You have to hand it to the Republicans: They’ve found a way to make primary debates interesting. Credit for this achievement is due not to the candidates, who have mostly stuck to the tedious tradition of exchanging canned insults, but rather to the fired-up audience, which has loudly expressed alarming attitudes about a variety of issues. To judge by their cheers and applause, they love executions, favor letting the uninsured die, and support the troops—except the gay ones. Most of the time, an energized base is an asset, but this group ought to terrify the candidates, let alone any conservative who hopes to take back the White House next year.
Among the hopefuls, though, one detects few signs of discomfort. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a group that is more a product of this singularly nutty moment. Every serious Republican candidate is either a bona fide Tea Partier or is desperately trying to look like one. The anti-Obama protest movement is now steering the selection of an anti-Obama protest candidate, and the result is an awfully sad crew of presidential wannabes.
Sad, because the popular ones are not decent and the decent ones are not popular. Rick Perry is the very personification of the Fox News id—a bombastic, barrel-chested macho man who jogs with a gun, boasts about his state’s execution record, and winks at threats of secession while hinting that the military doesn’t respect President Barack Obama. For now, his only serious opponent is Mitt Romney, a man widely suspected of being a pragmatic technocrat. If that appeals to you, you’re probably not a Republican primary voter. The other candidates, with the exception of poor Jon Huntsman, are an utterly unserious array of people who will never, ever be president. (And, no, that hasn’t changed since pizza magnate Herman Cain won the Florida straw poll.) Both Republican front-runners face severe obstacles. Romney, a weak primary candidate, has serious credibility issues; Perry, a weak general-election candidate, has stumbled badly as a campaigner.
How did it get to this point? President Obama is vulnerable. His base is disaffected; his opposition is electrified; he faces wavering independents and a sputtering economy. He could surely be defeated in 2012 if Republicans could only produce a viable opponent. What are they thinking?
The answer is that Republicans are currently running on sheer political fury—which is potent, but dangerous. The ascension of the Tea Party is an emotional response to Obama. It’s not impossible to make a rational case against the Obama presidency, but the main thrust of Republican opposition is not rational in the least. It’s visceral. Sometimes the mask slips: see Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s claim that Obama seeks “to create dependency because it worked so well for him.” (Just in case anyone missed the point, Coburn went on to mention that Obama is “an African-American male.”) Or recall Michele Bachmann’s claim that Obama holds “anti-American views.” But the rank animosity is usually veiled by claims that Obama’s centrist policy agenda, which recycles a lot of old Republican ideas, is unvarnished socialism. This may be nonsense, but it’s a revealing kind of nonsense, because it reflects the inchoate anger of a disaffected GOP electorate.
That electorate has lately lurched far to the right, and it is dragging the party’s elite reluctantly along. But it’s still not clear that any candidate with a real chance at unseating Obama can afford to meet all the Tea Party’s demands. A late-August AP poll showed that only 28 percent of the country views the Tea Party favorably, and a CNN poll from mid-September found that only half of Republicans support it. In March, the New York Times’s Nate Silver mused that “if the Tea Party ain’t over yet, the point in time at which it was an electoral asset for Republicans soon may be.”
That moment can’t come soon enough for Romney, who has emerged from this lunacy as the most sympathetic candidate. It’s fascinating to hear the former Massachusetts governor defend his record of trying to provide health insurance to his state’s citizens. He suddenly sounds like what he essentially is: a consultant. He describes a problem, outlines his solution, and then congratulates himself for constructing an effective response.
Here we may have a kernel of an explanation for the candidates’ various apostasies from movement conservatism. Both Romney and Perry come from executive backgrounds. That means they both sat in positions of ultimate responsibility—making it much harder to shirk tough decisions or to pander solely to their base. Both have operated in a world of limited power and countervailing forces. For Romney, that means that even if he had wanted to, he could not have effectively governed Massachusetts as a Tea Partier. The Bay State would never have stood for it. Similarly, Rick Perry’s moderate position on immigration is explained by Texas’s massive Hispanic constituency. The power of that constituency prevents any governor from pursuing the immigration agenda of Michele Bachmann, who represents the flip side of this rule. For all her notoriety, Bachmann has no legacy to speak of in the House of Representatives.
That might not be enough to save Bachmann’s collapsing candidacy, but it remains an enviable asset. Romney and Perry are paying a price for their deviations—which were more or less inevitable, since the base’s demands can be met only when ideology is unchecked by accountability. The frightening implications of these demands were on display in the September 12 debate, when Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul what should happen if a young, healthy, well-off person who decides to forego health insurance suffers an unexpected accident and falls into a coma. Paul objected to Blitzer’s premise. “Well, in a society [where] you accept welfare-ism and socialism,” Paul blustered, “he expects the government to take care of him. But what he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself.” Paul went on to say that in the good old days before the government got involved, local churches would help the sick. That answer was a cop-out. Our society treats the sick as a matter of basic humanity, whether a church can help or not. The question remains: Who pays? Politicians have to address this practical problem. The 2010 health-care-reform law tries to solve the problem by mandating the purchase of insurance. A candidate might object to that solution, but to refuse to engage on the question, as Paul did—to pretend the answer is simply to repeat the mantra of personal responsibility—is to reject real politics in favor of ideology. Paul’s answer might have satisfied a few hard-line libertarians, but it is a meager offering to the majority of voters who look to politicians for solutions.
But so far, at least, the Republican candidates seem unconcerned about the majority of voters. During the debates, the candidates have either basked in the Tea Party’s approval or desperately sought it. The former are already unelectable, and the latter evidently aspire to be. (This seems to be dawning on elements of the Republican elite, a few of whom are reportedly beginning to worry.) It now falls to an unapologetic right-winger to lose next November, or to a former moderate to move rightward and win over a skeptical base, then keep its support while moving back to the center. John McCain failed at this maneuver in 2008, and it has only become more difficult since then. The candidates can either make concessions to their base or concessions to common sense, but this year’s GOP primary voters won’t let them do both.