After a series of recent announcements by possible Republican candidates for president that they would not run next year, a mood of disappointment in the conservative grass roots has emerged that has taken the form that the major candidates who said they would run were simply “not acceptable” to many in the grass roots.
The implication for the GOP is that a certain number of its base would stay home in 2012, as some of them did in 2008 when John McCain was the party nominee. That was a factor in the outcome of that election (just as was the huge turnout of black voters across the nation for candidate Obama). The net result was that Mr. Obama was elected president. His administration and his policies are now an anathema to these same grass roots voters who seem to be still looking for an “ideal” candidate.
I want to assert right here that neither party very often, if ever, presents the “ideal”candidate to the electorate in a national presidential election. Yes, this kind of candidate does emerge in races for governor, senator and congressperson because states and districts are more homogeneous than the nation as a whole. Mr. McCain was not a perfect candidate, and I did not agree with him on certain issues, but is there any doubt that the political and economic landscape would be dramatically different if he had been elected, and that many (but not all) of our crises would be closer to resolution?
I also want to assert that either Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty have what it takes to be good conservative presidents. Obviously, they are different from each other, and each has their strengths and weaknesses, but any of them would be an enormous improvement, as I see it, on the president we have now. Furthermore, one of these three men is likely (but of course not certain) to be the next Republican nominee. Yes, there are others already in the race, and a few big names may yet enter at the last minute, but barring the unforeseen, one of these aforementioned three will be the winner at the Tampa convention.
If I am correct (and I may not be of course), then many party activists, operatives radio talk show hosts,and funders will have to take a hard look at what they will do after the national party convention next September. Historically, this dilemma has faced each political party in the recent past. Democrats were grievously split in 1968 by the Vietnam War and following assassinations of two of its icons. The incumbent Democratic president was forced to retire, and a grass roots liberal candidate Eugene McCarthy emerged as the grass roots favorite. But it was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who won the nomination after a bitter convention, as was probably inevitable given the nationwide make-up of the Democratic electorate. McCarthy spitefully refused to endorse Humphrey until the last week (and then only half- heartedly), and many Democrats stayed home. The result was the election of Richard Nixon, a brilliant but flawed man who eventually brought on Watergate and the despoiling of the office of president. In 1976, President Gerald Ford, the first person in effect “appointed” to the presidency (following the Nixon resignation) was clearly a decent man, but he pardoned Nixon and this caused many who might have voted for him to stay home. The result was the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter whose presidency was marked by economic failure (and whose post presidential years have been an embarrassment). I am not suggesting that Gerald Ford was or would have been a great president, but history suggests that he would have been much better than the holier-than-thou busybody Carter.
The United States has a population which now exceeds 300 million. Now more than ever, it is a nation of many ethnicities, races and religions. It is also the quintessential middle class nation, the first and still the most vital democratic republic in the world. In spite of temporary economic problems, it is still the largest economy in the world. To be elected president of the United States, a man or woman must win a substantial vote in the nation’s political center, much of which owes no allegiance to either major political party. In some ways, Barack Obama is the most radical figure in the 20th century to win the presidency, but it took dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and a huge mortgage banking meltdown to enable him to win. At the time of his election, furthermore, he was not generally perceived to be the radical president he has become.
I am suggesting that Republicans of all kinds should be grateful that their nominee is likely to be Romney, Pawlenty or Gingrich. Each of them is authentically conservative, but also has appeal to the political center. The Democrats this time, and unlike in 1992 and 1996, have a nominee (and now incumbent) who increasingly appeals less and less to the political center.
It is several months until the primary/caucus season, and more than a year until the GOP convention in Tampa, so no one can say with certainty that unexpected events and candidates might not yet emerge. History suggests, however, that Republican voters, including more conservative grass roots voters, will be asked to vote a year from this November for someone who does not perfectly fit their political wish lists, but who will be a clear choice nevertheless.
Their decision may determine not only when national prosperity will return, but whether this democratic republic will be able to face and resolve the fearsome challenges which lie ahead.