Mitt Romney and the Weak GOP Field: Why Obama's Still Untouchable in 2012

The president should be vulnerable, but Republicans seem cowed by the Tea Party.

Democrats might be forgiven if they believe the sky has been falling since June arrived. The economic numbers are almost all wretched. And so is the situation in the Middle East. The pressure to quit Afghanistan is rising. Nobody seems very happy with President Obama.

But another of those many First Rules of Politics holds that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. And, at this point, there is no Republican out there who seems capable of enlisting enthusiastic support across the party’s ideological spectrum.

This doesn’t suggest there is no candidate in the GOP field who could be a credible president of the United States. The requirements are not that stringent. After all, the republic survived eight years of George W. Bush.

But the Republican Party today has no clear structure and no established leaders with the influence to control its direction. There are traditional Republicans who stand for lower taxes, a strong national defense, and what they like to call “American values.” But there is the significant influence of religious fundamentalists who are generally hostile to such things as abortion rights and gay marriage.

And most important this time around, there is the Tea Party. Many Republicans believe the election of 2010 has given them a mandate—a moral calling in their eyes—to have their way on everything from the federal deficit to the price of gasoline.

Except for a few minor players willing to buy the whole package of extremes, Republican candidates are being bent out of shape trying to reconcile the Tea Party with the independents they know are essential to winning an election.

Mitt Romney is the putative frontrunner, largely because he was the last man standing against John McCain in the 2008 contest. But his standing in opinion polls is puny, and he has been targeted by Sarah Palin. His sin, as Palin explains it, is that his promulgation of a state health-care plan as governor of Massachusetts shows he is willing to “grow government,” a mortal sin to the Tea Party Republicans.

In dealing with this issue, Romney has not exactly shown himself to be a sure-footed candidate. He has been awkward and defensive trying to reconcile criticism of Obama’s health-care program with his own history.

His backing and filling, hemming and hawing reminds those with long memories of the problem with the Vietnam War issue that wrecked the 1968 presidential campaign of his father, Michigan Gov. George Romney. The elder Romney eventually adopted an approach that was essentially the policy followed by Richard Nixon once he reached the White House, but it was far too late to save his candidacy.

The issues were quite different, but both Romneys were compromised by the way they handled controversy rather than by the substance of their policies. Voters have to be comfortable with challengers to a sitting president. They know there is always some risk with a newcomer in the White House.

Mitt Romney has been doing the conventional things to get beyond the questions. The longtime businessman is trying to change the subject by insisting the central issue is the economy, not health care. And, borrowing from Al Gore’s clumsy 2000 campaign, he has taken to wearing more casual clothes and no neckties, a tactic that in Gore‘s case evoked only ridicule.

It may turn out, of course, that Romney will overcome these early missteps. Most Americans are not paying much attention to presidential politics at this stage. And he will have the money and political operation to build a positive image in the seven months before the primaries and caucuses begin.

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It also may turn out that some other candidate—Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman are rated as the heavyweights in the field—will find a formula for dealing with the extremes in a way that doesn’t alienate those essential independents.

So far, however, no one in the field has declared his independence from Sarah Palin.