There’s a weird rerun quality to this season’s “invisible primary” battle for the Republican nomination. It’s not just that plenty of the headliners are the same: Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, for instance, with Michele Bachmann standing in for Sarah Palin. But the farce with Chris Christie today comes after the last round of spectacular will-he-or-won’t-he hype, in which Rick Perry artfully reprised the Fred Thompson role in every way possible — including the spectacular crash-and-burn.
The fact remains that post-George W. Bush, the G.O.P. remains highly fractured and disillusioned by the party brand with little uniting the various factions except mutual dislike for the black guy in the White House. And while it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of that last phenomenon in terms of Republican Party coalition-building, it merely papers over the uneasy bonds linking Christian conservatives, wealthy corporate interests and military hawks under the same banner.
This is why we are witnessing another desperate cycle of “Waiting for Superman” — to borrow Romney adviser Ron Kaufman’s lingo. Only this time around, it’s not clear that Mitt Romney will necessarily be the beneficiary, playing the role McCain starred in four years ago as the second choice de facto party leader whose fortunes are resurrected once voters realize there are no better possible options.
For one thing, Romney’s Mormon religion is a far greater obstacle to evangelical Christians than McCain’s perceived lack of religiosity ever was. McCain could make nice with the people he once called “agents of intolerance,” emphasize his long-standing opposition to abortion, and play up his “honor and character” schtick to win over social conservative skeptics. Romney must not only change the subject away from his own religion but explain his “evolution” on issues important to social conservatives. After all, he once ran for senate as a pro-choice defender of gay rights. Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives are not about to forgive Romney anytime soon for Romneycare, the original sin which begat Obamacare.
In that sense, it may be that Romney is more Rudy Giuliani than John McCain, leading the pack mostly due to name recognition and branding (“competence”) than out of any legitimate claim to frontrunner status. And when Republican primary voters are forced to pay actual attention in the weeks before the primaries and caucuses, they may not like what they see and Romney’s remaining support in the polls may evaporate.
Of course Romney is far more disciplined than either McCain or Giuliani. He’s also reportedly developed an actual credible on-the-ground campaign apparatus in the relevant states, a big plus compared to Giuliani. So he’s got that on his side. On the other hand, Romney lacks half the charisma of either men — to say nothing about his lack of a compelling backstory, ability to connect with voters on the retail level, etc…
Perhaps even more to the point, 2012 is a very different year than 2008. Party activists who felt they settled for McCain (only to see him lose badly) are not in any mood to compromise. They look at a less-than-popular incumbent, a terrible economy, and think, plausibly enough, that this could be their chance.
Maybe there are enough Republican primary voters this time who, while emboldened, will come around yet again, knowing there are no other options. Somebody has to win the nomination after all. Certainly the G.O.P. establishment will eventually coalesce around a single standard-bearer (presumably Romney), but that same establishment has shown astonishingly little control over the party’s rank-and-file in recent years. Part of me can’t help but wonder if we might be leading up to a very unusual and unpredictable Republican convention in 2012 in which the nominee is not actually a foregone conclusion. Although I still think the chances of that are very unlikely, it sure would be entertaining, so let’s hope.