For the first time since 1996, Democrats are watching a presidential race unfold that doesn't involve a competitive primary campaign within their party. But while they don't have much of a role in picking the GOP nominee, they still have good reason to follow the action: One of these Republicans will end up running against President Obama, and could become president.
Since they've been reduced to the role of spectators, who should Democrats be pulling for in the GOP race? The answer is actually pretty tricky. If we stipulate that most Democrats would probably love to see the GOP pick Michele Bachmann but that she is highly unlikely to win the nomination, then that leaves two realistic options: Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.
Why Democrats should cheer for him: Because his penchant for inflammatory, unhinged antics and his stylistic similarities to George W. Bush make him a much richer target -- and raise the possibility that, if nominated, he might unnerve swing voters so much that he performs several critical points worse than a generic Republican nominee would.
Some fresh polling data bolsters this possibility. A PPP survey released on Wednesday shows Perry running 11 points behind Obama in a head-to-head match-up. Romney, by contrast, only trails Obama by four points.
It's true that it's still early in the process and these numbers could mainly reflect a temporary, exaggerated reaction by unengaged voters to the controversial-seeeming noise that Perry has made in the past few weeks. But there's no denying that, at least for now, he's a much more undisciplined candidate than Romney and he brings some ideologically extreme baggage to the race. The loyalties of most swing voters in presidential elections are dictated by economic conditions -- but not all of them. As a general election candidate, Perry could end up a smaller-scale version of Barry Goldwater, rejected even by some Republican-friendly swing voters as being too outside the mainstream and too erratic. In other words, more than Romney he would seem to have the potential to cost the GOP a winnable presidential election.
Why cheering for him might backfire: Because he could just as easily end up being a smaller-scale version of Ronald Reagan -- the Republican candidate Jimmy Carter's White House badly wanted to run against in 1980. They knew Carter faced a problematic reelection campaign, but assumed that Reagan (who had launched his political career as a Goldwater surrogate) would terrify the general election masses. But 1980 was different from 1964: The conservative movement was much bigger, for one, and the economy was in much worse shape. Carter's approval rating was in the low- to mid-30s and swing voters were eager to boot him from office -- eager enough to take a chance on the far-right Reagan, who achieved a 44-state landslide.
The example of Bill Clinton in 1992 is also worth keeping mind. When Clinton emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee that year, he was written off by his own party as a sure loser in the fall, the result of a series of personal scandals that had pushed his negative ratings to dangerously high levels. Bob Kerrey, who ran against Clinton in the primaries, predicted that the Republicans would "open him up like a soft peanut." Ed Koch, who tried to lead a Stop Clinton effort in New York's Democratic primary, said that Clinton was "so flawed that there is no possibility" he could beat George H.W. Bush. But as the Democrats' official nominee, Clinton's image began to change. The economy was in poor shape and voters were itching to unseat Bush, so they gave Clinton a second look and liked what they saw. Clinton went on to an easy victory, and by the end of the campaign, he was celebrated as his generation's brightest political talent -- the same guy who just six months earlier was seen as general election poison.
Democrats cheering for Perry should keep this in mind. It's possible that he'd end up shooting himself in the foot and scaring away swing voters in the fall -- but it's not a sure bet, especially given the state of the economy.
Why Democrats should cheer for him: Because they think he's faking it. Romney's greatest liability within the GOP is also Democrats' greatest source of comfort: His history of moderate/pragmatic conservatism in Massachusetts -- the guy who distanced himself from Ronald Reagan, bragged of supporting Paul Tsongas for president, and championed a healthcare law that became the model for "ObamaCare."
Since going national, Romney has tried desperately to make Republicans forget about his past, and he's had some success. But many Republicans fear -- and many Democrats hope -- that he's just following the example of George H.W. Bush, who ran against Reagan as a pro-choice, pro-ERA supply-side skeptic in the 1980 Republican race, then spent eight years as vice president pretending he'd never said any of it. It was enough to earn the 1988 GOP nomination and to win the presidency, but once in office, Bush's pragmatic instincts returned -- the S&L bailout, a deficit-fighting tax hike, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the nomination of David Souter to the Supreme Court, the staunch refusal to go into Iraq after expelling Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait.
There's an old anecdote from a Bob Woodward book about Bill Clinton privately assessing the GOP field early in 1996. The leading candidates included Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. Clinton suggested to one of his aides that he'd like to help Dole. Why? "Look at the bunch of nitwits they've got running," he (supposedly) said. "Dole's the only one with any capability to do the job."
That's the case for Romney from the Democratic perspective: Wouldn't you feel more comfortable with Romney in the Oval Office than Perry?
Why cheering for him might backfire: Because Romney would still be a Republican president, and today's Republican Party is far more rigid and unforgiving ideologically than the one George H.W. Bush dealt with. So even if Romney has moderate/technocratic instincts, what good would they do him if his party's congressional ranks are filled with Tea Party Republicans who are on the lookout for any sign of impurity? And if rank-and-file conservative voters take their cues from opinion leaders (like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) who are already skeptical of Romney's ideological devotion?
Romney just wouldn't have the wiggle room that Bush 41 did. Sure, he'd have some, but he'd have to pick his spots carefully, mindful that every compromise with Democrats, every questionable appointment, and every refusal to give the base what it wants would reopen the "Is Mitt really one of us?" debate on the right. In other words, he might have to fake it as president too.