Last week, what is likely to be the full contingent of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination met for the first two widely-publicized debates of the 2012 electoral cycle, offering the American public a comprehensive look at the options for replacing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s increasingly hapless inhabitant. In the spirit of new beginnings, here is an overview of the four contenders—Michelle Bachmann, John Huntsman, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry—who bear consideration for different reasons. Barring an unforeseen event, Perry or Romney will be the Republican nominee. Bachmann and Huntsman are extreme versions of Romney and Perry, respectively, and analyzing them might serve to illuminate some characteristics of the two top contenders.
Bachmann, after a bout of popularity that culminated in her victory at the Ames Straw Poll, has seen her prospects sink, likely for two reasons. First, she has little to no actual experience in policymaking—her five years as a U.S. representative have been, legislatively speaking, extraordinarily unproductive. Second, like Sarah Palin, her potent, religiously-tinged populism veers toward the exclusionary, hateful, and extreme, rather than the broad-based, optimistic, and centrist. People on the right may be angry, but most see social debates as a tangential issue in 2012, and Bachmann’s degree of religiosity, even in the current Republican Party, is extreme. Plus, with the entry of Rick Perry into the race, evangelicals and populists have a better tribune to represent them: an experienced public servant who is equally anti-elitist as well as a firm, but mainstream, believer.
John Huntsman, on the opposite end of the spectrum, cannot seem to decide whether or not he wants to be a Republican. He was a successful governor and seems by all accounts to be a reasonable person, but his strategy—branding himself as the centrist conservative willing to stand up to the right’s more extreme elements—is a bizarre one, given the current contours of his party. If he thinks that people will admire a maverick, then he should poll Republicans on their feelings about John McCain. If he imagines the party will moderate its stances on issues like global warming or taxes in the next year, then he tragically underestimates the base’s sense of alienation from the nation’s ruling “elites.” There is no harm in disagreeing with grassroots supporters on policy, but unless you’re playing exclusively for the history books, beating them over the head with those differences is not a winning plan. Democratic systems of government are not inherently opposed to independent thinking, but they tend to punish independent thinkers who are unwilling to adopt the art of clever, and often long-term, persuasion.
Unlike Huntsman, Mitt Romney appears as if he is actually conservative, albeit moderate in inclination and lacking in the populist credentials that inspire trust in the party’s grassroots. The Republican base, having been burned by George W. Bush—a member of the ruling elite who talked its talk while expanding government by exponential amounts—is in no mood to cast its chips with an unabashed member of the “ruling class” who passed a health-care law in Massachusetts suspiciously similar to “Obamacare.” Romney has not helped his cause by following what is essentially the only available course of action for him: disavowing his centrist conservative leanings to appeal to the base, which has made him look slippery and opportunistic. While it’s understandable that a grassroots preoccupied with government’s inertial tendency to expand would feel uncomfortable with a contender who does not share their ideological fervor about the issue, there are compelling reasons for the base to rethink its antipathy toward the candidate in the gray flannel suit.
First, Romney has grown as a candidate since 2008. He remains awkward in “folksy” situations, but he is a remarkably able public speaker: at the debates he ran rings around Rick Perry, both in terms of style and substance. On the matter of his “character,” the word-for-all-seasons that often determines the choices of crucial independent voters, Romney deserves points for the cool, collected way he has handled Perry’s rise. Second, when it comes to the issues, it’s unlikely that, as president, Romney would outright abandon policies advocated by the base, simply because Tea Party strength in the House would make effective governing close to impossible. Admittedly, a Romney presidency would be defined in part by a quiet intraparty struggle between a moderate leader and his ideological base, but political struggles are not always bad: to use a somewhat ironic comparison given current political debates, FDR’s struggle with a more radical base led to social security.
All of this might be moot if Rick Perry were a viable candidate for president, but, despite having the executive experience and mainstream populism Bachmann so evidently lacks, Perry has two major problems. First, he has found success leading a state whose recent trajectory—a major economic boom based on oil and natural gas reserves, and a corresponding uptick in its conservatism—does not match that of the nation as a whole. So not only can Perry not take the chunk of credit for his state’s fiscal success, but unlike Romney, who governed Massachusetts, he is unprepared to assume the helm of a sharply ideologically-divided country with serious economic issues.
Second, Perry’s vaunted populism will serve as a divisive force in the general election. Parallels to Ronald Reagan have become sadly ubiquitous in conversations about modern-day Republicanism, but comparing the Gipper’s folksiness to Perry’s may actually prove instructive. Ronald Reagan liked the Republican grassroots and selectively emphasized qualities he shared with its members—ranching, wearing cowboy hats, religiousness—but he did not solely identify himself as a rancher and Christian fundamentalist in a nation in which the majority of members are neither. They were parts of his personality, but not the only parts. Perry, on the other hand, relies on such social identifiers so heavily that he renders them stereotypes. Reagan was inclusive in his symbolism, in a way that Perry, for all of his charisma, is not: history has shown that voters tend to reward the former approach.