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The Best Candidate in a Losing Effort

Last October in The Transom, I wrote a short observation on why I thought President Obama would be reelected. My essential thesis was that none of the candidates were strong enough (at the time, the national polls had Romney/Cain/Perry in the lead); that Obama’s standing in swing states was strengthening; that the economy, while not mounting a huge comeback, would avoid another major downturn despite Europe’s travails; and that Independents who had soured on Obama would slowly come back to the fold. I later added one more point: that a rebuke within the Supreme Court decision this Spring against the individual mandate would actually help Obama in November by deflating some of the opposition to one of the worst aspects of his signature domestic policy. I gave him 60-40 odds of victory.

At the time, this was a more pessimistic view to take – I had many subscribers write me in disagreement, and several other responses online for why I was wrong. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this is a possible, even likely, result in November. It raises a question, which I’d ask you all to consider today: if Republicans are going to mount a losing effort for the presidency in 2012, who would be the best person to do it with?

How you answer may depend a lot on what you want the party to look like after November. Will it be one that is more conservative? More pragmatic? What lessons do you want it to take from this experience? But the more prominent one in my mind is: who, in a losing effort, would do the most to ensure the advance of the election of those who favor fiscal sanity and human liberty in the Senate and the House?

This is hard question to answer. On the one hand, I’m mindful of what David Frum outlined around the same time – his four scenarios for the election’s outcome were, in order of his preference:

  1. Mitt Romney is nominated, Romney is elected (his favored outcome)

  2. A tea party Republican is nominated and loses (a “tragic waste”)
  3. A tea party Republican is nominated and wins (a “formula for crisis”)
  4. Romney is nominated, Romney loses (“ugly, ominous possibilities”)

I rarely agree with David Frum, but his analysis here strikes me as correct – though I would use conservative, rather than tea party, to describe the backing for the alternative not Romney candidate (tea party support is a smaller group with a loud voice). The most likely outcome of the primary now appears to be a mortally wounded Romney stumbling into the jaws of the Obama machine having been rendered, by his own hand for the most part, an unacceptable candidate to many Independents and with sinking support in key states. A rebound is not impossible but seems unlikely.

Yet that’s not the only option for Republicans. They could also choose to nominate Rick Santorum – who certainly is surprising me for his ability to catch hold in the Midwest in particular with an organization made up of duct tape and bits of twine; or, less likely, Newt Gingrich; or even less likely, a brokered convention candidate (which is still more likely than the winless Ron Paul).

10470237-large.jpgThe argument for losing with Romney is a simple one: he’ll spend his own money more than any other candidate, letting donor support migrate down to the states (which it may be doing already), and he’ll build an organization on a national scale and compete everywhere. For Santorum, the argument is less strong – it probably comes down to the idea that he’d perform the best in Midwestern states, which include key Senate elections in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Michigan. Throughout his career and even during this race, Gingrich has stressed the importance of team-building and getting the right Senators elected – the argument for him would be that even with a divisive individual at the top of the ticket, this emphasis on presenting a team to the people united around a few popular ideas would benefit legislative elections as it did with the Contract with America.

120118_POL_gingrichSC.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large.jpgI’m honestly not sure who would be better to lose with when it comes to the Senate. But I do have a stronger opinion about what would happen in the intra-Republican blame game after a loss. A loss by Gingrich would be blamed on foolish tea partiers and conservatives who fell in love with the idea of him bringing the oratorical sledgehammer down on Barack Obama during a debate. A loss by Santorum would be blamed on crazed bans of puritanical Bible-thumpers, evangelicals and Catholics who still run things on the right from the left’s perspective. And a loss by Romney – following as it does a loss by the last “electable” candidate, John McCain – would be blamed on the Republican establishment and moderates in the party, resulting in a backlash against the leadership hierarchy to a degree unfamiliar to the modern era of politics.

This begs another question: if conservatives would be blamed for losing with Gingrich, social conservatives particularly for losing with Santorum, and moderates for losing with Romney… which would be best for the conservative movement? Is it better to go into 2012 with a flawed candidate who nonetheless argues for conservative ideology? Or is it better to put forward someone whose loss will not be seen as a repudiation of conservatism?

