Will Obama’s Perceived Weakness Cause Republicans To Overreach?

Assuming that the President is easy to beat could cause Republicans to move too far to the right.

Ramesh Ponnuru has an excellent column up at Bloomberg today warning Republicans that their perception that Barack Obama will be easy to beat in November 2012 is in danger of leading them to lean too far to the right:

In any presidential primary there’s a tension between the voters’ desire for a candidate who can win the general election and their desire for a candidate who shares their views — between, in other words, ideology and electability. The more beatable Obama looks, the more the balance for Republican voters will tilt toward ideology and away from electability.

That doesn’t just mean they will be more likely to support candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, who will have trouble winning votes from independents and Democrats. It also means the terrain of the primaries will shift: The candidates will place more emphasis on outflanking one another on the right and less on showing they can win in November 2012.

As Ponnuru notes, and as has been documented here and elsewhere since the start of the campaign, many of the GOP candidates have already demonstrated a tendency to focus more on ideology than electability:

Already the Republican primaries have seen candidates take positions that will be hard sells in the fall of next year. Both Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Polls suggest that while the public doesn’t consider environmental protection its top priority right now, it favors regulation and trusts Democrats over Republicans on the issue. Texas Governor Rick Perry has suggested that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and that they should be replaced by state-run programs. There’s a reason no Republican candidate since 1964 has run on a platform anything like this one on entitlements: Both programs are extremely popular.

Perry has also suggested that he disapproves of the New Deal, seeing it as a moment when the federal government began to exceed the constitutional limits of its power. He hasn’t said he wants to undo the New Deal, but it’s not out of bounds for Democrats to make the charge, given the importance he attaches to constitutionalism.

In each of these cases, provocative positions have been met by silence from rival candidates.


If Republican voters had electability on their minds, they would also want to see the candidates address issues that concern the broader public: how to get wages growing again after years when they stagnated even during periods of growth; and what to replace Obama’s health-care reform with. But the candidates feel no pressure from primary voters to outline plans on those issues, and haven’t done so. Instead, they are focused on issues — such as the alleged threat of “sharia law” and the heavy share of income taxes paid by the rich — that are of interest only to the party faithful.

One would think that with the economy in the shape that it’s in and everyone focused on dismal job numbers, that the Republican candidates would be diverted from this path by the need to address the issue that’s on the top of everyone’s list, and to some extent that seems to be the case. However, for every conversation you hear from the GOP on jobs, you also get something like yesterday’s odd little political forum in South Carolina:

South Carolina Republican Senator Jim Demint hosted a forum at which five Republican presidential candidates spoke. The transcript is here.  Each candidate appeared one at a time, and the format allowed for in-depth questions and answers. Among the questioners was Princeton University’s Robert George. Prof. George asked each candidate if he or she would support congressional legislation, under section 5 of the 14th Amendment, to ban abortion. To state the obvious, such legislation would be contrary not only to Roe v. Wade and Penn. v. Casey (abortion rights are protected by section 1 of the 14th Amendment), but also to Boerne v. Flores (Congress cannot use section 5 to protect a right in defiance of direct Supreme Court holding about the particular aspect of the right).  The question explicitly presumed that Roe v. Wade had not been overturned, and that a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution had not been adopted.

All of the candidates with the exception of Ron Paul and Mitt Romney answered yes, meaning that three candidates for President said that they would support an attempt by Congress to ignore the rulings of the Supreme Court of the United States and set up a Constitutional crisis over abortion, at the same time that the rest of the nation is worrying about the economy and wondering why the GOP is wasting it time on issues that are seemingly so unimportant as abortion and preventing two guys from getting married.

This is the kind of thing that Ponnuru is talking about, I think. If the GOP spends the primary season focusing on stuff like this, on whether Social Security is an unconstitutional Ponzi scheme, or on whether the Department of Education should be abolished as Michele Bachmann suggested at one point during yesterday’s forum, people are going to notice. For the most part, these are discussions that outside the mainstream of American politics right now, and most certainly they aren’t the issues that the public is most concerned about. The media attention that the GOP will get from being the only party with a primary fight in 2012, but they’ll also be taking a risk. The risk being that extended attention to Republicans talking about things that appeal to ideology rather than electability will sour the public on whoever the eventual Republican nominee ends up being. and make it easier for the Obama campaign and the Democrats to paint that nominee as extreme.

