A Quick Look at the GOP Field

November 28, 2011

The GOP presidential nomination process is a roller-coaster ride — sometimes uplifting, other times discouraging, but we press forward.

President Obama and his agenda are unspeakably disastrous for the nation, so this election matters more than any in my lifetime. The national debt clock is ticking faster than Obama’s heart beats for big government, and his re-election would guarantee virtual national bankruptcy. That’s why the grass-roots tea party phenomenon sprouted, and it’s why there is so much scrutiny of the GOP candidates.

Every month or so, a new front-runner emerges in this volatile race. We’ve gone from Sarah Palin (in theory) to Donald Trump (for some, anyway) to Tim Pawlenty (sort of) to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich, with Mitt Romney persistently vying with the “generic Republican” as the first choice of an unenthusiastic, default plurality. Throughout, some have hoped in vain that Palin, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie or Paul Ryan would agree to be drafted.

Conservatives began this election season fiercely determined to prevent the Republican Party from nominating another uninspiring, ideologically lukewarm candidate whose claim was based more on entitlement than merit. There would be no more Bob Doles or John McCains, whose centrism alone would be disqualifying.

The conservative base wants to know it can rely on the nominee to have the character and courage to govern as a conservative, and that’s assuming he or she meets the essential threshold of electability.

At the dawn of the campaign, few thought Cain or Newt, for different reasons, would be serious contenders, but as it has unfolded, they both have exceeded expectations and have led the pack for an appreciable time. The same is true for Bachmann, though her star faded more rapidly than the others.

Perry’s trajectory has been exactly the opposite. He burst onto the scene as an immediate front-runner, with apparent credentials, charisma and a mostly conservative record. But his early debate performances were so substandard that he knocked himself out of serious contention almost as quickly as he’d gotten there.

When Cain captured the lead, a group of women surfaced, accusing him of sexual misconduct sufficiently troublesome to seriously damage any Republican — as opposed to Democratic — candidate. Because of the doubt cast on those allegations and Cain’s emphatic denials, they didn’t, on their own, sabotage his candidacy (though this latest one might). But when the accusations were coupled with concerns about Cain’s range of knowledge, mostly on foreign policy issues, his numbers began to fall sharply.

Newt’s surprising ascendancy is a function both of the disappointing field and his stellar debate performances, the latter being especially refreshing in view of Perry’s debate-related implosion. But concerns remain, not just about his so-called personal baggage but also about positions he’s taken and statements he’s made in the past, from global warming to health care.

Romney is a man of mostly even temperament and few gaffes, and for a few years he has been saying mostly the “right” things. But his reputation as a flip-flopper, doubt about his true positions on social issues, and his stubborn refusal to denounce Romneycare inspire anxiety and distrust about whether in the end he would govern as a conservative.

Those of us who remain undecided are not making the perfect the enemy of the good. But we have to be sure that we nominate a candidate who not only could defeat Obama but also would take the dramatic steps necessary to reverse his agenda. Anything less might not be enough to rescue the republic from financial ruin.

The way I see the current field, Rick Santorum and Bachmann could be trusted to govern as consistent, bold conservatives with the courage, convictions and competence to roll back Obama’s assault. But at this point, neither seems to be able to garner enough support to make it above the second tier. Whether they would be electable against Obama is moot if they can’t generate more support from their own party.

Cain is also a reliable conservative with an impressive record as a competent and innovative businessman with strong leadership skills. But many remain concerned about his depth of knowledge on the issues, as well as yet more women-related allegations. Perry seems to be mostly conservative, with exceptions, and has a record as an effective executive in Texas. But many now fear that his debate performances either are indicative of greater intellectual weaknesses or would severely impair his electability against Obama.

So we have a few fine candidates who are getting no traction, a few who are strong conservatives with perceived substantive weaknesses, and a few who are overflowing with competency and ideas but who generate grave doubts as to whether they would govern as conservatively as they’ve campaigned.

Despite the rigorous vetting, there is more to come, but no matter how many further weaknesses they expose, I will enthusiastically support the last GOP man or woman standing.