Opinion

Republicans have a serious electability problem — and Marco Rubio is not the answer

Is any 2016 GOP candidate both electable and palatable to the base?

Do Republicans want to win the presidential election next fall? Of course they do — but it's curious that they've spent so little time debating not just which of their candidates is the most pure of heart and firm of spine, but which might actually have the best chance of winning the general election.

Contrast that with the Democratic race in 2004 or the Republican race in 2012. In both cases there was a long and detailed debate about electability, and voters ultimately coalesced around the candidate who seemed the best bet for the general election. After being pummeled as unpatriotic and terrorist-loving for years, Democrats in 2004 told themselves that a couple of draft-dodgers like Bush and Cheney could never pull that crap on a war hero like John Kerry, and that would neutralize their most glaring vulnerability. (It turned out they were wrong about that; in addition to the fraud of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a particular highlight was when delegates to the GOP convention showed up with Band-aids with purple hearts drawn on them on their faces, mocking the three Purple Hearts Kerry had been awarded in Vietnam).

Likewise, in 2012, Republicans debated intensely among themselves (see here or here) about whether Mitt Romney really was the only candidate who could win support from the middle, or whether they'd be better off going with a true believer like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

There were always dissenters, of course, and they felt vindicated by the final outcome, even if there's no way to know whether a different candidate would have done better. But everyone makes the electability argument that serves their pre-existing beliefs. So conservatives now tell themselves a story in which Republicans lost in 2008 and 2012 because they failed to nominate a "true" conservative, and once they do so, millions of heretofore unseen voters will emerge bleary-eyed from their doomsday bunkers and home-schooling sessions to cast their ballots for the GOP. This is what Ted Cruz will tell you — and it's notable that he may talk more about electability than anyone else, despite the fact that if he were the nominee, the party would probably suffer a defeat to rival Barry Goldwater's.

Cruz has a passionate if finite following, but the candidates leading the Republican field — Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who between them are winning about half the Republican electorate — represent a kind of cri de coeur, an expression of disgust with everything the GOP has failed to do for its constituents during the Obama years. That either one would almost certainly lose, and badly, doesn't seem to matter much to their supporters.

The Republican establishment, on the other hand — that loose collection of funders, strategists, apparatchiks, and officials — thinks long and hard about electability. At first they seemed to settle on Jeb Bush, who seemed like the kind of low-risk grownup who could plod his way to victory. Sure, the name could be a problem, but Bush was the right sort of fellow, a known quantity who could be relied on. And so they helped him raise a quick $100 million, in a fundraising blitzkrieg that was suppose to "shock and awe" other candidates right out of the race.

Yet somehow it didn't work out, partly because he turned out to be a mediocre candidate, and partly because although the Republican base wants many things, Jeb does not appear to be among them. Depending on which poll average you like, he's in either fourth of fifth place, sliding slowly down. His campaign just announced it'll be cutting back on its spending to save money, which is never a good sign (the last candidate we heard was doing that was Rick Perry; a couple of weeks later he was out of the race).

So now, after saying to the base, "Jeb's a guy who can get elected, what do you think?" and getting a resounding "No thanks" in reply, the establishment has turned its benevolent gaze on Marco Rubio. The billionaires love him, the strategists are talking him up, the press is on board, he's young and fresh and new and Hispanic — what's not to like? But so far, the voters aren't quite convinced. Though Rubio has always scored highly in approval from Republicans, he seems like everyone's second choice, and he hasn't yet broken out of single digits. Most Democrats will tell you that though he has some liabilities, Rubio is the one they really fear, but that hasn't earned him too much support (at least not yet) among Republican voters.

Perhaps the reason is that at the end of eight years suffering under a president from the other party, emotions are too raw and resentments too deep for that kind of pragmatic thinking. In that way, Republicans in 2016 are in a position similar to that of Democrats in 2008 at the end of George W. Bush's two terms. I'm sure more than a few Republicans would like to find the candidate who can make them feel the way Barack Obama made Democrats feel then: inspired, energized, and full of hope that a new era was really dawning, one in which all their miseries would be washed away and they could show the world how great things could be if they were in charge.

That Obama was not just a vessel for their feelings but also a shrewd politician capable of running a brilliant general election campaign was a stroke of luck. So far, Republicans haven't found someone who can be both.

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