Foreigners watching the recent Republican primary race to select their presidential nominee may be forgiven for being perplexed. At a time when most Americans were hardly paying attention, the Republican Party was engaged in a marathon series of twenty seven televised debates, forty primary elections, and seventeen caucuses. All featured a bewildering array of candidates, some of whom were barely known even to the party's own voters. Critics, and there were many, complained that the process was long, confusing, boring, and ultimately futile since the Republicans wound up with the result that had seemed likely from the start.
Yet, in the end, this marathon highlighted and put in sharp relief the skills and limitations of the various candidates whose prospects rose and fell with dizzying speed during the process. While accentuating and arguably overstating the importance of rhetorical skills and gimmicks, it also revealed gaping limitations of knowledge and uncovered disqualifying character and leadership flaws in a number of candidates. In short, the process worked and did exactly what it was meant to do.
The American Presidential Primary System: A Brief Primer
The American presidential primary system is a devilishly complex mixture of party rules and state laws for both Democrats and Republicans. In some American states only registered party members can vote in their respective party primaries. In other American States members of one political party can vote in another parties' primary. And of course caucuses, like those that took place in Iowa and resulted in Governor Romney winning by eight votes only to have that result later overturned by awarding the most votes to Rick Santorum operate by a wholly different set of administrative rules.
And, if this weren't difficult enough even getting on a state's primary party ballot is no easy matter. It requires the filing of petitions, the gathering of signatures, recruiting slates of delegates who have strong local name recognition and the support of state party officials, and paying close attention to administrative deadlines. There are also different classes of delegates some of whom are pledged to a particular candidate, some of whose allegiance extends only to the nominating convention's first ballot, and others of whom are elected but not specifically pledged at all. And, finally, some State and party rules award all a states' delegates to a winning candidate, while others award delegates proportionally.
It is easy to see why American and foreigners alike struggle to make sense of this complex process.
This complexity also explains why serious presidential candidates need to develop a formidable campaign apparatus with enough people and money to insure that they are politically competitive in all the primary states, each of which have their own byzantine set of rules. And that is before candidates add on policy advisors, political strategists, media operations, opposition research, paid political operatives in the states that the candidate plans to contest, and a great deal more. A serious presidential candidacy requires substantial advanced planning, a very strong and professional campaign organization, and the multiple millions of dollars necessary to sustain these efforts for however long it takes to win the nomination.
In the 2012 Republican presidential primary only one candidate, Mitt Romney, had a serious campaign organization of this magnitude. Yet, he has only recently become the party's presumptive nominee and has not yet gathered enough votes to be officially nominated on the convention's first ballot, which he will be because there are no other active candidates now opposing him.
Why did it take this formidable candidate so long to wrap up the nomination? Why did one after another of his opponents, first Michele Bachman, then Rick Perry, followed by Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich twice, and finally Rick Santorum, flummox Romney's bid to nail down the nomination and turn what should have been a one-sided contest into a war of attrition?
The answers can be found in what the debates primary revealed about the candidates' knowledge, thoughtfulness, temperaments, and characters. And the process itself also revealed the longing of one part of the Republican electorate, cultural and religious so-called movement conservatives, to find a validating champion for their views.
The Debates Primary
Traditionally, presidential primary campaigns have been won on the ground and in the air. That is, successfully campaigns have depended on turning out the vote of their supporters and gaining those supporters by television and radio ads. Local “town hall” meetings and other venues for candidates to meet voters and express their views supplement these campaign ads and get out the vote efforts.
But what if you were Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., or Rick Santorum and you wanted to run for the Republican presidential nomination with little money, a rudimentary campaign organization, were relatively unknown even to Republican voters or if you are- not wholly positive light, and you appealed to some but not a winning number of primary voters?
Well, if you lack money, organization, name recognition, and widespread support, you could pray for a miracle in the form of free, repeated opportunities to make your case publically in a dramatic high-stakes venue, toe to toe with your better known, better funded, better organized opponents. Or, to parallel what actually happened, you could pray for a large number, say twenty-seven, televised debates, with a very low entry bar enabling you to take part even if had the support of a miniscule portion of the electorate, in which you could publically audition your candidacy to an extent impossible given your meager organizational, financial resources, not to mention real deficits of leadership ability, policy depth and in some cases decided character flaws.