One last point: Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard and a few others have argued that if Romney again loses the nomination battle this year, he will return in 2016 to run again. I can’t see that happening, but if it was a likely outcome, maybe this is the real question conservatives need to answer: would it be better to get this Mitt Romney problem out of our system once and for all?

  1. Franco

    The last question is the easiest to answer. It’s not gonna happen, period. We are all already sick of Romney and if he loses that many times it gets ridiculous.

    Lots of interesting scenarios though and I pretty much agree on outcomes you  predict, however I’m not sure whether blame -that is who blames who will be relevant. Personally I am already ignoring these who blame the tea party for failure to win the Senate. Their arguments cheery-pick two races that are clearly the cost of the enthusiasm of the tea party, without which there would have been other losses, as well the Senate would be populated with more Republicans such as Charlie Crist and Mike Castle for decades to come.

    I happen to believe we have to have the argument out in the open and the only candidate who does that is Gingrich. The American people need to learn the differences and real distinctions between liberty and free markets and government central planning.

    The only way the American people will ever have an opportunity to learn these thing is through an eloquent Republican candidate who understands what he is up against.

  2. jhimmi

    No matter what happens from this point forward, if Obama is re-elected, the narrative will be that conservatives are to blame – either for not nominating Romney, or for crippling him so badly during the primaries.

    Conservatives will blame the establishment for trying to ram Romney down their throats. They will insist a more articulate defender of conservatism  would have simultaneously rallied the base and won the trust of independents.

    Now that Obama has his OWS defense in place for Romney, and his anti-theocracy defense in place for Santorum, he’s good to go.

  3. Franco

    The American people are not going to learn these things, or understand the basic abstractions, by Fox News, reading National Review or the Weekly Standard. The American people get their news and their cues from the  Broadcast Networks  and pop stars, Oprah, Ellen , the View, Matt Damon ad infinitum. Until we have someone who will go toe-to-toe with them and debunk their arguments or at least offer a credible comprehensive alternative, the GOP will fail, and the blame will be completely misplaced. The GOP is sending out candidates who are armed with rifles when the other side has machine guns and land mines.  Retreat is actually the only reasonable tactic for our candidates. 

    Gingrich as a loser per your hypothetical, could at least set the table and plant the seeds, and then Obamas second term will reveal to many more Americans what the true nature of the Democrat Party has become and why it is precisely the wrong direction. 

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Ben, I think that you underestimate the strength of our side. Keep in mind the fact that the most conservative nominee ever put forward by the Republican Party for the Presidency won in 1980 by a landslide. He was not even ahead in the polls, however, until the last minute. As I suggest in the post just below yours, Barack Obama is going for broke — and not just with the assault on conscience and the rejection of the Keystone pipeline. He is also dismantling our national defenses. The polls will go every which way between now and November, but I predict that we will win and win big.

    There are only three things that might throw us off track. The nomination of a candidate who thinks that good government is merely a matter of good management; a decision by the Supreme Court to declare Obamacare unconstitutional; and a war in the summer with Iran.

    The last of these — an October surprise in June, July, or August — worries me the most. Obama is nothing if not ruthless.

  5. Leigh
    And a loss by Romney – following as it does a loss by the last “electable” candidate, John McCain – would be blamed on the Republican establishment and moderates in the party, resulting in a backlash against the leadership hierarchy to a degree unfamiliar to the modern era of politics.

    There are plenty of people who will argue that even a Romney loss would be the consequence of his having tied himself too closely to the Tea Party — that would be the mainstream media argument, and many would believe it.  It would be a vicious round of finger-pointing, whoever was to lose.

  6. K T Cat

    If we’re going to lose, let’s lose with Romney and finish off that guy’s political career once and for all. As an added bonus, we could watch the careers of all of his lickspittles circle the drain, too. Dittos for the self-important party elites who do the Georgetown-Manhattan cocktail circuit posing as Republicans.

    I don’t think we’re going to lose.

