Judging solely by their résumés, the two apparent finalists for the Republican presidential nomination don’t look too shabby: a successful business executive and former governor who led the rescue of a Winter Olympics mired in scandal versus a successful author and former House speaker who led his party to a historic majority and went on to make films about conservative causes.
Yet many Republicans are in despair over what remains of their field, which for all practical purposes is down to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. There are a host of devilish details beneath the broad strokes of their biographies, to be sure. But is this pair any weaker than past contenders? Are those who declined to participate truly a superior bunch?
Unfortunately for the GOP, many indicators point to “yes.” Some of them have to do with the singular histories and personalities of Romney and Gingrich. Others have to do with the times, particularly the establishment-versus-tea-party schism in the Republican Party.
The sharpest contrast is with the Democratic field of 2008. In June 2007, Gallup found that four Democrats were broadly acceptable to the party—Hillary Rodham Clinton (82 percent), Barack Obama (78 percent), John Edwards (77 percent), and Al Gore (72 percent). On the GOP side that year, only Rudy Giuliani had a comparable number. Early this month, before the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, Gallup found Romney acceptable to 59 percent of Republicans and Gingrich to only 46 percent.
The Pew Research Center found similarly lackluster enthusiasm for this year’s field. In a poll this month, 51 percent of Republicans rated their field excellent or good. That’s a lot lower than the 68 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats who said that of their candidates in January 2008.
“This is a discontented electorate looking for someone who’s going to make them happy,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “It’s a very unstable, unpredictable electorate, and we’re probably not finished with the ups and downs.”
It may be unfair to compare any nomination race to 2008. John McCain was not an orthodox conservative, but he was a former prisoner of war and a national hero. Clinton and Obama were evenly matched candidates with extraordinary strengths. Both represented demographic breakthroughs and thus were symbols as well as mere politicians. Both were able to raise big money; both were formidable speakers and debaters, and both demonstrated strong people skills on the campaign trail.
Beyond that, neither was dealing with a divided party. Obama was the standard-bearer for opponents of the Iraq war, but by then most of the country was against it and Clinton—who had voted to authorize the invasion—was calling for a phased withdrawal of troops.
The 2012 Republican finalists actually bear a striking resemblance to the Democrats’ top contenders in 2004. There was the flip-flopping rich guy from Massachusetts—Romney this year; John Kerry in 2004. There was the establishment figure campaigning as a rabble-rousing revolutionary—Gingrich this year as the populist attacker of Romney-style capitalism; fiscally conservative 12-year Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004 as the antiwar “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” And, as Pew documents, only 47 percent of Democrats said their field was good or excellent in early 2004, similar to the 51 percent of Republicans who said that this month.
In the past, unprepossessing candidates sometimes grew into their roles as nominees and presidents. Think then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992, a year when Democrats pined for but failed to entice then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo into the race. Someone will win the GOP nomination this year. Won’t he then grow into the role and start being perceived as formidable?
There are two very short answers to that: “Not necessarily” and “Michael Dukakis.”
The obstacles this year are well-known. Romney, with his $20 million-plus annual income and awkward personality, will never have the common touch. Nor will he ever be able to erase his past as a moderate who supported abortion rights and signed a Massachusetts health care law with an individual mandate. Gingrich will never be able to rewrite a history of recidivist infidelity and divorce, vaporize memories of a chaotic House reign, or change a personality he freely admits is grandiose and controversial.
Gingrich will also find it hard to reverse the unfavorable impression he has left on most of the country. “He has been negatively regarded by the electorate for 20 years. They don’t like him because of the way he speaks,” said William Schneider, a polling analyst for CNN before joining the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. He cited Gingrich’s habitual use of words like “despicable” and “stupid.”
Bill Clinton didn’t have a great marital track record, but neither did he have a 17 percent favorable rating, as Gingrich did in one recent national poll. Clinton also had the interpersonal and strategic skills to unite a Democratic Party that was split between business-oriented centrists and liberal activists.
Romney and Gingrich so far have not shown the capacity to unite the two disparate wings of the GOP. That leaves the party yearning for the ones that got away, foremost among them experienced leaders like Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, and Jeb Bush.
Weekly Standard Publisher William Kristol fantasized in print about Daniels, the Indiana governor, using his State of the Union rebuttal on Tuesday night as a dry run for a late entry into the presidential race (he didn’t). The New York Times’ Ross Douthat characterized GOP sentiment toward its contenders as “weary resignation.” The headline over a recent piece by Bret Stephens, author of the Global View column in The Wall Street Journal, read: “The GOP Deserves to Lose. That’s what happens when you run with losers.”
That’s harsh and possibly premature but understandable, given the finalists, the poll numbers, and the roster of big names on the sidelines.
This article appears in the January 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.