This is part of a continuing dialogue between Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru about the 2012 campaign.
Margaret: Let us be grateful, Ramesh, for small victories against the Republicans' coarsening of America. Let us join as parents in celebrating the second defeat of Linda McMahon, who sought to buy a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. She made her fortune on the premise that professional wresting wasn’t vulgar enough -- appearing in the ring herself in dominatrix gear -- yet successfully lobbying to get the programming a PG rating.
I bring up McMahon because in that defeat is the huge challenge facing Republicans. Their party is so weak that bad Tea Party and self-financed candidates can win primaries and then lose what should be easy seats for them to pick up. Witness also the losses of Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana (and Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010). Unforced errors all.
This is a slow way of getting around to what Mitt Romney should do with the rest of his life. He could get up Wednesday and save his broken party. He has the organization and, of course, the money to do it. What else is he going to do? He has shown he’s willing to be a full-time candidate, for years on end without a job.
An absence of purpose is what makes me feel sorry for Romney. Running is not a life, and he has been doing it for six years. He followed the advice to “be yourselves”: He’s a businessman, a fixer, a moderate governor, a “severe conservative” to the right of Texas Governor Rick Perry. He loves Paul Ryan, and he wants to distance himself from the right-wing budgeter. And then, in the first debate, he was such an amalgam of disparate positions, past and present, it was hard to get a fix on him.
If there is anything the pros got wrong -- I put myself there -- it was that Romney killed in that first debate. Turns out that pivot he made in midair was a turn too far. On your third or fourth guise, people can’t keep track any longer. That doesn’t mean Barack Obama performed well. He was awful. It means that the only group Romney convinced that he had turned his fortunes around was not the independents he needed but journalists.
There are two Republicans who come out well from this campaign: One was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who put himself right with his blue state voters by handling the Hurricane Sandy disaster well and embracing the president in the process (and he finally won the embrace of Bruce Springsteen).
The other was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose brother so wrecked the economy that voters are still holding him responsible for it four years later. Bush has been the voice of reason through the campaign, talking about how his party must come to embrace the 47 percent and to embrace those not yet legally here, those whose stories he hears and sorrows he has tried to relieve. It’s not his father's -- or his brother’s -- party anymore. In a Shakespearean ending, he may yet become president.
Ramesh: So $2 billion later, we still have President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker John Boehner -- and some bitter lessons for the Republicans.
Those lessons are, I should think, fairly obvious. Don’t think you can run up margins among whites so big that you don’t need anyone else. Offer some ideas that middle-class voters might think will help them out -- especially if you’ve done really well from the financial economy. Keep the focus of any conversation about abortion on the 99 percent of cases that don’t involve rape.
There will be attempts in the party to blame the outcome on Romney’s flaws, which were real enough, as a way of avoiding having to rethink the party’s approach to anything else. Yet Romney was the strongest of the Republicans who ran for the primary last winter. It’s hard to see how Perry or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would have done better, and Romney seems (at the time of this writing) to have run ahead of his party’s Senate candidates in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. The reckoning will be hard to avoid.
As for what Romney should do with the rest of his life: Isn’t it obvious, Margaret? President Obama said he wanted to create a Department of Business. Who better to run it than Romney? He’ll get it operating at peak efficiency in no time. Seriously: Republicans got to liking Romney over the course of the race, more than they thought they would, because he fought the good fight against Obama. They don’t look to him as someone to define the future of the party. They weren’t going to do that even if he had won.
I don’t think you’re right about Christie’s future either. Yes, he helped himself in New Jersey. I think he harmed himself pretty badly with Republicans nationally -- not because he said kind words about Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy, but because he was so fulsome, because he didn’t take any opportunity to loudly reiterate his support for Romney and because he talked about crying after his hero Springsteen talked to him on the phone. The first two, Republicans will hold against him as partisans; the last one, as adults.
I share your admiration for Jeb Bush. Republicans could do worse, and probably will.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
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