  7. K T Cat
    Paul A. Rahe: There are only three things that might throw us off track. The nomination of a candidate who thinks that good government is merely a matter of good management; a decision by the Supreme Court to declare Obamacare unconstitutional; and a war in the summer with Iran.

    The last of these — an October surprise in June, July, or August — worries me the most. Obama is nothing if not ruthless. · 15 minutes ago

    Paul, I would argue that the odds favor an anti-Obama October Surprise.  (Or June Surprise.) Italy has to refinance a staggering sum of bonds this year.  I’m betting that Greece was the appetizer and our main course includes some Portugese seafood on top of Italian pasta washed down with some delicious Spanish wines. In each case, the culprit is debt.

    Watching Lisbon, Madrid and Rome burn on the TV might be a bit of a wake up call.

  8. Franco
    Paul A. Rahe: There are only three things that might throw us off track. The nomination of a candidate who thinks that good government is merely a matter of good management; a decision by the Supreme Court to declare Obamacare unconstitutional; and a war in the summer with Iran.

    The last of these — an October surprise in June, July, or August — worries me the most. Obama is nothing if not ruthless. · 4 minutes ago

    I agree with everything except your last scenario, that a war with Iran would help Obama (if I am correct). I believe any war prosecuted by this administration would be at best a wash, but would more likely help any  Republican candidate. Everyone knows Obama has been anti-military and has already weakened us diplomatically and militarily. Not only has his domestic policies been horrendous, this would highlight  all of the administrations diplomatic blunders and failures.

    Conventional wisdom says the electorate wouldn’t abandon a sitting President during wartime, but I think this time it would be different. Wouldn’t  the peacenik segment of Obamas base tend to stay home as well?

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Romney’s political career will also be over if he loses the Republican nomination. The only candidate still in the race who might be back in 2016 is Rick Santorum. For the others, it is the last hurrah.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    K T Cat

    Paul A. Rahe: There are only three things that might throw us off track. The nomination of a candidate who thinks that good government is merely a matter of good management; a decision by the Supreme Court to declare Obamacare unconstitutional; and a war in the summer with Iran.

    The last of these — an October surprise in June, July, or August — worries me the most. Obama is nothing if not ruthless. · 15 minutes ago

    Paul, I would argue that the odds favor an anti-Obama October Surprise.  (Or June Surprise.) Italy has to refinance a staggering sum of bonds this year.  I’m betting that Greece was the appetizer and our main course includes some Portugese seafood on top of Italian pasta washed down with some delicious Spanish wines. In each case, the culprit is debt.

    Watching Lisbon, Madrid and Rome burn on the TV might be a bit of a wake up call. · 1 minute ago

    You are, of course, right. There is another highly plausible scenario. This will be an interesting year.

  11. Ben Domenech
    C

    One “October surprise” that I would suggest as an alternate scenario, Paul and K T, is another round of anarchist/leftist protests from the Occupy Wall Street folks, which Obama and his big city mayor allies would then have to put down. This could play to his benefit in the suburbs, or backfire if Democrats mishandled it. Just a thought.

    Paul, you are more optimistic than I am, both about the mindset of the American people and the prospects for the conservative movement. I would ask this one question about your last point: do you believe it’s possible or even likely that foreign policy will matter more than we expect in the fall? And if so, how should that factor into how we select a nominee?

  12. Pseudodionysius

    We have one rather strange ally this summer/fall: the new Batman movie opens with Bane using Occupy tactics to take out Gotham city. Batman has always been a clandestinely conservative movie series and the mythos may break to our advantage.

  13. Hang On

    A war with Iran would have what effect on gasoline prices and would have what effect on Obama’s re-election chances?  That would be even more true if Obama were seen as an aggressor.   And do you think this would be over before the election?  Seems highly unlikely to me.  Iran would not be quick and easy, but long and very messy just as Iraq was and Iran actually does have a terrorist network around the world to work with unlike Iraq.  I think those chances for Obama would be considerably less no matter who the Republicans picked and would be a real sign of how incompetent Obama is.  And the Keystone Project cancellation would feed into an even lower assessment of Obama administration competence if the GOP had the good sense to capitalize on this in that context.  Any rally round the flag effect would be over in nanoseconds as reality sank in.

