Back in 2008, John McCain’s campaign was doomed as soon as the economy began to tank. Yes, Sarah Palin undermined the GOP attacks on Barack Obama’s executive inexperience. Yes, Obama had a lofty message and all the charisma. But McCain was the wrong man.
Presidential hopeful McCain was vetted and selected when the Iraq War was the defining issue of the campaign. Then Wall Street spontaneously combusted and the GOP was left offering a war hero when the nation pined for a business man.
Four years later the economic recovery is plodding along and the GOP finally has their salt-and-peppered high capitalist loaded in the chamber. All they have to do is convince America that they still need him.
The job shouldn’t be all that hard. The economy is recovering, but unemployment is still north of eight percent and President Obama still gets poor marks on his handling of the economy. For a party once renowned for its ability to stay on message, how hard could be for the GOP to set its focus on the economy and never, ever waver?
Apparently, hard. The focus during the now-dearly-departed primary season settled on every subject imaginable – contraception, entitlement reform, immigration – except the economy, much to the detriment of Mitt Romney’s approval ratings. Romney’s lost ground with independent and moderate voters; he’s the first presidential candidate to emerge from a primary contest with net-negative national approval ratings in two decades.
The primary season simply couldn’t be about the economy because the candidates were handcuffed by the prevailing forces in today’s GOP: Grover Norquist, the Tea Party, and Roger Ailes.
It sounds like the beginning of an elaborate conspiracy theory, but it’s deceptively simply. Because the GOP has locked itself into following the Grover Norquist Plan for Economic Salvation (“cut all the taxes you can, and never ever ever raise them”), all the candidates stuck firmly to the economic narrative that, somehow, cutting taxes must be the ultimate solution to all of our financial and economic woes.
Additionally, the anti-government Tea Party that still exerts its influence on the GOP has destroyed the image of the government-as-problem-solver and forced the candidates to be firmly opposed to taking an active role in the economy.
Romney’s unpopular opposition to the auto bailout comes to mind. The ideologically-charged rhetoric certainly reassures the base, but in reality no president would have let the American auto industry collapse. Towns would have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of jobs and a few American icons lost. It would have been political suicide.
But that fact was strictly taboo. Modern ultraconservative orthodoxy was the only option for Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and all those who came before them.
Once upon a time, of course, Newt Gingrich opposed the Ryan budget. He was skewered on Fox News. There were times when Rick Santorum spoke out against income inequality and Mitt Romney proposed a health care mandate, but those days are gone. Divergence from Roger Ailes’ point of view is a real quick way to be declared a “RINO” on Fox.
One mustn’t poison the watering hole at which one’s constituency drinks.
So, to play up the subtle differences between the candidates, the primary season became about contraception, sex, immigration, and social issues. People were alienated.
Now, Romney faces crippling deficits with women, Latinos, and independents.
The general election will bring Romney and the GOP back on message. They’ll attack the president on the economy, say we need a real businessman in office. It’ll be a compelling message, but the Obama campaign has already been given the ammunition they need to “wag the dog” and shift the conversation away from the economy.
Just cue up a clip of Romney claiming that he was a “fiercely conservative” governor or advocating “self-deportation” and the memories will come flooding back.
In an election that was supposed to be all about the economy, the GOP finally delivered the right candidate: the business man. But Mitt Romney had already been deeply wounded, changed by a bizarre primary contest that pitted a handful of ideologues against each other for the admiration of some mythic ‘ideal conservative’.
All the country wanted was a CEO, and it looks as though they’re ready to return the conveniently-conservative crusader that came in his stead.