Thursday, August 18, 2011

The nominee conundrum

Yesterday’s column by Jonah Goldberg dealt with the choice facing Republicans in 2012; who to select given the belief that Obama appears to be very beatable.  Goldberg’s point is that if you follow the Buckley rule to elect the most rightward candidate who is electable, the weaker Obama is the further to the right the party can go:

The weaker Obama gets, the more comfortable the conservative rank and file feel moving as far rightward as possible. When the incumbent looks like a loser no matter what, electability loses its premium. That the GOP just swapped Pawlenty for Perry is a testament to that fact, and far more significant than Bachmann’s straw-poll victory.”

He concludes with what might be dubbed the Christine O’Donnell cautionary rule, that the GOP “will think that almost any conservative will be electable given how weak Obama seems.”

To this, as Buckley would say, a few observations:

a) A further complicating factor is that the further to the conservative side the nominee is the less likely the election will produce a decisive margin.  Conversely, a more moderate squish candidate is more likely to win going away, and with coattails produce a more favorable congress, but that candidate will be less likely to govern in a conservative direction and to represent conservatism in the way they would like, and branding in politics is no less important in politics than it is in the marketplace.  This latter is no small point as Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, a clear rebuke to conservative thought, ends  up via winning elections as synonymous with conservatism proper.

b)  A related question is why Obama is beatable.  Is it a question of competency or governing philosophy?  Across the electorate and even for individual voters it is likely to be some combination of the two, but the relative weight placed on these two factors will influence which type of challenger can win and by what margin.  The more his failure is perceived to be philosophic the better an ideological challenger will fare against him.

c)  As has been written about elsewhere, both parties have been waiting for the decisive victory that will re-orient the political landscape in their favor.  But that result is paradoxically less likely to occur with the sort of calculations that Goldberg is talking about (this isn’t intended as a critique as I agree with him on this and generally think he is the best columnist going, merely an observation).  Goldberg’s calculation is a kind of efficient markets theorem of politics, where the parties go just far enough in the direction of purism to win.

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