In 1964, the GOP nominated the most conservative candidate possible, and they lost in a landslide. In 1980, the party nominated the most conservative electable candidate possible (by any measure, Phil Crane was more conservative than Ronald Reagan I would argue), and they won in a landslide. If Republicans want to win in 2012, they’d do well to keep those two years in mind.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. EddieInCA says:

    Who, exactly, Doug, is “electable” nationwide on the GOP side?

    Romney? If he’s the candidate, you end up with either a 3rd Party candidate from the Right, or the a big chunk of the Tea Party stays home.

    Perry? If he’s the candidate, Obama wins 350+ Electoral votes. Perry puts Florida, and even Arizona and Nevada in play due to his positions on Medicare and SS. Those three states have a fair amount of Senior Citizens who like their Medicare and Social Security.

    Bachman? If she’s the Candidate, Obama wins 400 Electoral votes.

    So, who, exactly, is electable, nationwide against Obama? If you have a name, tell me the route to 270, cuz I don’t see it. Once the electorate starts paying attention, and realizes that Perry wants to ABOLISH Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment insurance, etc, he’s toast nationally.

  2. Sam Stone says:

    Perceived Weakness?

  3. mantis says:

    and make it easier for the Obama campaign and the Democrats to paint that nominee as extreme.

    No paint needed.

  4. Sam Stone says:


    His weakness has not enamored his troops.
    The silence is deafening until they are given the ORDER to “cheer”.

  5. ponce says:

    My money is still on Romney.

    The more Americans gets to know the fringe right Republican candidates (Palin, Bachmann and now Perry), the less they like them.

  6. EddieInCA says:


    If Romney is the nominee and there is no third party nominee from the right, what percentage of Evangelical Christians (i.e., the Republican base) stays home, or refuses to do the work on the ground to help Romney get elected?

  7. ponce says:

    what percentage of Evangelical Christians (i.e., the Republican base) stays home,

    As an atheist, I don’t really have much insight into the minds of the religious right.

    But I do think their hatred of Obama will overcome any squeamishness they have about Romney’s “otherness.”

  8. Hey Norm says:

    “…leading them to lean too far to the right…”

    Yes indeed…because after supporting torture, and after Ryan’s Tea Bag Manifesto, and after threatening to crash the world economy because the offer of the largest deficit reduction in history included almost (gasp) 15% in revenue increases, and after an unprecedented assault on the rights of women…you wouldn’t want to move too much further to the right. Because you might fall off the flat earth – which is only 6000 yrs old.

  9. Fiona says:


    My guess is that Romney won’t be the nominee because he won’t get the support of most of the evangelicals who are the Republican base, or at least not those who consider Mormonism to be some kind of dangerous cult. If he somehow manages to pull off a miracle and become the Republican nominee, then I too expect a Tea Party friendly third-party candidate or for lots of evangelicals to sit this one out.

    I think Perry has a good shot to beat Obama if he can play down his extremism (not necessarily a big “if” given the short attention spans and inattention to detail of a lot of low information voters). After the last idiot governor of Texas managed to get himself elected, I’ll never underestimate the chances of another one pulling off the same trick.

  10. john personna says:

    This was the thought I had earlier today, in another thread, so sure I agree.

    The Republicans risk convincing themselves that the nation is really far right.

  11. john personna says:

    @Sam Stone:

    Do you think you are the silent majority? 🙂

  12. James in LA says:

    Republicans have already overreached. People are worried about “Perry’s Book” and so on, and it won’t matter. The GOP has been infiltrated by those for whom Belief comes before all other considerations. Even shown an electoral map, and the dreadful Math Problem the GOP faces playing on it, and Belief will allow them to whisk it onto the floor, and scatter its pieces.

