Mercifully, the circular firing squad more commonly known as the Republican Presidential Debate series is nearing an end, and people will actually start voting. That can’t come soon enough for me.
Oh, sure, there’s been some great theater, as in Rick Perry’s famous “oops” moment, but as a mechanism for helping select the next leader of the free world, it leaves much to be desired. For one thing, it enables fringe candidates with very little opportunity actually to win – such as Rick Santorum – to survive in a race where under normal circumstances they would have long since faded away. All it takes is one percent support and a few hundred bucks for a plane ticket to the venue, and they can stand toe to toe with the real contenders.
For another, the format of sixty-second answers is friendlier to the catchy soundbite than to reasoned explication of positions on complicated matters. This is only made worse when the question itself is as inane as Anderson Cooper’s “Coke or Diet Coke” or “thin crust or deep dish” offerings.
More to the point, the debates showcase attributes that might be suitable for dorm-room bull sessions, but may not necessarily help identify the best candidate. Newt Gingrich is getting traction now partially because the erstwhile professor is a practiced debater, who expresses himself in full paragraphs and is accustomed to thinking on his feet. The contrast with Perry could not be greater – but does that mean he would make a better president? It is not self-evident.
There is also a woeful tendency to focus on gotcha moments that can break a candidacy without regard to the unfortunate’s real qualifications, or to completely manufactured rivalries that take on outsized importance simply due to the attention they attract. Tim Pawlenty, a highly-qualified contender with a great record as governor in a very Democratic state, bowed out because he couldn’t get past the media-decreed head-to-head with Michelle Bachman.
All this is not exclusive to the debate format, but the incessant eight-lectern stage shows do bring out the worst. As voters go to the polls, however, they would do well to remember what they need. The best candidate will have two characteristics, the first less important but perhaps more vital, since it is a necessary precondition to the second.
The first is that he can beat Barack Obama. William F. Buckley, the intellectual godfather of modern conservatism, famously said, “I’m for the most conservative candidate who can win.” This does not mean the most conservative candidate. Voters on the right need to come to grips with a hard fact: there are not enough conservatives out there to elect a president without help. This is especially the case in the swing states that matter in virtually every presidential election: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and so forth.
Michael Medved, writing earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, points out that the history of the last 50 years shows that winning the center is the key to winning the presidency. John McCain lost in 2008 not because conservatives were insufficiently supportive: he won a higher percentage of conservative votes (78%) than did Ronald Reagan in his blow-out victory over Jimmy Carter (73%). McCain also took in a higher local vote count than state Republicans in 28 of 46 races, and won a higher percent of local votes in 2008 than Tea Party favorites Rand Paul and Mike Lee did in 2010. McCain lost because Obama captured the center.
This dynamic makes the current focus on conservative orthodoxy dangerously self-indulgent. Gingrich, for instance, is now twisting in the wind because of his supposed apostasy in quite reasonably suggesting that we need to have a policy to deal meaningfully with the 12 million illegal aliens who currently reside in this country. Mitt Romney, who four years ago was the conservatives’ favorite against John McCain, this year is having trouble gaining ground because he supposedly is not conservative enough.
It is a useful reminder to point out that Ronald Reagan, that paragon of the conservative movement, would not be favored to win the nomination in today’s climate. As governor of California, he signed a bill authorizing abortion; as president, he signed an amnesty for illegal immigrants, withdrew troops from Lebanon after the Beirut bombing, and raised taxes (albeit after cutting them first). Conservatives who are waiting for the perfect candidate will not find him or her.
The second attribute is that the candidate must be able to govern effectively as a conservative. I am leery of the idea that a Republican sweep in 2012 will lead to great things. As we saw when Obama had filibuster-proof majorities, one-party dominance in Washington can lead to over-reach. While I might be among those cheering if a Washington painted Republican red not only dispatched Obamacare but replaced it with a free-market alternative, passed the Ryan budget, and brought our national spending nightmare to an end, doing so without any support from the other side of the aisle will only provide fodder for the next round of partisan bitterness.
Besides, even if the GOP wins control of the Senate, there will still be the 60-vote rule that will limit conservative ambitions. A president who has shown he can make deals, who is content to win 70% of his objectives, and who can articulate a conservative vision for the country that is based on American virtues instead of Scrooge values, can be a highly successful leader. That’s who we should be looking for.
It has been said that leadership is the ability to get people to do things they do not want to do, and to do so gladly. After all the debates, campaigns, and ads are over, Republicans should ask themselves who among the candidates is likely to be the best leader.