The bombshell dropped in Saturday’s Playbook, the chattering-class email sent out every morning by the Politico’s Mike Allen. If Mitt Romney fails to win Michigan next Tuesday, a few high-powered Republicans have started saying, the party needs to go back to square one and recruit a new candidate. Yes, maybe it does. But what will that fix? Not much. What the party needs is not simply a new candidate. It needs someone with the courage to stand up and say that the GOP has gone completely off the deep end—and that the party could run an amalgam of Ronald Reagan and Mahatma Gandhi and he wouldn’t win as long as the party’s inflamed base keeps with its current attitudes. But it lacks such a person utterly. It’s a party made up of on the one hand unprincipled cowards, and on the other of people devoted to principles so extreme that they’d have serious trouble attracting more than about 42 percent of the vote.
Allen summarized a chat between an unnamed Republican senator and ABC’s Jonathan Karl this way: “The senator believes Romney will ultimately win in Michigan but says he will publicly call for the party to find a new candidate if he does not. ‘We’d get killed,’ the senator said if Romney manages to win the nomination after he failed to win the state in which he grew up. ‘He’d be too damaged’ … Santorum? ‘He’d lose 35 states,’ the senator said, predicting the same fate for Newt Gingrich. It would have to be somebody else, the senator said. Who? ‘Jeb Bush.’”
In the plus column for the Republicans, I’d make two points. First, whoever they get sure can’t be worse than Romney, who (as some of us were noting a few weeks ago, back when he was theoretically riding high) really is living down to my expectations. And he or she—well, he; it’s going to be a he if it happens—obviously can’t be worse than Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. Our senator might be exaggerating about 15 states, but not by much. It’s long been my conviction, for example, that if Gingrich were the nominee, he’d manage to lose Georgia because for every Georgian who likes him there are surely at least 1.5 who are repulsed by him.
Second, it’s still only February. There’s time for people to wrap their heads around someone new. If a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels were to declare an intention to run, they’d have time to solidify support. True, they will have missed the filing deadlines to get on most primary ballots (although not to participate in caucuses). But it’s still not too late to file, for example, for California’s June 5 primary—the filing deadline is March 23. If a late-entry candidate dominated the contests he did manage to enter, he could make a reasonable case that the voters really wanted him. This can’t wait until the convention, which isn’t until late August. That would be awfully late to be getting started with a presidential race in this day and age.
OK, so those are the grounds on which such a move is plausible. But here’s the problem. First, let’s consider the three men named above. What’s so savior-y about them? The Bush name? Please. It’s better than Nixon, but that’s about all that can be said for it. Christie’s tough-talking personality? That appeals to people on the right. But it could wear thin. And yes, the avoirdupois factor is an issue. Most Americans don’t want a president who looks like that. And Daniels has the charisma of an econ-department chair.
Will the Republican establishment keep the base in line? Not this year. If the base is driving the party into a ditch, the establishment is riding shotgun holding a shovel.
More importantly, each has litmus-test difficulties. Jeb, as Rich Yeselson pointed out over the weekend at the Washington Monthly, is kind of soft on immigration, and there is no single issue that revs the engines of the far right like that one. (Jeb opposed Arizona’s immigration law, among other things.) Christie appointed a Muslim judge and said, in a lacerating statement aimed directly at the kind of people who make up the GOP base, that opposition to said judge was based on “ignorance.” Daniels, back when he was a potential candidate, was regularly savaged by Rush Limbaugh. These are suddenly going to be right-wing heroes? Others mention Paul Ryan, but they’re just being delusional. Ryan would win about the same 15 states Santorum and Gingrich would, maybe 20, but most definitely not the right 20.
So there is no savior. And let us please be clear on why there is no savior. Because there is no one who can satisfy the base of the GOP—a cohort so drunk on ideology and resentment that they cheer electrocutions and boo a soldier—and be elected president of the United States. Period. The standard journalistic trope the past few months has been to say that the Republican establishment would step in at some point and not let things get too out of hand. But that’s mostly nonsense. This GOP establishment is barely less loopy than the base. If the base is driving the party into a ditch, the establishment is riding shotgun holding a shovel.
And there’s not one politician in sight who has the nerve to say anything about it. Romney is just a coward. If he were half the man his father was, he would do something like what his father did in 1964, when he warned the party nominating Barry Goldwater that it was headed off the rails. (Today Goldwater, considered a fanatic in his day, would be maybe about the 15th-most-conservative Republican senator.) But all Romney cares about, all any of them care about, is getting and keeping political power. They can’t see the obvious paradox—that their lust for the White House is making them submit to all the wishes of a fanatical base, which is exactly what will keep them from winning the White House.
Remember that satirical Brecht line about it being perhaps easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect a new one? It’s not a new candidate the right needs. It’s a new electorate.