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.