The GOP’s Search for Perfection
How does the 2012 primary field stack up against other years?
Forty percent of Republican voters say they are dissatisfied with the GOP presidential field. Perhaps the reason for this, as Ross Douthat observed in a recent piece, is that it’s difficult to imagine any of the current crop of candidates as the Republican nominee—perhaps aside from Mitt Romney. And yet many conservatives have concerns about Romney, who can’t seem to break 25 percent in the polls. Thus, a carousel of candidates has taken turns matching Romney’s poll numbers, each keeping pace with the former Massachusetts governor for a couple weeks before falling back in the pack. In Douthat’s estimation, the problem is that many of the contestants don’t come across as particularly presidential. Some lack eloquence. Others lack experience. Still others are so one-dimensional or issue-specific that the prospect that they could win the nomination and challenge Obama for the presidency is beyond remote. Douthat may be onto something.
Just compare the current GOP field—and their resumes—to that of past contested primaries.
The leading names in today’s field include Romney, whose resume is certainly of presidential caliber but whose record of “evolving” on key issues—health care and abortion top the list—is unsettling to GOP conservatives. There’s former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, whose big ideas triggered a political revolution in 1994 but whose personal baggage is unsettling to GOP evangelicals. There’s Herman Cain, a restaurant CEO with perhaps more personal baggage than Gingrich and far less political experience than any other candidate; in fact, Cain has never been elected to office, which is unsettling to GOP establishment types. At the other end of the spectrum is Jon Huntsman, who knows all about the world, has a weighty political resume, lacks any personal baggage but served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, which is beyond unsettling to the GOP’s base. There’s Rick Perry, a popular governor with lots of question marks about his discipline, capacity to wage and win a national campaign and ability to attract independents next fall, all of which is unsettling to the GOP’s anybody-but-Obama caucus. And then there’s Ron Paul, a maverick congressman who seems more eager to criticize his party than carry its standard in a general election, and Michele Bachmann, a three-term congresswoman.
Some of those resumes are as thin as, well, the 2008 Democratic nominee’s resume—and some of those candidates are carrying enough baggage to sink any head-to-head matchup with the current president.
Now, consider the resumes of the main Republican candidates from previous years.
In 1980, the GOP field included Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California who had previously challenged a sitting president from his own party, earned the grudging respect of party faithful and finally convinced his party to change direction after almost a decade of spadework; George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, ambassador to the UN, envoy to China, congressman and decorated war hero; Howard Baker, the Senate Minority Leader; Bob Dole, another longtime senator and decorated hero of World War II; and John Connally, the former Democratic governor of Texas who had served as Secretary of the Navy under Kennedy and Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon.
The 1988 field included Bush, who, by that time, had added vice president to his gaudy resume; Dole; Al Haig, whose tours in government included Secretary of State and White House chief of staff, and whose military biography included Supreme Commander of NATO and veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars; Jack Kemp, the well-known congressman who was arguably the most articulate and ardent exponent of supply-side economics and free markets in Congress; and Pete DuPont, a former congressman and governor.
In 1996, the GOP field featured Dole; Lamar Alexander, popular governor of Tennessee and chair of the National Governors Association; Richard Lugar, longtime senator and seasoned foreign policy sage; Phil Gramm, long-serving congressman and senator; Steve Forbes, the flat-tax advocate and presidentially-appointed chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting; Pat Buchanan, advisor to three presidents; and Alan Keyes, a longtime foreign service officer and ambassador.
Along with Keyes and Forbes, the 2000 field featured George W. Bush, the popular Texas governor; John McCain, longtime senator and Vietnam War hero; and Orrin Hatch, longtime senator and nationally recognized expert on the federal judiciary.
The 2008 field included McCain; Romney; Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor and the most recognizable mayor in American history; Fred Thompson, former senator, special counsel to numerous congressional committees dating back to Watergate and a well-known actor; and Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas.
In a word, it just doesn’t seem the 2012 field in its totality stacks up, which helps explain some of the dissatisfaction among GOP voters on the eve of the primaries.
However, every candidate has flaws, and most have personal or political baggage: the younger Bush had a checkered past and a thin record as governor; the elder Bush was a Beltway insider, a consummate establishment Republican who had “evolved” into conservative principles; even the sainted Reagan raised taxes in California and increased spending in the state by 177 percent.
Yet each of those men won the presidency. In other words, a strong, winning candidate can emerge from this field, but only if GOPers keep in mind that there’s no such thing as the perfect candidate—and never has been.
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