The Republican Dilemma

In the past few weeks, the Republican presidential primary contest has become more confusing and, for some in the GOP, disheartening. For months now, the rather lackluster field of ten or so announced Republican candidates has been raising money, hiring staff, and campaigning vigorously in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina–”sites of some of the earliest contests in the 2012 presidential nominating contest.

I say lackluster, advisedly, since polls are showing that less than one-quarter of Republicans are actually satisfied with this collection of candidates. As a result, not a week goes by without some other name being floated as a potential "savior" who it is hoped will rescue the party, leading it to victory.

Almost since the race began, the frontrunner has been former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney. But in all this time he never garnered the support of more than 25% of Republican voters. Romney has support, but not passionate support, since the main argument in his favor was that he appeared to be more electable than his opponents. Many Republicans, however, remain uncomfortable with his candidacy since he was, after all, a fairly moderate Governor who pursued, by today’s Republican standards, a liberal economic and social agenda. Romney’s conversion to conservatism was late, during the 2008 presidential contest when he began the process of rejecting many of the programs and policies he had embraced as Governor. Back in 2008, I never knew what was more unbelievable–”that Mitt Romney was really a conservative, or that Conservatives actually believed that Mitt Romney was really a conservative.

In any case, so slim was his lead and so thin his support that within recent weeks he has come to lose that lead or share it with others in the race. The first to challenge Romney’s first place status was Michele Bachmann, a three term Congresswoman from Minnesota. Bachmann, a self-anointed leader of the Tea Party, has distinguished herself as a bit of a rabble rouser. Her rather dogmatic religious fundamentalism and her penchant for exaggeration and harsh rhetoric have won her support among the base of Republican voters, while, at the same time, causing concern among the GOP’s establishment.

At this point, the only other candidates worth mentioning are Congressman Ron Paul, a Libertarian, whose esoteric economics and rigid isolationism have won him a devoted following, and successful African American businessman, Herman Cain, whose humor and hard-nosed attacks on President Obama, have livened up the GOP debates. As entertaining as they both have been, however, both will play nothing more than supporting roles in this year’s contest. The rest of the field, though impressive and credentialed (including three former Governors, the former Speaker of the House and a former Senator), have failed, thus far, to catch on.

Two weeks back, Iowa held its first televised debate and its traditional "straw poll". While this "straw poll" is understood to be an unscientific measure, it nevertheless is viewed by the press and public as a show of strength and the first test of the candidates’ ability to organize supporters.

The outcome of this year’s contest, revealed how far to the extreme right Republican voters had drifted, with Bachmann narrowly defeating Paul–”and the two of them combined collecting well over one-half of the nearly 17,000 votes cast. Not a good day for the GOP establishment!

Bachmann sought to capitalize on her victory with a round of national television appearances (Paul, on the other hand, was virtually ignored by the mainstream media). Her efforts, however, were overshadowed by Texas Governor Rick Perry’s entry into the race. Demonstrating how volatile this contest is and how thin was the support for the frontrunners, within one day Perry had rocketed to first place in the polls ahead of Romney and eclipsing Bachmann.

Perry, known as a brash and out-spoken candidate whose style is reminiscent of George W. Bush (though more authentically Texan) quickly endeared himself with the far right while causing new headaches for the Republican establishment. On his second day in the race he termed the head of the Federal Reserve (a George W. Bush appointee) as treasonous and questioned whether President Obama had the respect of the US military. With each passing day Perry, true to form, has continued to cause outrage–”all of this leaving many Republicans still hoping that someone new will enter the 2012 contest.

Most of the major more mainstream GOP figures have announced that they will not run (Governors and former Governors like: Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Florida’s Jeb Bush). To date, the only characters still flirting with entering the race (Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani and former New York Governor George Pataki) appear to have little more to offer than an ego waiting to be fed.

An indication of how difficult this situation has become for the GOP was the subject of some sharp comments this week by former Governor John Huntsman, one of the more moderate candidates in the race, who has been languishing near the bottom of the pack. Huntsman, in an effort to boost his candidacy and distinguish himself from the rest of the field, decried the extremism of his opponents, as well as their lack of realism and their anti-science views. In response, one Republican pollster noted that while what Huntsman said "was mainstream America", it was "not mainstream Republican. And this, after all, is a Republican primary". This highlights, more than anything, the GOP’s dilemma: in a year they desperately want to win and feel they can win, their base has moved so far to the right, that they may end up choosing a candidate whose views do not reflect America’s mainstream, and who is, therefore, unelectable.