As the travails of Herman Cain remain front-and-center, this “contest” for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is becoming boring. Like a formulaic movie, few plot twists are unfamiliar and we all know how it ends.
This leads me to think about the nature and history of Republican nominations. In 1960, Republicans nominated then-Vice President Richard Nixon. In 1968, they chose Nixon again. After his 1974 resignation elevated Vice President Gerald Ford to the presidency, they nominated Ford, who had fended off a challenge from Ronald Reagan, in 1976. Four years later, it was Reagan’s turn. They selected him from a big field that included former CIA Director and U.N. Ambassador George H.W. Bush. In 1988, after Reagan’s two terms, the GOP nominated then-Vice President Bush, who had beaten out, among others, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. In 1996, it was Dole’s turn. In 2008, they elevated Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who eight years earlier was beaten out by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
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In a half century, the only exceptions to the rule of Republicans nominating sitting or former vice presidents, or previous presidential candidates, were Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona in 1964 and Bush in 2000. Sense a pattern here? Let’s just say that Republicans aren’t exactly early adopters. They prefer the familiar and comfortable, even when they have spirited primary contests. In this field, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, both veterans of the 2008 campaign, have done this before. Arguably, one might throw in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Although the Georgian hasn’t run for president before, Gingrich has experience playing more or less on this level.
Then there is money. This year’s GOP race might look familiar to actors Charlie Sheen and now Ashton Kutcher: Two and a Half Men. Basically, Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are the only candidates raising grown-up money. Paul brings in considerably less. The rest collect chump change—not enough to make a dent on the presidential campaign trail. Iowa is less than two months away. If a candidate isn’t even in the hunt now, he isn’t likely to get there.
Romney is having a hard time rising above 25 percent to 30 percent in polls. However, in a field of eight candidates, or 10 if you add in former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, getting a third of the vote months before the first ballot is cast may be an artificially high standard. It’s true that there is considerable resistance among conservative Republicans to Romney. Many don’t fully trust his conservative bona fides. But couldn’t you have said the same thing about McCain last time?
Now, Republicans look like people shopping for a new dress or suit. They first stop in front of the Romney window. It seems OK but not exciting. They then stroll next door to the window of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. They are briefly intrigued but ultimately decide it’s not for them. Then, they go to Perry’s and now to Cain’s window. But it is looking less attractive than at first glance. Most find Paul more of an oddity or a curiosity and are not really pausing much. There are still a couple more storefronts to peruse. Gingrich’s might be next. Maybe they will stop at the window of former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., for a moment.
But in the end, I think we know where this thing is headed: Romney. His weakness, that he doesn’t provide a starkly different ideological profile, is actually his strength in a general election. If the 2012 election is a referendum on the Obama presidency, Republicans will very likely win. Romney would make it a referendum. If there is a vivid ideological choice, next November’s election would be a more evenly matched fight. Voters doubt Obama is big enough for the job. Polls and focus groups show that swing voters like him and don’t question his motives or intentions. They just don’t think he is getting the job done. They will pick a Republican who presents a competent alternative.
Too often, a party wins because voters are angry with the party in power. It wins not because of what it is or what it stands for, but because of what it isn’t. As soon as the victory celebrations are over, an ideological mandate is retroactively constructed and adopted. It’s quickly forgotten why a party won—both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. Right now, the American people aren’t looking for ideology. They are looking for competence.
Romney is in no way a sure bet next November. But he is the best shot Republicans have against Obama. Money, organization, candidate skills—Romney, unlike the rest of the field, seems to have the fundamentals down. I think we know how this movie ends.
WATCH Cain joked about allegations on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on Monday:
This article appears in the Nov. 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.