    Math handicaps my conservative friends, as does critical thinking. Screeching about debt is not a policy position. The GOP will soon have to produce the plan for governing that does not include the words “kenyan” or “socialist” or “tax cuts.”

  13. EddieInCA says:


    Fiona –

    He wrote a book, less than a year ago, which outlines alot of very, VERY radical positions. How does he disavow them without becoming a caricature of himself?

    His positions on….

    Social Security (He called Social Security “Anti-American”)
    Unemployment Insurance
    Climate Change
    16th & 17th Amendments (He wants to repeal both of them)
    Supreme Court (He wants term-limits for the SC and wants Congress to be able to overrule SC decisions)

    … are WAY outside the mainstream of the USA.

    Don’t see how he moderates those positions, of which there is a long video and paper trail.

  14. Fiona says:


    I’m familiar with his book but I don’t think it will matter for a number of reasons. First, most people won’t read it. Second, I’d be willing to bet that the mainstream media doesn’t call him on it and that Faux News will say that any quotes from it were taken out of context. Third, he’ll downplay and dissemble when it comes to any outrageous positions he’s taken in the book. Finally, Democrats have proven themselves incredibly ineffectual when it comes to painting any Republican position as extreme, even the most extreme ones. Their skills at messaging are laughable, while Republicans and the right excel at it. Witness “death panels,” the “death tax,” etc.

    A slick campaign combined with a compliant media that presents elections like horse races, with little real analysis of candidates’ positions on the issues, bodes well for Perry.

  15. Wayne says:

    The Democrats risk convincing themselves that the nation is really far left.

    If you don’t believe that looks at EddieInLA post. Does any reasonable person think Obama would win with over 350 or 400 Electoral votes? It reminds me of a recent post where people think that their political philosophy has “massive” support. In reality the population is fairly split.

    IMO a too far left or so called “moderate” Republican candidate would give Obama a better chance of winning. If there is little contrast between Obama and the GOP candidate then many may vote for the devil that they know. Also turn out is just as, if not more important than picking off a few votes in the middle. Right now the liberal base is looking unmotivated and the Conservative base is very motivated.

    Nominated a Dem-lite candidate and the Conservative base may not show up in large numbers. Especially after how many conservative Republican candidates were treated by the so call “moderate” Republicans in the last election. Not showing up will not only hurt the Republican in the Presidential race but Republican in all races.

  16. john personna says:


    The Democrats risk convincing themselves that the nation is really far left.

    By that do you mean that they’ll run on higher spending and higher taxes?

    That’s what far left means.

    (Obama has angered the actual far left, the Reids and the Pelosis, by getting off that bus.)

  17. EddieInCA says:


    Does any reasonable person think Obama would win with over 350 or 400 Electoral votes?

    Against Bachman, Perry, or Palin, yes.

    Against Romney, probably not. In fact, if Romney gets the nomination, he might even win. My larger point is that the current GOP doesn’t want a guy like Romney, who is capable, smart, and “reasonable”. He would be able to govern. No. The modern GOP wants a firebrand. Those guys (or ladies) don’t usually win national elections.

    So, Wayne, tell me how Perry or Bachmann get to even 200 electoral votes, given their current positions.

  18. WR says:

    @EddieInCA: Although I find Romney by far the least loathesome Republican candidate out there, I can’t imagine what his campaign can be about. He has to run as a thoughtful, moderate, wonkish technocrat who believes that competence and diligence can put things back together. In other words, he’s running the same campaign as Obama. And while there are handfuls of Tea Partiers who believe that Obama is some far-left Kenyan socialist, it’s hard to imagine they’re going to swoon over White Obama — especially since the pale version is a member of some Jesus-hating cult (in their eyes). So they’re not going to be motivated to come out just to replace Model A with Model B. Meanwhile, if someone wants to vote for Obama, they’re going to vote for him, Given a choice between Obama and Obama-lite, the original wins. Especially since Romney will have had to pretend to hold all sorts of nutball ideas to make it through the primary, and the Ds will make sure they stick to him like glue in the general.

