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Why Republicans can’t find their candidate

By Elvin Lim

Mitt Romney must be the happiest Republican in the world. His political rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, seem to be trying to out-do the other in terms of whose campaign can implode faster.

Let’s start with Rick Perry’s campaign. Now we know why his campaign advisors were telling him to skip upcoming debates. Perry’s “oops” moment in Wednesday’s debate will enter into the political hall of infamy because that was the moment when his sponsors will realize that he is just a bad investment. If Perry cannot think just one sentence faster than he can talk, he will be demolished by a law professor when they debate next year.

Perry’s gaffe’s was probably a godsend to Herman Cain, but it would be little relief in the worst week of his campaign yet. It doesn’t matter if the accusations of sexual harassment are true because they are now distractions to Cain’s message, which he was already struggling to explain. And then he had to go call former Speaker Pelosi “Princess Nancy.”

Sarah Palin wasn’t an aberration in a line of competent Republican candidates from Eisenhower to Nixon. She is the new rule. The thing about modern conservatism is that it has become so anti-establishment that it now happily accepts any political outsider as a potential candidate for the highest office in the land. Political outsiders aren’t tainted by politics, by Washington, so we are told. But, by the same token, they can therefore also make terrible candidates.

The irony, of course, is that the slew of debates being held this year was meant to give voters greater choice and knowledge of the candidates’ positions. But all this is doing is reinforcing the front-runner status of the establishment candidate. There is a reason why Mitt Romney and his perfect haircut has coasted through the debate without any oops moments. He’s a professional politician! Tea Partiers are going to have to come to the uncomfortable realization that it takes one professional politician to beat another.

One relatively unmentioned reason why Mitt Romney is still hovering at 25 per cent is because in 2010 the Republican party changed the nomination rules away from winner-takes-all so that states (except the first four) would allocate their delegates proportionately to the candidates at the national convention. This has the effect of giving less-known candidates more of a chance of lasting longer in the race than they normally would, but the unintended consequence is that Republican voters will have to watch their candidates battle it out, and even suffer the potentially demoralizing conclusion that in choosing their candidate, they must follow their mind, not their hearts.

It is far from clear, then, that 2012 will be a Republican year. Conservatives have yet to explain away a fundamental puzzle: if government is so unnecessary, so inefficient, and so corrupt, why seek an office in it? This is possibly why the very brightest and savviest would-be candidates are in Wall Street, and can’t be bothered with an address change to Pennsylvania Avenue. Except Rick Perry and Herman Cain, of course.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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