Not since 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the presidential nomination have the Republicans experienced such a spirited run for the heart and soul of their party. In ’76 it was the “accidental president” in Ford versus the movie star governor, the old guard versus the new upstart. In the end Ford won the battle but lost the war and in the process made Reagan a shoo-in for the nomination in 1980.
Switch to 2012 and again the Republicans are fighting among themselves over who should be the standard bearer of the party, but this time it is a complicated contest with four contenders battling over who can come across as more conservative, more rigid. The competitors stress their ideological purity more than expounding on their confidence in making Barack Obama a one term president. From an electoral and political point of view this intra-party battle is rather strange and self-defeating as more time is spent fighting among themselves rather than making the President look bad.
It gets stranger and more self-defeating. The Republican Party leadership is quietly preparing for a brokered convention in Tampa as there is a real possibility that no one will come to the big party with the required 1,144 delegates to seal the victory. This is what happens when ideology trumps practicality, when issues overshadow power, when compromise is seen as the enemy of purity.
It is no big secret of politics that holding the center, being moderate, occupying the middle of the road is the key to victory. Just ask any Republican what happened to arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964. The Democrats are no different. Ask them what happened when Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale took their party off the rails. Quite simply elections are won when the American people are convinced that the occupant of the White House will govern not from the margins, but from the center.
So far none of the candidates on the Republican side is brave enough to occupy the center, so what has happened is that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are talking to the marginal voters, not to the American people, especially the independent-minded Americans who consistently describe themselves as moderate. The result is that the Tampa convention may turn out to be great theater, but not the breeding ground for electoral victory in November. Who knows maybe ol Mitt will get the 1144 by August, but it won’t be pretty and all this blood sport won’t convince the American voter that the Republicans deserve to run this country.