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The State Of The GOP Race

Ross Douthat asks why I've been mocking both the possibility that Mitt Romney might win the Republican nomination and the conservative attempt to draft alternative candidates into the race:

a question for writers like Chait and Larison, who have made sport of both Romney himself and of the conservative hope that someone else will emerge to take his place. As disinterested observers of the G.O.P. and as patriotic Americans who presumably want the best for their country regardless of which party holds the White House, whom do they think Republicans should want to join the race instead?

This seems like a good time to reset my view of the GOP race, but I'll start by answering Douthat. Answer: I don't think Republicans should want an alternative to Romney. They should want Romney. They should want a president who favors evidence-based technocratic solutions that promote general prosperity. But since most Republicans don't want those things, I don't think they'll nominate Romney.

If you take as a given that Republicans want to a candidate who best combines electability vis a vis President Obama with a genuine commitment to conservative movement principle, then they should have wanted Tim Pawlenty. Now that Pawlenty is out, and if we stipulate that Romney's shameful history of technocratic success renders him unacceptable, then they should draft a politician with some skill as a communicator and/or reaching out to non-base voters. I'd go with Marco Rubio -- make a dent in the Latino vote and you make Obama's reelection very tough -- or Paul Ryan.

Ryan is sort of a tricky case. He has huge positives and huge negatives. His economic plan is very, very unpopular, and likely to become all the more so if the presidential race focuses on its highly unpopular details. On the other hand, he's extremely good at presenting himself, dishonestly, as a compulsively honest, non-ideological budget fix-it man, and getting the political news media to act as his press secretary.

Ryan's potential candidacy is worth delving into as a sign of the state of the GOP field. Undecided presidential candidates answering questions about whether they will run speak in a language of their own, one that bears only a passing relationship to standard English. If you asked your friend if he wants to go see "Green Lantern" with you Friday night, and he replied, "No, my wife and I have theater tickets that night, and I hate Superhero movies anyway," you'd interpret that as a clear no. If a politicians gave the equivalent answer to the will-you-run question -- "I'm very happy serving the great people of wherever it is I'm from and I hate Washington" -- everybody would expect him to announce his candidacy within a few weeks.

By that bizarre standard -- that is, by the bizarre standards of presidential hint lingo -- Ryan has spent months jumping up and down, waving his arms and screaming that he wants to run for president. 

Flat denials of interest are simply rote, signalling nothing whatsoever about their intent. I've been hyping his various unsubtle hints of interest, including his delivery of a foreign policy address, apropos of nothing. Ryan is undoubtedly considering a presidential candidacy, based on Stephen Hayes' reporting.

Now, that is not to say Ryan will run. The logistical hurdles, ably described by Chris Cilizza, are serious. Part of what Ryan is doing in his dance of the seven veils is to try to suss out whether the party establishment would rally behind him with the near-unanimity needed to overcome those hurdles.

So this is where we stand. The most seemingly formidable possible nominee is hampered with overwhelmingly exploitable weaknesses in the primary. The race is wide open, but the best position for a candidate to hold is crazy enough to appeal to the party base but also able to present a moderate face to the broader electorate. The party base has become sufficiently empowered over the last two years that I think its veto carries more weight than the establishment's; a candidate with the crazy but not the electability (i.e., Michele Bachmann) probably stands a better chance of nomination than a candidate with the latter but not the former (Romney.) That said, I've long thought the nominee would probably be somebody who could do both. That explains my bad horse race pick of Pawlenty, who turned out to be a poor campaigner, but also suffered from a terrible moment in the first GOP debate which sent his campaign into a death spiral from which it never recovered.

Rick Perry seemed like the best possible candidate to bridge the crazy-electable divide. But his initial image tilts a lot closer to "crazy" than "electable" than most predicted, and the establishment is nervous about him. Perry now leads in the most recent national poll, but this merely demonstrates the shallowness of Romney's support, which floated along on name recognition, the perception of being the front-runner, and a general lack of awareness of his many apostasies. Still, at this moment, Perry seems like the best bet.