This GOP Field May Be the Worst Ever

Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate was probably the most informative so far, largely because of the probing questions asked by CNBC’s anchors, Maria Bartiromo and John Harwood, and reporters. They clearly knew more about the economy than the candidates did.

But it’s become obvious to me what none of the pundits will actually say: This is the single worst field of presidential candidates a major party has put forward in 50 years, even worse than the Democrats’ candidates in 1988.

CNBC Presidential Debate. Photo:

Former Gov. Mitt Romney is the only one who has the experience, stature and demeanor to be a credible president, but he’s got big problems of his own.

Gov. Rick Perry had a great resume, but let’s face it: as last night’s “oops” moment showed yet again, he’s just too dumb to be commander in chief.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman was a media darling—and a sensible conservative with real experience–who’s going nowhere.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is smart in his own quirky way, but he’s got more baggage than a packed 777, and his negative ratings are astronomical.

Rep. Ron Paul is a consistent, principled libertarian whose dovish foreign policy views effectively limit his support to 12% of the Republican vote.

Rep. Michelle Bachmann is just wacky and former Sen. Rick Santorum has appeal only among Christian conservatives.

And Herman Cain, the flavor of the minute until last week’s allegations of sexual harassment arose, is a one-note (or nine-note) candidate who is breathtakingly ignorant about other countries, as he demonstrated last night again with his non-response to Bartiromo’s questions about Italy.

Meanwhile, several qualified candidates chose not to run: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. One unqualified celebrity whose name will not be mentioned on this blog also didn’t throw her hat into the ring.

Former Gov. Michael Dukakis. Photo: Patrick Giblin

It reminds me a bit of 1988, when Sen. Edward Kennedy and New York’s Gov. Mario Cuomo opted out, and the front-runner, Sen. Gary Hart, withdrew after being caught with model Donna Rice on the Monkey Business yacht off Bimini.

But that much-derided group, which produced the hapless Gov. Michael Dukakis as its losing presidential candidate, included future vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore.

There’s much less promise in the current Republican bunch, but why? I’d argue that large swaths of the current Republican electorate are so extreme that a candidate can’t please them and then pivot enough to win a general election.

Evangelical Christians represented nearly half the GOP primary voters in 2008. “Evangelicals are plentiful enough that any candidate whom they deem completely unacceptable faces a formidable obstacle,” wrote Ron Brownstein in The National Journal.

And just about half of Republican voters identify with the Tea Party movement (including many evangelicals), but it’s less than one out of four voters overall.

So, there’s a huge gap between the very conservative GOP and the at best moderately conservative electorate—particularly on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, but also on core fiscal issues like taxation and entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.

I’d suspect many of the prospective candidates (and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out) just couldn’t figure out how to bridge that gap. That’s what Mitt Romney’s flip flopping is all about. If he didn’t have to pander to extremists in his own party, he’d be a formidable moderately conservative candidate in the general election—and could beat President Obama easily.

But right now, he needs to appease the angry extremists in his own party, who don’t trust him anyway. So, though he’s likely to be the nominee, he’ll carry a heavy burden into the election campaign. A defeat would be a wound of their own making.

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