And in fact their prayers were answered. The Republican primary became in effect a marathon series of public debates, in which participants, most of whom had little public recognition or standing, assembled on the same stage, signaling rough equality, and answered questions ranging from the substantive to the absurd.
Given the free publicity and assumptions of candidate parity that magnified most participants' stature, except when like Rick Perry or Herman Cain their actual performance or past histories catastrophically decreased it, there was little incentive to drop out.
The Demolition Derby
The rise and demise of the candidates taking part in the debates derby came to follow a predictable path. One candidate would emerge from the pack and make a splash, briefly, before heightened visibility brought more scrutiny, and a fuller less flattering picture of their personal and political limitations and hence their electability. When their obvious limitations became impossible to ignore they were unceremoniously dropped and another possible “true” conservation candidate was abruptly propelled forward to take their place.
Michele Bachman was the first to rise and fade. At one point she was tied with Mitt Romney in the polling for the first of the GOP's marathon events, the Iowa Caucuses. She was well known in ultra-conservative circles for her “unflinchingly conservative stances” and “ inflammatory rhetoric” on a variety of issues dear to the hearts of some tea-party members—gay marriage, religious values, suspicion of government intentions and programs, but not necessary to all Republicans and certainly not to the average American voter.
Emblematic of her inflammatory rhetorical style was her assertion, for which there was scant, if any, medical evidence that HPV vaccine might cause mental retardation. Her accusation brought an immediate response from the medical and scientific community asserting that she was simply wrong. However, Ms. Bachmann refused to apologize or back down.
As a putative frontrunner, Ms. Bachmann began to receive more press scrutiny than her candidacy could weather. One major news report noted of her that, “In politics and in her personal life, Michele Bachmann is defined by a striking certitude.”
Her barely concealed, or restrained certainty about her position on any policy subject that came up during the debates led to the worry, at least for this observer, that she was so tightly wound emotionally that a snap under pressure should she gain the White House ought to be considered to be at least a possibility.
Governor Rick Perry
Next up was Texas Governor Rick Perry who displayed a natural ease and charm that reflected a long established, and amply rewarded, confidence in his political skills. He got off to a strong start. However, he had not spent a lot of time thinking or preparing for a presidential race, was ambivalent about it, and then decided at the last moment to jump in.
The question was: how far would his charm and self-confidence take him and the answer was not very far.
Governor Perry dispensed plenty of highly- charged rhetoric to movement conservatives—2nd Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, the importance of States' Rights, a flat tax, off-shore oil exploration as the key to a secure energy policy and so on. But he also seemed to agree with the far-right fringe of the very conservatives group he tried to enlist by appearing to subscribe to “birtherism,” the idea that President Obama is not really an American citizen and this ineligible for the presidency and suggesting that Texas had the right, and might actually secede from the Union.
The real reason for Perry's implosion was well captured in a Commentary headline that read, “Debates Are Killing Perry's Candidacy.”
At points he seems to withdraw from taking part in the debate, at others he seemed unprepared to respond in any depth on matters of basic importance like what to do about the American economy.
His public low point, however came, when during a debate, he reached for one of his signature rhetorical devices about abolishing three federal agencies and couldn't remember all of them.
This seemed both to crystallize and cement the view that that Governor was as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle.
Herman Cain, an African –American businessman was next to ride the roller coaster. He briefly surged on the basis of a catchy economic phrase (9-9-9) that turned out to have been formulated by his personal accountant. It proved to be more of a slogan than a policy. He also proved himself to be remarkably uninformed by vast areas of presidential responsibility in domestic and foreign policy, seeming to welcome a war with Iran because of what he viewed as the superiority of American Aegis warships.
On domestic policy as well, including his own economic plan, he seemed ignorant of important details or its possible economic impact. And before his brief elevation, he seemed just as intent in promoting his new autobiography, as running for office. He was forced to drop out when a thirteen- year affair came to light.
After Herman Cain and Rick Perry's candidacies deflated, Newt Gingrich got another look. He didn't faire much better than he had the first time and for the same reasons. He came across as smart, knowledgeable, and rhetorically nimble. Unfortunately, these positive leadership skills were encased in a psychology that was accurately described as including “an ungovernable ego, colossal even by Washington standards.” This grandiose ego was housed in a psychology that included a temperament that was by turns expansive, bombastic, and peevish. He also showed a marked disinclination or inability to contain a stream of poorly thought out self-described “big ideas.”
