the GOP primary disaster

It isn’t news that the republican party doesn’t have many hopeful options. Romney, the only major candidate from 2008 to try again, is widely reviled and failed to surge at any time, unlike his fellow candidates, in this incredibly drawn out process. But don’t the republicans realize yet that he must be their guy?

All the other candidates are either unelectably crazy/extreme (Santorum for being too dogmatic about nuclear families and hating gays; Paul for not being a “team player” and towing the neocon imperial line, not to mention his array of crazy ideas that are either unpleasant to the right, or the left, or both at the same time; and Bachmann for being almost certainly insane), or else have the kind of baggage that has either forced them out already (Cain, with his multiple sexual harassment allegations, likely years-long affair, and hilarious policy proposals) or is bound to (Perry’s debate gaffes, HPV vaccine waffling, and general unpopularity with his own state; Gingrich’s own affairs, House ethics violation, racial insensitivity, and suicidal mean streak against Romney). The only halfway decent major republican candidate left is Jon Huntsman, the ‘other’ mormon in the race who bet the farm on New Hampshire and came in a definite but distant third.

So given all this, and as this politico analysis makes clear, Romney is pretty close to tying this thing up. Current polls (Rammussen and PPP [pdf]) have Romney in first in South Carolina with at least a 5 point lead over Gingrich, and he’s probably only doing that well given his status as a good old boy from Georgia. This inevitable development has evangelicals who are afraid of Romney desperately scrambling to get behind a non-Romney candidate, and since Santorum is the latest of the non-Romneys to enjoy a polling surge and did well in Christian hicktown Iowa, he’s their man. In truth, we will need to wait at least until South Carolina is decided to know who is likely to be the republican candidate, since South Carolina has a history of being a violent contest that helps zero in on a winner for the ticket (though this would seem to favour Romney since Wikipedia claims that, while the primary has chosen the eventual nominee every time since 1980, it is also “considered a firewall to protect frontrunners.”)

But let’s remember the function of the primaries! It is to choose a candidate for president that the republicans both want to and think can win in the general election. Even suspending disbelief long enough to suppose that Santorum might win the GOP nod, I leave it to the intrepid reader to consider how much of a chance he will have at unseating Obama, who remains inexplicably popular (hovering around the mid-to-high 40s despite war crimes, an intransigent congress, and sustained economic hardship — more on these in coming posts). Romney, for all his faults, seems like the only candidate with any chance of having broad enough appeal to seriously challenge the sitting president, a fact which his team has been betting on for some time.

But that’s just the problem. Romney is deeply unpopular among republicans for the same reasons he will be unpopular generally. He has flip-flopped shamelessly on important topics like abortion and health care. He is an unlikable millionaire thanks to his prowess at aggressively reorganizing businesses, often by firing people and retaining large payments even when he failed. A sign of desperation among his opponents is that even they are attacking his record at Bain Capital. If republicans think they can get away with attacks like those, surely democrats will be able to. And in the present climate, that sort of attack is likely to resonate with a lot of moderate voters, if not a few out-of-work conservatives. That means the impending Obama-Romney matchup is not going to be the slam dunk for the challenger we’d expect it to be with high unemployment and simmering civil unrest.

All things considered, the republicans have wasted a perfect opportunity to unseat a failed incumbent, and all because no one was available or willing to rise to the occasion. In a nation of 300 million people, is this disaster the best they could offer?

UPDATE: Hours after posting this entry, Jon Huntsman’s staff leaked that he will be withdrawing tomorrow. This is not surprising given his finish in New Hampshire, but it does make his bizarre enthusiasm on finishing third even more cringe-worthy, and it is quite sad in light of the fact that The State, a South Carolina newspaper, just endorsed Huntsman earlier today. Given that I just named him the only other half-decent candidate, Romney is that much closer to securing the nomination and probably losing the election. Barring further economic decline or some spectacular disaster (imagine an analogue to the gulf oil spill that people might actually care about), it just doesn’t seem possible that Romney could win, unless of course millions of center-left nonpartisans commit suicide out of abject hopelessness.