The Elusive Alternative: GOP Candidate Surges in 2011

Republicans surged toward Donald Trump, then Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry and now Herman Cain (for a second time). Support for each has risen sharply only to fall off rapidly. Why is the GOP finding it hard to settle on an alternative to Mitt Romney and why has Romney seemingly failed to move up after these alternatives slumped?

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat writes about the difficulty the GOP “populist” movement has had in finding a candidate this year.

Republican primary voters deserve a better class of right-wing populist, and the country does as well.

[The populist] critique accuses the Republican leadership of being too cavalier about illegal immigration, too forgiving of crony capitalism and Wall Street-Washington coziness, too promiscuous with overseas military interventions, and too willing to imitate Democrats and centralize power in Washington. Right-wing populists tend to argue that Beltway Republicans have lost touch with the party’s core constituencies: small-business owners, middle-class families and Main Street, U.S.A.

These arguments often have merit. The trouble is that no populist politician has been able to deliver an agenda to match. Having identified important problems, right-wing populists almost inevitably rally to unworkable solutions.

This is a very interesting argument about the necessity of serious policy proposals to match the critique of current establishment politics. While the media have focused heavily on Perry’s poor debate performance perhaps a larger problem is his lack of clearly articulated proposals. Social Security as Ponzi scheme and Bernanke as treasonous don’t count. As Douthat argues, a successful Republican populist candidate must offer plans that seem grounded in a realistic understanding of what policy changes are possible to address that critique without, as he says, “shoot[ing] financial markets in the head.”

Elites have been quicker to turn on Rick Perry than have GOP voters, with the polls falling rapidly but still at a higher level of support than anyone but Romney. I’ve argued that his fall is real and consequential but before writing his final political obituary it may be prudent to see if those who can’t embrace Romney find no alternative but Perry. Christie of course deliberates as the world waits.

Romney’s problem remains that while he is acceptable to the establishment, his “authenticity” deficit continues to trouble large segments of the GOP electorate who remain troubled by his numerous departures from conservative orthodoxy only to now claim to embrace those positions. As Douthat said of Romney in an earlier column

No one doubts Romney’s intelligence or competence, but he has managed to run for president for almost five years without taking a single courageous or even remotely interesting position.

There may yet be an alternative. Mitch Daniels might have been. Chris Christie may yet be. I think the strongest case is for a populist conservative who has served as governor, facing the discipline of being required to govern and shape policies true to conservative principles that are simultaneously practical. Of course Perry has not appeared to benefit from his experience as governor of Texas, so gubernatorial experience is no guarantee of a plausible policy platform. Perry, indeed, has suffered precisely because of his policy concerning in-state college tuition for undocumented students and his inability to articulate a defense of that plan that doesn’t offend anti-illegal immigrant conservatives in the party.

Still, the best hope for populist Republicans is found in the statehouses where ideology meets the practical requirements of governing. If not this year, then the crop of new GOP governors swept into office in 2010 offers bench strength in the future. (The same holds for Democrats, as the example of a long-shot Arkansas governor in 1991 demonstrates.)

The future for GOP conservatives is more likely found in statehouses than on Fox, another point Douthat makes

This is the irony of Fox’s impact on Republican politics. In a sense, the network’s shows have given right-wing populism a larger megaphone than it’s ever had before. But by turning populism into mass entertainment, they’ve made it less and less likely that a conservative populist will ever actually deserve to win.

I’d disagree with the last sentence. There will be strong future contenders, but they will come from the governors offices rather than cable studios.