I thought this was a good observation by Charlie Cook:
Watching politics for 40 years now, I have seen the two major parties tend to leapfrog each other in terms of political sophistication. This state of the political art, when one party is firing on all eight (or, these days, six or even four) cylinders, seems to happen when the other party is in desperate need of a tune-up.
One’s party’s organization gains a lead but eventually becomes both obsolete and decadent. The other party’s organization retools. That should give the Republicans some reason for hope. Right now hope is all they really have because they are pretty far behind. That doesn’t mean Republicans won’t catch up. If the past is any guide they probably will, but it matters whether this happens in four, ten, or thirty years. Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee need to focus more on how to mobilize right-leaning voters and doing research and experiments on how to communicate with non-Republican-leaners. Those two tasks are, in the long-run, more important that raising money to fund thirty second ads that don’t convince anyone of anything. An issue agenda will emerge (or not emerge) from the party’s congressional and state leadership. What those emerging leaders will need (and will be hard pressed to create in the stress of the campaign) is a body of processes and institutions to link their campaigns and messages to both peripheral right-leaning voters and those who have never heard a comprehensible conservative message. My sense is that this will be a lot harder than just raising money and so it might not be done.
I do mostly take issue with this line by Cook:
The nomination process has been captured by such an exotic breed within the GOP that anyone emerging from it faces significant electability challenges.
I don’t think that is fair to Republican primary voters (as distinct from opinion poll respondents.) Only two Republican non-Ron Paul nomination contenders showed any respect at all for the intelligence of Republican primary voters. Mitt Romney produced a nuanced defense of Romneycare that took account of the principles and policy priorities of center-right voters. Rick Santorum didn’t have money, organization or institutional support within the Republican Party. What he did have was the only sustained critique of Obamacare, an earnest (though deeply problematic) plan to revive US manufacturing employment, and a refusal to go along with the entitlement gimmicks and fantasies of Newt Gingrich. It just so happened that these were the two candidates that did best in the nominating stage.
That isn’t the whole story. The nominating season included the rise of Herman Cain. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan seemed like a good idea to some, but as the 9-9-9 plan’s distributional effects became better known and Cain ignorance of large areas of public policy became obvious, Cain’s support fell off. Rick Perry’s record of job creation in Texas sounded attractive, but when it became obvious that Perry hadn’t studied national issues and opinion dynamics deeply enough to be a viable presidential candidate, his support collapsed. People now focus on the exchanges Perry lost to Romney on immigration, but Perry lost just about all of his exchanges with everybody on everything. t was the same thing with Newt Gingrich. At certain moments he appeared like a highly principled and invincible debater. When he was revealed as a self-interested bully his support collapsed.
When I look at the behavior of Republican primary voters I don’t see a “an exotic breed.” I see a group made up mostly of people who aren’t political junkies. They have their opinions about taxes, spending, abortion, whatever. They also don’t have a very clear idea of the nature of the federal government budget or the histories of the people running for the nomination. That makes Republican primary voters pretty much like most everyone else in America. The story of the 2012 Republican nominating race is less of an “exotic breed” imposing its will on a group of candidates than of a group of voters responding to events and making choices among a group of very flawed alternatives.
Cook references the exchange where “Romney and his fellow contenders all refused to go along with the idea of $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cutsaka a helluva deal for conservatives.” Cook has something of a good point there (though I don’t see why the Republicans should be negotiating with themselves during the primary season), but I also think he might be looking at the wrong set of culprits. Maybe a Republican could have made an argument that revenue increases might be a part of an eventual deal that included major government reforms and still have a chance at the nomination. Republican primary voters went along with the Romneycare guy didn’t they? It isn’t idealizing Republican primary voters to note that one of the biggest problems with the last Republican presidential nominating race was that most of the candidates acted like they bought into a hostile stereotype of their own constituency.