We were talking to a group of senior Republicans recently about the election, and here’s the essence of what they said: Damn it. We should have gotten Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan to run.
A sense of lost opportunity is starting to seep through GOP ranks. Republicans believe the president is eminently beatable. But they’re increasingly convinced that none of their candidates are up to the job.
The two contenders with any real chance, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, each display devastating drawbacks. That’s why so many Republicans mourn for the putative Prince Charmings who never even tried to kiss the princess — Christie, the New Jersey governor; Daniels, the Indiana governor; and Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman.
Republican pollster John Zogby offers numbers to illustrate his party’s miasmic mood. Forty-two percent of all Republicans still rate their choices as only fair or poor. Among independents, the rate of dissatisfaction jumps to 72 percent. And in a survey of all voters, Pew reports that by a margin of 2-to-1, their impression of the GOP field is actually getting worse, not better.
Until recently, Republican insiders kept their deepening dismay to themselves, but now it’s breaking through the surface. Conservative columnist George Will writes of Romney and Gingrich: “Both are too risky to anoint today.” Commentator Charles Krauthammer is equally distraught: “This is a weak Republican field with two significantly flawed front-runners.”
The Democrats certainly don’t have an ideal candidate either. Obama enters the race with huge vulnerabilities of his own. The unemployment rate has edged downward but remains dismal, and will probably stay that way through the election; only one in five voters think the country is headed in the right direction; only 44 percent approve of the president’s performance. Few Americans can say they’re better off today than they were four years ago.
But one of the oldest adages in politics remains one of the truest: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. Romney has been running for president full-time since 2008, yet only one in five Republicans endorse him today and his support is receding, not rising. In the latest NBC-Marist poll, Romney dropped eight points in Iowa and six in New Hampshire.
The core reason is pretty simple: Folks just don’t like him. Democratic pollster Peter Hart conducted a focus group among a dozen Republicans and asked: If Romney were a member of your family, who would he be? “Second cousin,” said one. The snobby relative who’s “richer than the rest of us,” said another. And the most damning description of all: “The dad who’s never at home.”
Romney is frosty, remote, awkward — even his laugh seems scripted and phony. But his problems go deeper than mere mannerisms. Romney seems too privileged, too unmarked by failure or disappointment. One Republican told The New York Times he was “a little too perfect.” How can someone like that understand the fears and frustrations of the rest of us?
In American politics, scars of survival are essential badges of honor. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all grew up with alcoholic or absent fathers; George Bush the elder and John F. Kennedy almost died serving their country; Franklin Roosevelt overcame the ravages of polio and George Bush the younger conquered addiction and found God.
Romney grew up wealthy, married well, fathered five sons and expanded the family fortune. What story of suffering or redemption can he tell?
Gingrich does have such a story. After two divorces and a humiliating failure as Speaker of the House, he married a third time, converted to Catholicism, and can plausibly argue that he’s well acquainted with the trials and temptations that Romney has never encountered. He could be the next recipient of Clinton’s nickname, the “Comeback Kid.”
But if Gingrich can surmount his past, he cannot suffocate it. In Hart’s focus group, one Republican voter called him “careless and combustible” and another said he represented “the same ole ballgame.” Will is even nastier, arguing that Gingrich “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.” Krauthammer adds, “Gingrich has a self-regard so immense that it rivals Obama’s — but unlike Obama’s, is untamed by self-discipline.”
One of these “risky” and “significantly flawed” candidates will almost certainly carry the Republican banner against Obama next fall. And given the economic disaster gripping the country today, either one could plausibly win. But for many Republicans, this story has no Prince (or Princess) Charming. And how can you have a happy ending without one?
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.