Illustration by Kelsey Dake
Illustration by Kelsey Dake

President Barack Obama has never looked more vulnerable. His poll numbers keep dropping. The economic news is still grim. And his team’s political sense often seems to be missing.

Take the recent report that White House senior staff were heartened by hearing historian Michael Beschloss tell them that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had each won re-election even though unemployment was high. If Obama’s aides really believe these precedents are auspicious, they are kidding themselves: Both the 1936 and 1984 elections followed very strong economic growth.

Obama has never had to demonstrate great political skill in his general-election races. During both of them, he was blessed with good luck (a fringy opponent in his Senate race, and a collapsing economy during his presidential run). Now is the first time Obama has experienced this kind of adversity -- the first time he has needed broad political support and not had it for the asking. His response has been to flail. Almost nobody is talking about Obama as a lock for re-election anymore. But maybe the biggest advantage he has is that his weakness is tempting Republicans to take risks with the election.

Ideology or Electability

In any presidential primary there’s a tension between the voters’ desire for a candidate who can win the general election and their desire for a candidate who shares their views -- between, in other words, ideology and electability. The more beatable Obama looks, the more the balance for Republican voters will tilt toward ideology and away from electability.

That doesn’t just mean they will be more likely to support candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, who will have trouble winning votes from independents and Democrats. It also means the terrain of the primaries will shift: The candidates will place more emphasis on outflanking one another on the right and less on showing they can win in November 2012.

Even if Obama were doing better, the Republican primary would put a heavy weight on ideology. Whenever someone suggests that a candidate can’t win, many conservatives retort that people said that about Reagan, too. (What they forget is that people also said it about Barry Goldwater, and they were right.) And much of the Republican Party has convinced itself that Bush-era compromises bred political failure, a line of thought that makes concerns about electability seem beside the point. Combine these views with the natural inclination of people to think that their ideas are more widely shared than they are, and the result is a process where electability gets short shrift. Obama’s weakness only reinforces this tendency.

Provocative Positions

Already the Republican primaries have seen candidates take positions that will be hard sells in the fall of next year. Both Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Polls suggest that while the public doesn’t consider environmental protection its top priority right now, it favors regulation and trusts Democrats over Republicans on the issue. Texas Governor Rick Perry has suggested that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and that they should be replaced by state-run programs. There’s a reason no Republican candidate since 1964 has run on a platform anything like this one on entitlements: Both programs are extremely popular.

Perry has also suggested that he disapproves of the New Deal, seeing it as a moment when the federal government began to exceed the constitutional limits of its power. He hasn’t said he wants to undo the New Deal, but it’s not out of bounds for Democrats to make the charge, given the importance he attaches to constitutionalism.

In each of these cases, provocative positions have been met by silence from rival candidates. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney hasn’t come out in favor of abolishing the EPA or getting rid of federal entitlement programs, but he hasn’t denounced these ideas or even used them as an argument against the electability of the candidates who have advanced them. Evidently he believes either that the primary electorate doesn’t think these positions are politically toxic, or that it doesn’t consider electability a key concern.

Only the Faithful

If Republican voters had electability on their minds, they would also want to see the candidates address issues that concern the broader public: how to get wages growing again after years when they stagnated even during periods of growth; and what to replace Obama’s health-care reform with. But the candidates feel no pressure from primary voters to outline plans on those issues, and haven’t done so. Instead, they are focused on issues -- such as the alleged threat of “sharia law” and the heavy share of income taxes paid by the rich -- that are of interest only to the party faithful.

It’s possible, of course, for a party to concentrate too much on electability and to care more about gaining power than about accomplishing anything with it. But at least a party that cares about electability is looking outward, beyond its members. Today’s Republican Party is more interested in refining its doctrines than gaining converts. It has turned inward.

That is good news for Obama, at a time when he isn’t getting much. The more his political standing falls, the more Republicans will think they are sure to beat him. And the more they think that, the less likely they will be to win.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net