All of this was in addition to his influence peddling on behalf of Fanny and Freddie Mae a key institution in the explosion of risky home mortgage loans, his record of adultery, and having been on side many sides of so many issues that that finding a consistent core would be difficult, at best.
And finally when all the other “true conservative” candidates had been elevated and discarded, Rick Santorum took their place. If rigid best described Michelle Bachman, lightweight best described Herman Cain, more hat than cattle best described Rick Perry, and grandiosity could fairly describe Mr. Gingrich, then angry would have to be the description of choice for Rick Santorum.
Mr. Santorum like Newt Gingrich proved to be a forceful, knowledgeable and articulate defender of his positions. However, whereas Mr. Gingrich's views were boundlessly expansive, Mr. Santorum's proved to be a very narrowly focused, strident, self-described “cultural warrior.” He pledged to focus on cultural, social, and religious issues and repeatedly did concentrating on homosexuality and the virtue of traditional family life and woman's roles.
Mr. Santorum's rhetoric was often angry, preachy, and his style acerbic. He said he almost “threw up” when he first heard John Kennedy's famous speech on his Catholic faith and the presidency. He insisted he would continue to talk about contraception because it is, “one of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about. . . . It's not okay. It's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Paradoxically, he then became angry when the press would ask about these strong statements saying they will take any issue and "blow it up," and "that's been happening to me all my life. I'm ready for it."
Spoiling for a fight of his own making is one way to view his stance. And he got into a number.
At one point he yelled at a New York Times reporter for asking him about his comment that Mitt Romney is "the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama,” calling the reporter a liar. The reporter's quote was accurate and Mr. Santorum then further explained that he meant the remark in the context of health care policy.
As one long-time observer of Mr. Santorum noted, “He's visceral, emotional, provocative. It's who he is.” Mr. Santorum agrees and has said himself (at 4:18), “I'm a passionate guy. I'm tough, I'm a fighter, But you know what? I'm an Italian kid from a steel town, what do you expect from me?”
Actually, what one would expect from a presidential candidate and a president is a temperament in which anger and petulance are not on hair-trigger alert.
Looking for Mr. Right
The Republican debates marathon played out in the context of a determined effort by those with strong conservative views to find an alternative to Mitt Romney. His fatal flaw, in their eyes, was the suspicion that he was moderate masquerading as a conservative. Their preference was someone who was a bone fide movement conservative and their search led them to elevate and then abandon a series of candidates—first, Michele Bachmann, then Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich twice, Rick Perry, and finally Rick Santorum. Other contenders like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman never even reached the level of a roller-coaster bid.
This determined search for a “real” conservative was fueled by “very conservative Republicans.” They should not be confused with “conservative Republicans” or even “conservatives in the general population.” These are all quite different groups. The latest Gallup poll, which has tracked the ideological makeup of the American electorate for decades, reports that only 10% of Americans can be classified as “very conservative,” while 30% can be classified as “conservative,” 35% can be classified as “moderate” and 21% as “liberal” or very liberal.” The United States then is far more “conservative” than “liberal.”
Among self-identified Republicans, these figures change a bit; 21% identify as “very conservative,”51% identify as simply “conservative,” and 3% self-identify as “liberal.” Moreover, within this broad frame of Republican leaning voters there are different views as to what the most important issues are. Some focus on national security, others on domestic policy and economic issues, and a third group on cultural and religious issues.
The first two groups are most numerous with the cultural and religious issue group making up in impact where they trail in numbers by their commitment and intensity. And it is fair to say that while Republicans, as a group, share some common ground, there are not large overlaps in what each group considers the country's most important issues.
It was the “very conservative” part of the Republican collation, the religious and cultural conservatives that provided the votes and emotional fuel for the Republican primary demolition derby. They wanted a bone fide conservative candidate and that meant someone who articulated the values and positions of their brand of Republicanism.
The Conservative Search for Validation
Cultural and religious conservatives wanted a candidate that reflected their views, but they wanted something more: validation. They had felt for many years that their policy positions had more been managed than embraced by their party, and they had a point. The purer the religious and cultural conservative positions that a general election Republican presidential candidate took, the harder it was to convince those 35% of self-described “moderate” American voters that they were not “extremist,” and the easier it was for their opponents to brand then that way.
