Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Desperately Seeking Messiah; Inquire GOP HQ

In politics, like other professional sports, there’s a reason why you play the game. Despite a team or a candidate leading in the standings and the polls, the cold light of performance at home and on the road often brings a presumptive dynasty to its knees.

The desperate folks who brought you the campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry have been learning that the hard way the last few weeks, as the arc of his favorables have nosedived pretty much with the public reaction to his Republican candidate debate performances.

The most recent one, Sept. 22 in Florida, found Governor Goodhair rhetorically melting down as he attempted a lame twist on the tired for-it-before-he-was-against-it barb leveled at Sen. John Kerry, back in 2004. That debate appearance was roundly dissed by the conservative media. “He seemed curiously ill-prepared for it,” said Kate O’Beirne of the National Review, to Bloomberg’s Al Hunt on Sept. 23.

“What it points up,” O’Beirne said, [... is] the gap between the idea of a candidate — and the idea of him looked good — and the reality of a candidate.”

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That gulf has been obvious lately: The “Ponzi scheme” label for Social Security; the walk back of his own law mandating HPV vaccines for young girls; the closer scrutiny of the economic “Texas miracle” that found Texas the state with the fourth highest poverty rate, and one of two leading states with workers earning minimum wage.

And then there’s that other thing. In his previous debate appearances, Perry has stood in staunch support of the bill he signed into law entitling the children of undocumented immigrants to public education at Texas colleges and universities. For conservatives, this is poison wrapped in anathema.

Bottom line isn’t pretty: It just started in mid-August, but in the public eye, the Perry 2012 campaign has the appearance of something that’s all hat and no cattle.

The disillusionment about Perry from those within his own party; the continued mistrust of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by party regulars and the Tea Party pack; and the unhappiness with the clown carload of most of the rest of the GOP field is yielding political gallows humor.

On “Countdown” on Tuesday, author and political analyst Craig Crawford, quoted a joke making the rounds in the GOP hierarchy: “We’re looking for Ronald Reagan and we can’t even find Fred Thompson.”

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That’s not really true, of course. Herman Cain, whose first-place finish in the Florida Straw Poll has those in the punditburo scratching their heads, is every bit as good an orator, at the same point in the first-time campaign process, as Reagan was in 1968. And Cain would get a better reaction reading the Yellow Pages than Thompson would get reading the Gettysburg Address.

But some analysts have expressed the idea that Cain’s strong showing in Florida — trouncing Perry and Romney by double digits — is more a signal about frustration with the overall Republican field of candidates than a tacit endorsement of Cain per se.

Anyway, one of the realer reasons Cain won’t prevail, for Republicans honest enough to admit it, practically shouts from inside the politically logical assessments: Cain can’t win BECAUSE HE’S a neophyte who Badly LACKs the experience and broad grassroots support he needs.

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In its drive for pure and unalloyed ideological purity, the Republican Party ignores or diminishes prospective candidates who reflect the very political and demographic practicality that would make the party a more credible choice for the broad cross-section of the country. (Look at the dismal polling numbers for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the closest thing to a centrist among the GOP field.)

Or the party summons prospects who know they’re not ready for a presidential run and who say as much. The kingmakers have lately reached out, seriously, to the next man from whence cometh their help: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the earthy, plain-spoken, rotund politician who has consistently deflected the idea of running for president.

But that hasn’t stopped such deep-pocketed conservative shoppers like Ken Langone of Home Depot, and David Koch, one-half of the Dimmer Twins (brother Charles is the rest) whose billion-dollar fortunes have been used on behalf of state governments in the fight against the right to collective bargaining. Whispers of “draft Christie” are getting louder; the pressure on the governor from party loyalists is increasing. Please, they say, you must. We need you. We need anyone but the candidates running now.

But Christie would be hamstrung at the start: by the need to immediately identify himself to a national public in the autumn before the primaries; by the size of the current field of hopefuls; and by his own insistence that he doesn’t want the job right now — a frank statement of political self-awareness he can’t contradict without undercutting the populist, straight-shooter brand that defines him.

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It’s all there. The problem for the GOP is symbolized in Crawford’s joke, in the quickie divorce from Perry, in the furtive “draft Christie” moves: Republicans insist on hunting for the candidate who can pull the sword from the stone while walking on the water — before turning that water into wine.

That sentiment was pretty much distilled in an anti-Perry rant on Tuesday by conservative talk-radio pit bull and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh: “I know what the people of this country want and they don’t want John McCain Jr., they don’t want another moderate … Republican who can work with the other side ... they want — a conservative!”

If only conservatives knew which conservatives they wanted.

That’s the nut of the conservative dilemma: Never mind the GOP’s battle with President Obama on the campaign trail next year; the bigger battle is the one being fought between passion and pragmatism right now within the Republican party. The outcome of that infra-ideological struggle will shape the coming campaign, between now and this time next year. It could shape, or even decide, the future of that party for years to come.

Image credits: Perry: Getty Images. Cain: NBC News.

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