    I agree with Prof. Rahe, Republicans are unlikely to lose this one. Rather than thinking who to lose with, better to think who to win with.

  14. Alvin Mullins
    I agree with everything except your last scenario, that a war with Iran would help Obama (if I am correct). I believe any war prosecuted by this administration would be at best a wash, but would more likely help any  Republican candidate. Everyone knows Obama has been anti-military and has already weakened us diplomatically and militarily. Not only has his domestic policies been horrendous, this would highlight  all of the administrations diplomatic blunders and failures.

    Obama get’s his best grades in most polls on foreign policy. I think a war with Iran given his propaganda machine will score well for him. 

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/150650/obama-improves-foreign-affairs-struggles-fiscal-matters.aspx

  15. K T Cat
    Ben Domenech: One “October surprise” that I would suggest as an alternate scenario, Paul and K T, is another round of anarchist/leftist protests from the Occupy Wall Street folks, which Obama and his big city mayor allies would then have to put down. This could play to his benefit in the suburbs, or backfire if Democrats mishandled it. Just a thought.

    Paul, you are more optimistic than I am, both about the mindset of the American people and the prospects for the conservative movement. I would ask this one question about your last point: do you believe it’s possible or even likely that foreign policy will matter more than we expect in the fall? And if so, how should that factor into how we select a nominee? · 11 minutes ago

    Ben, there is ample evidence to support your prediction.  It appears as if Obama and his allies are so insulated that they think OWS is actually a valid form of protest and a boon to their campaign.  They may not try to put them down at all, but instead will support them.

  16. liberal jim

    The current argument over the payroll tax in the house exemplifies why the GOP will loose.  Dems argue the tax cut without off setting spending cuts is good for the economy and country.   The GOP is arguing the tax cut without off setting spending cuts will drive up the deficit and is bad for the country, but voting against the tax cut is detrimental to their political careers and so they are voting for it.  Unless I am missing something the GOP is actually saying this.  With messaging like this how can they help but go down in flames?   The GOP will defeat itself.

  17. Monroe Kleiderman

    Win or Lose we need to communicate to the public in a way that sinks in what’s at stake —-An America per the Founders or a Socialist Society like Europe that is sinking fast

  18. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Ben Domenech: Paul, you are more optimistic than I am, both about the mindset of the American people and the prospects for the conservative movement. I would ask this one question about your last point: do you believe it’s possible or even likely that foreign policy will matter more than we expect in the fall? And if so, how should that factor into how we select a nominee? · 23 minutes ago

    I think that it might matter more. Things with Iran are coming to a head, and I do not doubt that, if Obama presents himself as a reluctant hawk, it will help him. The one way that I think that our people can try to head this off and position themselves to take advantage of this is for them to start hammering Obama now for his proposals to cut back on expenditures for national defense.

    Who could best do this? Ron Paul is, needless to say, worse on this question than Obama. Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich are all good. To date, Romney, interestingly enough, has been the most eloquent. But the other two are certainly capable of rising to the occasion. The need to anticipate Obama’s move.

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Pseudodionysius: We have one rather strange ally this summer/fall: the new Batman movie opens with Bane using Occupy tactics to take out Gotham city. Batman has always been a clandestinely conservative movie series and the mythos may break to our advantage. · 20 minutes ago

    Interesting, very, very interesting — and arguably right.

  20. Ben Domenech
    C
    K T Cat

    Ben Domenech: One “October surprise” that I would suggest as an alternate scenario, Paul and K T, is another round of anarchist/leftist protests from the Occupy Wall Street folks, which Obama and his big city mayor allies would then have to put down. This could play to his benefit in the suburbs, or backfire if Democrats mishandled it. Just a thought.

    · 11 minutes ago

    Ben, there is ample evidence to support your prediction.  It appears as if Obama and his allies are so insulated that they think OWS is actually a valid form of protest and a boon to their campaign.  They may not try to put them down at all, but instead will support them. · 17 minutes ago

    My thought is that supporting them doesn’t net them votes, but clamping down says to worried suburbanites “don’t fear, I’m on your side.”