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Why Republicans can't find a decent presidential candidate
The party's ideology is out of whack and nobody wants to lose to Barack Obama. Meanwhile, time is running out
 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum

Shortly after Donald Trump, the political apprentice in the 2012 lineup, was fired as his poll numbers receded faster than his real hairline, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels became the latest candidate to flee the contest. Unlike the Donald, Daniels was coveted by the GOP establishment. But he would rather be Hamlet than president.

Mike Huckabee would rather be rich and on television, ensconced in his Florida mansion instead of reaching for the Executive Mansion. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour would rather be his good ole boy self. And the third Bush (Jeb), along with South Dakota Sen. John Thune, would rather be president in 2016 than a losing nominee in 2012. So would Chris Christie, the neophyte New Jersey governor, who’s presently pear-shaped in his home state polls and probably couldn't carry it against Barack Obama.

Distressed Republicans, dissatisfied with the runners who are at or approaching the starting line, are publicly pining for another choice.

By post time, the GOP may have a decalogue's worth of dropouts who have no wish to replicate Abraham Lincoln’s description of the man who was asked how it felt to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. "If it weren’t for the honor of the thing," Lincoln quoted him as saying, "I’d rather have walked."

Distressed Republicans, dissatisfied with the runners who are at or approaching the starting line, are publicly pining for another choice. Fox News's Roger Ailes, the GOP's strategic guru from Richard Nixon to the first Bush (George H.W.), has been actively if unsuccessfully recruiting. The neocon editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, reacted to Daniels's decision with the establishment's standard lament: "[T]he current field…doesn't exactly represent an overflowing of political talent."

There must be someone else. But there's the rub. As the old political saw has it, who the hell else they got – that is, who's willing to be gotten?

None of the renunciators will reconsider. Bet on that – unless the economy craters or Obama nosedives. Even then, no late entry in modern times has prevailed in either party. There's too much money needed; there's too much Iowa to organize, too much New Hampshire to stroke; and there are too many careful calculations of long-term self-interest. In any event, party rules make it impossible to barge into the primary process halfway through.

So who's left to jump into this shallow tank by midsummer, or at the outer edge of practicality by mid-September?

Her sell-by date may be passing, but the once and obvious entrant could be Sarah Palin. That cure would be worse than the illness. Ailes apparently, and rightly, has come to the conclusion that she's "stupid." She also seems to have her own case of Huckabee-ism. She quit the governorship of Alaska to cash in on John McCain's disastrous Hail Mary pass in picking her. It looks like she'd rather be raking in the dollar bills than appointing the secretary of the Treasury who signs them. But she's nothing if not quirky; inspired by the twilight of the midnight sun, she might suddenly tweet her way in. She's just not the savior the party's desperate are yearning for; instead she'd be a doomsday machine for the GOP.

Palin's delay, and if it holds her final forbearance, supposedly leaves room for Michele Bachmann, Minnesota congresswoman, Tea Party firebrand, and patriotic Mrs. Malaprop, who recently relocated the start of the American Revolution to Lexington and Concord, New Hampshire. She clones the Palin of Ailes's assessment; the more they encounter Bachmann, the more the vast majority of voters rate her as equally unqualified. Few other than the most fervent think her nomination would result in anything other than a rout.

Then there's Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and one of Kristol's prime hopes, whose stunning proposal to dismantle Medicare has already put the House Republican majority in jeopardy; absent a redistricting process dominated by GOP governors and state legislatures, a Republican strategist says privately the House would already be gone. Ryan insists he won't run; Democrats wish he would. As the 2012 standard bearer, he could finish the job of defenestrating congressional Republicans, resolutely moving down the road to defeat under an anti-Medicare banner that Newt Gingrich accurately denounced as "radical."

In the seek-and-hide game presently underway in the GOP, the crisis speaks beyond the perceived quality of the field to the rigid character of the party itself.

Without a doubt, the dissatisfaction represents a verdict on the inauthentic Mitt Romney, the inconceivable Newt Gingrich, and the implausible Tim Pawlenty, who just announced to the national sound of one hand clapping.

Gingrich, of course, is authentic — an altogether unique combination of goofiness, meanness, and menace. Republican leaders generally quake at the notion of his nomination. This, in addition to his tempestuous, often contemptuous treatment of his party colleagues when he was speaker of the House, explains why GOP sources happily fed the backlash as Gingrich frantically tried to back off his gaffe – that is, his truth telling – about the Ryan plan.

Out of all the politicians on the planet, who would have expected Newt to sound more reasonable, briefly, than the party he aspires lately, too late in his career, to lead?

The episode is a stark revelation of the Republican reality: You can only run the gantlet of their primaries if you run on two right legs. Thus Romney, once pro-choice, pro-stem-cell research, and pro-health reform, has decided to repudiate his past. Some convictions he's simply thrown overboard. On the issue of individual mandates to buy health insurance, he has contrived a distinction without a convincing difference by trotting out the hobby horse of states' rights. Romney, as Sen. Edward Kennedy once said, isn't "pro-choice, but multiple choice." Meanwhile, Pawlenty grovels on stage at the first candidates’ debate as he cravenly crawls away from his record on climate change and cap and trade.

Jon Huntsman, who in a sensible party would be taken seriously as potentially the strongest challenger to the president who appointed him ambassador to China, has already taken a similar road, but negotiated it with a certain degree of cleverness and credibility. He hasn't abjured cap and trade in principle, but said it doesn't make sense given the current state of the economy. Yes, he was for the stimulus – but actually a stimulus that focused on tax cuts, not spending. What will he say now about his past support – as governor of Utah, no less – for civil unions?

Can the GOP abide a conservative with a tinge of moderation and a patina of bipartisanship? Huntsman, who would like to run as the McCain of 2000 — and back then, that didn't work in the primaries, but would have prevailed in November — may feel compelled to become the contorted McCain of 2008. Maybe Huntsman won't bend that far; maybe he just plans a different way of prepping for 2016 – not by waiting, but by introducing himself to voters now and positioning himself in a party that, once thoroughly beaten in 2012, could reclaim its senses and look slightly toward the mainstream the next time around.

And thoroughly beaten they will be if Republicans entirely lose their heads and settle on Rick Santorum, a defeated and far right senator from Pennsylvania — or Herman Cain, the one time CEO of Godfather's Pizza, who now peddles hate speech instead of pepperoni: Planned Parenthood, he charges, is "planned genocide…to kill black babies before they come into the world."

Plainly, this is a weak and hobbled field. But its GOP critics are asking for the unattainable — a winner in the fall who passes all the exceedingly fine litmus tests of winter and spring. The party is demanding or remaking candidates in the likeness of T.S. Eliot's "hollow men…Headpiece filled with straw." Indeed from Jeb Bush to Mitch Daniels, the response tells us more than the call for new aspirants: They don't want to do this. There's not only the distemper and, for some, the dishonor of the process. They also anticipate that in the end, at high noon on Jan. 20, 2013, Barack Obama will raise his right arm and take the oath of office from a chief justice who will get the words right the second time around – and who will know that this re-elected president will now be able to correct the reactionary bias of the Supreme Court.

For the GOP, 2011 will be the year of non-announcements and ideological makeovers. That leaves the party to pursue psychic satisfaction rather than the presidency.

 

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