What if this is as good as it gets? That’s not Jack Nicholson asking, but Republican primary voters as they look out upon a presidential field that is flawed, feeble, and finally final.
Yes, the “Perfect Candidate” will not be in the mix for 2012. No Chris Christie to entertain bored reporters. No Sarah Palin for TV cameras to chase across the country. Palin said she and her family would “devote ourselves to God, family and country” in that order. This is yet another embarrassment for the McCain campaign, which made such a big deal out of its pretentious slogan “Country First.” God presumably came in second or third.
There may be a few more teases this election season—perhaps Donald Trump will wake up one morning and decide he hasn’t been in the headlines enough. Or someone will claim that Palin has changed her mind and is flying to New Hampshire. There might even be an Internet campaign for Betty White. But the fact is that the recruiting period is over. Just as before, just as always, there are only two candidates with any chance in this race: Mitt Romney and “Somebody Else.” Who fills that second slot isn’t all that uncertain, either.
Though the conventional wisdom was that the Christie flirtation was harmful to the more conservative candidates in the race, the truth is that it was really worse news for Mitt Romney. The pining for Christie reflected yet again a mass dissatisfaction among the party’s biggest donors and the electorate with their four-year-long frontrunner. The former Massachusetts governor has run a campaign almost entirely free of gaffes, errors, and passion. Surely it is unnerving to a candidate who has been running practically nonstop since 2008 that 75 percent of Republican primary voters still prefer anybody else. Clearly Romney’s plan is not to inspire, but to endure. That might give him the nomination—and odds are that it will. But few candidates actually coast to the White House on the popular slogan, “Hey, he could be worse.”
As for the Anybody but Romney candidate, donors and activists have looked in vain for the perfect choice. Now they have to choose from what is before them. Congressman Ron Paul has shown neither the interest nor ability to move beyond his narrow, if rabid, base. Herman Cain, benefiting from an upsurge in the polls that probably has surprised even him, has the daunting task of trying to build a credible campaign with absolutely no experience in the lunatic art of political organization and with most voters still knowing nothing about him. Michele Bachmann seems to have lost her rationale and her mojo. Jon Huntsman never had either; his campaign seems focused on becoming president of New Hampshire. Either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum might have a chance if voters wanted to give them a listen. He’ll detest the comparison, but Senator Santorum is like NBC’s The Playboy Club. Seemed like something people might watch, with a controversial message and an appealing-looking male lead. Except they didn’t.
Which leaves only one. Soon the donors and activists who detest Mitt Rombot will stop indulging their latest shiny object in the window and find their way back to the one they so quickly abandoned. That is, of course, if he is willing to meet them halfway.
Though the pundits who live for all these televised presidential forums will have you believe otherwise, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is not in political trouble because he is a mediocre debater. Nor have his polls numbers drooped because The Washington Post and The New York Times woke up the other day and decided the longest-serving governor in Texas history, who won nearly four out of 10 Hispanic voters in 2010, is an unrepentant racist. No, Perry is in trouble for one (very surprising) reason: he has shown an alarming lack of understanding about how to talk to his own base. It is not that conservatives refuse to tolerate Perry’s liberal view (if he’ll excuse the term) on the issue of illegal immigration. What rankles even more is that Perry had to label those who disagreed with him as heartless. This struck too close to the language of Bush and Rove when they tried to push an immigration-reform bill past their political base and lashed out when the base balked. And Perry definitely doesn’t need that particular comparison.
Maybe the fallout over his comments, for which Perry already has apologized, tells us something bigger about the Perry camp, a not-ready-for-primetime quality or an overconfidence about their chances. In any event, recent days should have shaken them. Yet even now amid his widely panned debate performance and other terrible publicity, he remains in the top tier of candidates. Likely that’s because he is still the most credible opponent to Romney. And it is telling that none of Perry’s voters left him for the Massachusetts governor.
If Perry buckles down, actually prepares for his next televised encounter and makes amends to the groups he has offended, he can reclaim those votes. And if that happens, be on the lookout for a possible Palin endorsement. Then Perry and Romney can return to another round of “the other guy is even worse than me.” Not exactly Calhoun and Clay, but good enough to make it to the Republican convention. Then the pundits can spend three weeks on their usual high-minded pursuits, like deciding if Chris Christie is too fat to be vice president.