Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Is the Problem a "Brain Drain" or a Lack of Sincerity

Richard Cohen is shocked that, in his opinion, the level of "talent" among the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination was lacking. His analysis reminds me a bit of how audiences react to Saturday Night Live - during most seasons, you'll hear people complain about how SNL was much funnier when [former cast member] was still on the show. If they're still watching the show three, five, eight years down the line, odds are that they'll be issuing the same lament but naming a member of the current cast. Call it nostalgia.

When Cohen complains about the lack of Republican talent, declaring that Ronald Reagan beat "a future president,... two future Senate majority leaders... and two lesser-known congressmen", he's judging the cast of characters based upon their future résumés, not their qualifications at the time, and is also expressing a degree of nostalgia for a campaign that didn't seem all that impressive at the time.

Cohen's comment reminds me of the critique of the 1988 Democratic Party candidates, "Gary Hart and the seven dwarfs", a list that included a future House Majority Leader and a future Vice President and a number of others who were fundamentally decent men. But easy to make fun of at the time. And hey, why didn't people like Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy or Bill Bradley throw their hats in the ring? And let's not overlook the "you gotta be kidding me" candidates like David Duke and Lyndon Larouche. Michele Bachmann's not looking so bad now, is she?

Cohen also seems to want to have it both ways, criticizing candidates for being foolish enough to run after engaging in bipartisanship, dismissing Jon Huntsman as "a former appointee of the Obama administration", and in almost the next breath complaining that candidates felt that they had to cater to the right. Cohen complains, "The list of Republicans who looked at Iowa’s daunting demographics and did not run is more distinguished than those who did", without naming any of the candidates he believes would have been better. He laments "None of these candidates were remotely qualified for the highest office in the land", but doesn't state what he believes to be sufficient qualification, let alone explaining if and how they fail to measure up to past presidential nominees.

He's also convinced that Mitt Romney "espouses extreme positions he does not for a moment believe", but does not provide any evidence that Romney does not in fact believe his present positions. The courtroom cliché, "Were you lying then or are you lying now," comes to mind? How are we supposed to know what Romney believes, and why dos Cohen believe he holds the answers. A column in which Cohen lays out Romney's actual beliefs and presents a convincing case for why the beliefs he describes are the ones Romney actually holds? That would be worth reading.

The focus on personality and presentation reminds me of Cohen's principal criticism of President Obama - that "he's dreadful as a schmoozer". Part of the problem we're seeing is the product of a modern class of commentators who love the horse race aspect of elections, who love being given special access to politicians, being flattered, but treat policy as an afterthought. If you have a national platform and are truly concerned, you can complain about the vapidity of a slate of candidates while the primary is underway. You don't have to wait until large numbers of your fellow commentators are (prematurely) dancing on the casket of the nominee produced by that primary process.

I don't want to dismiss an important element of Cohen's argument, that after decades of holding itself out as the champion of religion and social conservatism, the Republican Party has reached a point where... well, not quite where the inmates run the asylum, but where the groups to whom that pitch is appealing are both demanding results and turning out in force in primaries. It is difficult to pander to those groups while giving a wink to the business community, "we don't really care about that stuff, but we'll take good care of you," while not turning off large numbers of voters who find that level of extremism to be disturbing or those who no longer believe the wink - who believe that if elected you'll cater to the social extremists because they've gained so much power within the party.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder how George Romney would have fared. A man whose credentials were a lot like his son's, but who would likely have approached the race with a sense of humility instead of entitlement, of candor instead of obfuscation. To look at it another way, Mitt Romney is unlikely to carry Michigan, but Michigan twice elected his father as governor, and recently elected a Republican governor who ran on his success in business. But for Romney's past positions on a number of Republican litmus test issues, I think he could have run a far more moderate campaign and prevailed while retaining greater appeal to moderates and swing voters. I may be wrong - and unfortunately it's impossible to test my hypothesis - but I think Romney's biggest problem has nothing to do with a perception that he is not qualified to be President, but is instead the fact that he's widely perceived as a phony.

In four years, assuming Romney loses, Jeb Bush is likely to be running for the nomination. He's likely to be taking a more moderate position on social issues, and to be endorsing a mixture of spending cuts and modest tax increases to balance the budget. I'm not sure that Bush represents some form of secret Republican brain trust, and I see no reason to believe that he has any meaningful qualification for the White House that the better candidates of this year's Republican primaries lacked. But if he's perceived as sincere, and people can sufficiently distance him in their minds from his brother, he has a real shot. Even if he takes a moderate approach on immigration.

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