Attention, Chris Christie fans. If you are looking for a Republican nominee who could actually do the job of president, who does not repel independent voters, who can survive a 90-minute debate without saying anything foolish, why the hell not Mitt Romney?
For three years, Republican activists, strategists, and donors have tried to find a plausible alternative to Romney, and again and again they have failed. For about 15 minutes, that alternative seemed at last to have materialized in the form of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry still leads the national polls and is still raising money. Yet it's hard to miss the loud hiss of air escaping this particular balloon.
So maybe it's time to reconsider the long-standing frontrunner — the candidate who was more than conservative enough for party conservatives back in 2008 — and to rediscover his good points.
1) Given the dreadful economic conditions, the Democrats will have no choice in 2012 but to run a negative campaign against the Republican alternative. Message: "We may have disappointed you on jobs, but they will take away your Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment insurance."
The best choice for Republicans and the country is the one that has been waiting there all along.
Of all the Republicans in the field, Romney is least vulnerable to this line of attack. He did not associate himself with the Ryan plan to withdraw the Medicare guarantee from people under age 55. He did not denounce Social Security as a "monstrous lie." He has not condemned the unemployed as layabouts.
Yes, Romney has vulnerabilities of his own in a general election, plenty of them. But at least he is not adding more. Perry, on the other hand, generates new raw material for Democratic attack ads almost every time he opens his mouth.
2) After the campaign comes the presidency. Who can believe that Rick Perry has the wherewithal to do that job? The global financial crisis still rages about us. Just ahead: Debt defaults in Europe. After that? Perhaps the popping of China's real-estate bubble. What else? Who knows?
The person you want in that job in such a time is someone with a deep understanding of finance and economics. The U.S. is paying dearly now for electing in 2008 a president who lacked such understanding, despite many other fine qualities. As a result (as Ron Suskind now reports), economic decision-making in the Obama White House degenerated into a struggle between advisers to sway a more or less passive president.
Romney spent much of his career in financial markets. One benefit of that experience: He is less likely to be overawed by possibly self-interested actors than a less familiar president. The U.S. has had quite enough of that.
3) Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate best positioned to respond effectively to the challenge bequeathed by Barack Obama's health-care reform.
Tea Party Republicans talk loosely of repealing the Affordable Care Act. That's not so easy for three reasons:
i) It will take 60 votes in the Senate to repeal, and Republicans are unlikely to have them;
ii) Important parts of the Affordable Care Act are very popular, and repealing them will trigger intense opposition;
iii) Private health insurance costs are exploding again, and plain repeal of ACA will expose more Americans to the full impact of those costs — which they won't like.
Republicans need a realistic approach to what is feasible in the reform of ACA.
There are deals to be done to fix its worst problems (the financing mechanism, the additional Medicaid burdens on states, the lack of cost control) — but outright repeal will convulse the American political system for years and very likely end in failure.
The candidate who can make the necessary deals is the one who understands the health system best — and also the one candidate who cannot be accused of secretly wishing to destroy the principle of universal coverage. Mitt Romney delivered universal coverage before universal coverage was cool. That's an achievement to be boasted of, not an embarrassment to be apologized for.
There's no such thing as a perfect candidate. It's hard to predict who will and won't make an effective president. It's natural to repine over the candidates who actually exist and yearn for the candidate who is only imagined. Yet in this cycle, it may be the case that the best choice for Republicans and the country is the one that has been waiting there all along.