Thursday, June 2, 2011

Does Mitt Romney have a good chance at being the Republican presidential nominee?

An ongoing discussion between two New Republic writers. One of them, Jonathan Cohn, thinks Romney has a good chance, while the other, Jonathan Chait, thinks he's doomed by the health-care issue.

One factor I don't see either of them bring up: the conventional wisdom is that Republicans prefer a candidate who's run for president in the past. (I suppose Republicans would say they like to see someone diligent and battle-tested, who's paid their dues — and Democrats would say Republicans are uncomfortable with newness and youth.)

Of course, this isn't an ironclad rule. George W. Bush's nomination in 2000 might seem to be a counterexample since he hadn't run before. But the main other strong candidate, John McCain, hadn't run before either, so this wasn't a factor as between those two. OK, Pat Buchanan had run in the past, but he never had a chance. The general rule isn't a silver bullet that renders all other factors irrelevant.

John McCain's nomination in 2008, on the other hand, is a clear example of the general rule. None of the other plausible candidates (Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson) had run for president before.

You might think 2012 doesn't even offer an opportunity to test the theory, if you think Romney's record on health care makes him an implausible candidate off the bat (along with his flipflop on abortion, his general reputation as a flipflopper, and the fact that he was governor of a state that Republicans view as ultra-liberal). If health care is truly a deal-killer for most Republicans, then it doesn't matter if Romney's record as a candidate in 2008 is an advantage; he has no chance anyway.

Well, I'm not convinced. Everyone knows health care is a major obstacle for Romney. But every presidential candidate faces obstacles. You generally can't completely rule out someone who would otherwise be a formidable candidate based on a single issue. McCain got the nomination despite a very long list of issues on which he had flipflopped and/or taken liberal positions. He was on record attacking the Bush tax cuts on first principles, saying they were unfairly tilted toward the rich. Sure, he later tried to characterize his past position as narrowly as possible (by saying he objected to the tax cuts only if there continued to be excessive spending), but this was as disingenuous as Romney's attempt to distinguish health care as a national issue from the decision he made at the state level: it's hard to imagine any voters actually basing their vote on such transparently post hoc line-drawing. McCain simply took the hit on taxes and other issues, but he ended up getting enough votes to be the nominee. And aren't tax cuts at least as defining an issue for Republicans as health care?


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