    Of course, if the Rs nominate someone the base loves, then we’re back in Goldwater territory…

  19. James in LA says:

    @EddieInCA: I have been asking this exact question, submitting in writing that Obama will not take any new states. Ergo, which states do our conservative friends take back? Obama has numerous pathways, but the GOP has to have FL or the night is over.

    I also agree Mittens has the best chance to win, but it depends on a lot of things, many of which having only to do with Belief, and this makes it quite a unpredictable mess for a party used to lock-step agreement.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    The Democrats risk convincing themselves that the nation is really far left.

    You proceed from a false argument from the very start as the President may be many things, but he certainly isn’t “far left” or, based on many of his policies, all that “left”…as for the rest of your argument, the President can only hope that the GOP candidate is hard right, as that will guarantee the President’s reelection…

  21. A voice from another precinct says:

    “But the candidates feel no pressure from primary voters to outline plans on those issues [the economy, jobs, and health care reform], and haven’t done so.”

    The problem is not only that they don’t feel any pressure–they also DON’T HAVE ANY PLANS!!!
    (Pardon the shouting.)

    @ WR, You may be off on one point about Mitt. It is possible that many, especially among moderates, may prefer “White” Obama to the more standard one. Remember Hillary’s assertion in the last election about not being willing to elect “that kind” of a candidate. She missed the mood of the country then, but this is another day. The mood may have shifted.

  22. jan says:

    Eddie’s projection of 350-400 electoral votes for either Obama or his opponent is far-fetched. It will most likely be a close election.

    Even with Obama’s dismal ratings, progressives and staunch dems will vote for their party’s candidate, no matter how great their disappointment in him.

    As for the other side, IMO, Romney and/or Perry has the best chances of successfully challenging Obama. Romney has a greater appeal to a broader base of people. But, as some have said, may discourage a few die-hard social conservatives from inking that part of the ballot. Perry is more dynamic, appealing to greater numbers of the far right, and is passable to some centrists, who, at this point want ABO (anybody but Obama). However, Indies may have a hard time getting behind him, and they may skip voting for president altogether, or cave and vote for who they think is the lesser of two evils, Obama.

    There will be no 3rd party — perhaps talk of it by the disgruntled — but, nothing more than talk.

    It will, however, be a long and testy election process, with no one being a shoe-in, unless something, not manifesting itself right now, comes along and changes the whole complexion of the race.

  23. jan says:

    @A voice from another precinct:

    they also DON’T HAVE ANY PLANS!!!

    Here’s a plan presented just today.

  24. WR says:

    Wait, you’re killing me. Mitt’s got a plan.. and it’s cut taxes on rich people and that will make the economy soar! Bwah-hah-hah-hah. Geeze, Jan, I knew you were a comedian, but I didn’t think you were this funny!

  25. jan says:


    Well, WR, here’s your 2nd laugh of the evening…..have fun!

    Obama jobs plan: President said to be looking at $300 billion package

    …two of the biggest measures in the president’s proposals for 2012 are expected to be a one-year extension of a payroll tax cut for workers and an extension of expiring jobless benefits. Together those two would total about $170 billion.

    The White House is also considering a tax credit for businesses that hire the unemployed. That could cost about $30 billion. Obama has also called for public works projects, such as school construction. Advocates of that plan have called for spending of $50 billion, but the White House proposal is expected to be smaller.

    Obama also is expected to continue for one year a tax break for businesses that allows them to deduct the full value of new equipment. The president and Congress negotiated that provision into law for 2011 last December.

    Though Obama has said he intends to propose long-term deficit reduction measures to cover the up-front costs of his jobs plan, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would not lay out a wholesale deficit reduction plan in his speech.

  26. mattb says:


    It will, however, be a long and testy election process, with no one being a shoe-in, unless something, not manifesting itself right now, comes along and changes the whole complexion of the race.

    In general I have to agree with Jan’s analysis.

    I still think — for the same reasons as Dr Joyner — that Obama has the advantage at this point, but it’s not a “shoe-in.”

    A lot of what happens next rests on Romney and if he’s willing to really go toe-to-toe with Perry.