Does Anyone Have a Grip on the G.O.P.?
It wasn’t that long ago that Republican money men and operatives in Washington were moping around K Street like Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Wood, lamenting their party’s extremist image and casting about for a candidate with a chance of beating Barack Obama in 2012. Citing what he called the “near self-immolation” of House Republicans during the debt-ceiling fiasco, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, worried in early August that a “large number of Republican primary voters, and even more independent general-election voters, will be wary of supporting a Republican candidate in 2012 if the party looks as if it’s in the grip of an infantile form of conservatism.”
But a few months of obstinate unemployment can change a lot in Washington, and these days the mood inside the Republican establishment is, if not quite smug, then certainly relieved. In a slideshow widely circulated among Republicans in recent weeks, one of the party’s leading pollsters, Bill McInturff, noted that the consumer-confidence index (as measured by the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters), had fallen in August to a score of 55.7. No president, McInturff pointed out, has ever been re-elected with an index score lower than 75. Around this time in 1979, as Jimmy Carter, the modern standard setter for failed presidents, was preparing to seek a second term, the index was at 64.5.
Given such fast-deteriorating conditions, many Republican veterans have come around to the view that they aren’t really going to need the perfect presidential candidate, and perhaps not even a notably good one. With Chris Christie having taken himself out of the running — again — earlier this month, the field of candidates now appears to be pretty much set, and none of them are likely to inspire any reimaginings of Mount Rushmore. But maybe all the moment requires is someone who can pass as a broadly acceptable alternative — a candidate who doesn’t project the Tea Party extremism of Michele Bachmann or the radical isolationism of Ron Paul. “If we have a Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney battle for the nomination, it’s a little hard to say, ‘Ooh, the party has really gone off the rails,’ ” Kristol told me just after Perry entered the race, a development that essentially ended Bachmann’s brief ascent. Establishment Republicans may prefer Romney to Perry, but their assumption is that either man can be counted on to steer the party back toward the broad center next fall, effectively disarming the Tea Party mutiny.