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It is easy to imagine the private gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments among Republican Party elites. By losing Alabama and Mississippi, Mitt Romney proved again that he is an establishment candidate with a strange power to anesthetize grassroots enthusiasm. The soaring Rick Santorum boasts a strange power to reopen seemingly settled 1950s moral disputes. Any day now, Santorum may turn his sights on such national crises as teenage petting. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich has been reduced to the 2012 equivalent of an old-time favorite son sticking around in case the Tampa convention needs a third choice on the seventh ballot. As for Ron Paul, let's just politely say that it is more than a media conspiracy that is keeping him from victory.
Beyond the limitations of the four remaining candidates, there is another frequently voiced Republican lament: "Why are we still squabbling among each other when by now we should be concentrating on beating President Obama?"
March has traditionally been the rally-around-the-flag month in presidential politics, the moment when a de facto nominee is anointed and all remaining primaries become Soviet-style referenda devoid of meaning or suspense. Insiders in both parties prize predictability, which is why the Ides of March usually marks the demise of any would-be Caesar unwilling to accept the verdict of the political gods. Persnickety voters and the messiness of democracy can be tolerated, but not when they get in the way of orderly five-months-in-advance planning for a late-summer convention.
This obsession with an early conclusion to the primaries is ludicrous, both in political terms and as a way of picking a president. A presumptive nominee waiting around for months until the confetti bath at the convention, with no real public responsibilities, can look ridiculous. Back in 1996, Bob Dole was so befuddled by the pre-convention waiting game that he resigned from the Senate that he loved in order to vault himself back into the headlines. A swift end to the 2004 Democratic nomination fight left John Kerry ill-prepared and unarmed against an assault from the Swift Boat Veterans over his Vietnam War record. Kerry's response: An unusually swift early July vice-presidential choice of John Edwards, who was said to have "honored the lessons of home and family learned in North Carolina." (But as John McCain demonstrated in 2008, five months of unhurried reflection about potential running mates does not automatically produce a sterling vice-presidential pick.)
The main reason not to rush the choice of a presidential nominee is that (warning: startling revelation ahead) circumstances change. Issues emerge out of nowhere, like gasoline prices comparable to college tuition payments or war-hawk talk of bombing Iran's nuclear program. Over the weekend, Santorum prophesied, "That may become the issue of the day come this fall—a nuclear Iran." In self-serving fashion, Santorum went on to argue, "We're not electing a C.E.O. We're electing a commander in chief."
Romney's entire campaign has been premised on his claimed ability to revive a moribund economy as a successful businessman who knows NASCAR team owners and their NFL counterparts. Announcing his candidacy early last June in New Hampshire, Romney declared, "From my first day in office, my No. 1 job will be to see America is once again first in job creation." He then added, in an oblique reference to Obama's political resume, "You know, if you want to create jobs, it helps to have had a job."
The unemployment rate as Romney spoke nine months ago was 9.1 percent. The architects of the Romney campaign presumably did not expect the United States to start creating 250,000 jobs a month, which has been the early 2012 pattern. While Obama will not be running for re-election to the tune of "Happy Days Are Here Again," the economy may well recede as the dominant issue of the campaign. Or the drag from higher gas prices and the uncertainties surrounding the euro may choke off the recovery. The point is that 165 days before the Tampa Convention, no one—not the pollsters, the pundits nor the party patriarchs—knows what issues will dominate the fall presidential debates.
This is often the pattern. McCain won the 2008 Republican nomination early because of his foreign-policy expertise and his P.O.W. heroism. But nothing in his background equipped McCain to confront the gravest economic crisis of his lifetime, the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Obama, by the way, was not exactly an economic theorist on par with John Maynard Keynes. He was nominated by the Democrats, just four years after he left the Illinois legislature, because of his life story, his bring-us-together reform agenda and his early opposition to the Iraq war.
I wonder if even Rick Santorum, during his lonely months touring the Pizza Ranches of rural Iowa, imagined the Republican primary race playing out the way it has. Certainly, no one else in the political firmament imagined it all coming down in mid-March to what has become, in essence, a protracted two-man race between Santorum and Romney. But this accidental runoff—which will almost certainly last until Texas (May 29) and California (June 5) weigh in—has given the Republicans an unexpected opportunity.
Ideally, this is the moment for Romney and Santorum to clarify the governing visions and the issue agendas that would shape their putative presidencies. For all his chest-pumping rhetoric, Romney has never explained why his business background would enable him to create jobs at a faster rate than other tax-cutting Republicans like Santorum. Even though Santorum—unlike the elusive Romney—has been eager to answer questions on the Sunday morning talk shows, he has never clarified what precise limits he would place on imposing morality from the Oval Office. And as both leading Republican contenders contemplate military action against Iran, it would be useful for the voters to hear what lessons they drew from the faulty intelligence that hastened the rush to war with Iraq.
Romney has just announced that he will be boycotting the March 19 debate in Oregon, the last scheduled face-off of the primary season. How unfortunate. Republican voters need to hear more from the candidates than stump speeches and dueling calculations of delegate arithmetic. Newt Gingrich has had this one right from the beginning—more debates are always better. Now that the Republicans have been given (and not cursed with) the gift of time in choosing a presidential nominee, it would be folly if the debates—and the serious policy discussions—ended just as the race entered the home stretch.
Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.
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- Rick Santorum
- Mitt Romney
- Newt Gingrich
- President Obama