Not only did religious and cultural conservatives feel simultaneously used and marginalized by their party, but they also felt as if they and their positions were an object of derision and ridicule among those in some of the country's major institutions, especially the media.
It is hard to overestimate the anger and contempt that many religious and cultural conservatives feel about how they have been portrayed and treated. And their scorn for those mocking or caricaturing their beliefs is, in too many cases, well deserved.
Fight Club Politics
So this time around they wanted a candidate who would not only stick up for their values but for them . Thus, any candidate who showed signs of being ready to attack and fight back against the institutions and people who had held these conservatives up to ridicule where people they were going to support.
Consider some of the follow commentary by or about the different candidates:
Charles Krauthammer: "Mr. Cain, when Clarence Thomas was near to achieving position of high authority, he was hit with a sexual harassment charge. You contending for presidency, the office of highest authority, leading in the polls for the Republican nomination, all of the sudden get hit with a sexual harassment charge. Do you think that race, being a strong black conservative, has anything to do with the fact you've been so charged? And if so, do you have any evidence to support that?"
Herman Cain: "I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it. But because I am an unconventional candidate running an unconventional campaign and achieving some unexpected unconventional results in terms of my -- the poll. We believe that yes, there are some people who are Democrats, liberals who do not want to see me win the nomination. And there could be some people on the right who don't want to see me -- because I'm not the 'establishment candidate'…"
Rick Santorum: “You know, if you're a conservative and you haven't taken on a New York Times reporter, you're not worth your salt as far as I'm concerned. So we're going to stand up and fight."
Q to Perry: But you know there's concern that you use controversial rhetoric, like calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”
Perry: “There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I'm really talking to the American citizen out there. I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader. I'm comfortable that the rhetoric I have used was both descriptive and spot on. Calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme has been used for years. I don't think people should be surprised that terminology would be used.”
Newt Gingrich answering a question at New Hampshire Debate: “I just want to raise the point about the news media bias. You don't hear the opposite question asked. Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won't accept gay couples? Which is exactly what the state has done. Should the Catholic Church be driven out of providing charitable services in the District of Columbia because it won't give in to secular bigotry? Should the Catholic Church find itself discriminated against by the Obama administration on key delivering of service because of the bias and bigotry of the administration? The bigotry question goes both ways, and there's a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side and none of it gets covered by the news media.”
The wish to nominate a fighting champion of their cause who could successfully fight back, the theme of the above quotes , against those who caricatured their beliefs and mocked their views was understandable. But each of their champions, in turn, revealed glaring personal, policy, or leadership flaws.
Some lacked a basic knowledge of policy that made it hard to argue they were well qualified for the presidency. Others revealed themselves to lack the necessary temperament to manage the strong emotional currents that are an important part of any presidency. And others revealed glaring flaws of judgment, arrogance and grandiosity, traits that are dangerous for any president.
The Process was Long, Arduous and Confusing Yet It Worked
In the end, the party did pick its most qualified and competitive general election candidate, Mitt Romney. That all of the pop up then disappear candidates failed to gain sustained traction, and that Mr. Romney has emerged as the Republican presidential candidate is a validation of the general good sense and moderation of the Republican leaning electorate.
He will have his work cut out for him though. Denying a sitting president a second term is no easy matter. And President Obama will not go quietly or easily. So too, one result of the search for the perfect conservative is that it has left the mistaken impression that religious and cultural conservatives are the Republican Party. They are not, but Democratic friendly purveyors of conventional wisdom are already pushing the meme that “Republicans are the problem.”
Mr. Romney, of all the Republican candidates who ran, has the advantage of not fitting easily into the Democratic line of attack. It is clear that he is smart, well-versed in the issues, has a sharp critique of President Obama's domestic and foreign policies as well as a vision of where and how he would like to lead the United States. He also seems to have a temperament more akin to Ronald Reagan than the cool, sometimes harsh edginess of his opponent.
These are critical leadership foundations on which to mount an effect challenge to a sitting president, and so it is not surprising that a recent analysis was titled “Romney emerges as a potent adversary.” How potent? Well, the president and Mr. Romney are now essentially tied not only nation wide, but in the all important “swing states.”
© Stanley Renshon 2012