign policy excesses right over the cliff in 2006 and 2008.

This is unlikely to happen again under a Republican president. The Boehner House and McConnell Senate will never again allow the political program of a GOP president to override their own best judgment.

THE DEMOCRATS have had more experience in governing with both the White House and Congress controlled by Democrats. So who was in charge when Obama was elected? The stimulus package was written by Democratic congressmen, not the president. ObamaCare was written in Congress. The law regulating all financial institutions -- except the ones that created the crisis: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- was written by Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd. Democrats are glad that Obama is in the White House to nominate left-wing judges and to sign their bills. They didn't hire him to tell them how to run their country.

Now the Republican Congress has its tax reform and entitlement spending reform written down. It’s the Paul Ryan budget plan, which received 235 House and 40 Senate Republican votes.

They are not looking for a candidate with ideas. They want one who can win 270 electoral votes and sign his or her own name.

Congress will provide the legislation and the pen. 

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About the Author

Grover G. Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.