Where’s the Alpha? Frank Rich and Adam Moss Discuss a GOP Field Full of Beta Candidates

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Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty. Photo: Getty Images

Adam: Hi, Frank. Since we talked about it last week, we'll ignore the Murdoch scandal, as difficult as that is to do (Rupert Murdoch was the second person David Cameron met with after becoming prime minister? Just the first of those 26 meetings with News Corp. folk the past year? Is it really impossible to overestimate the cynicism of government?)

Oh well. Anyway, this week I'll just fire a bunch of questions at you that have come, over the last week or so, from readers and other interested parties. We'll move quickly. Here goes:

Question 1, in several parts: Just what has Eric Cantor**  been doing in these debt-ceiling negotiations? Do you think he is really willing to risk default? And: He and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell each seem to be pursuing different strategies here. Are they all in fact working together? Is there some coordinated Republican plot (or plan)? Is any one of them going to emerge as a winner?

Frank: No coordinated plot I can tell — the Republicans are battling with each other like Democrats — but a real split between two competing wings of the GOP. Eric Cantor is positioning himself to be the tea party's speaker, and his lust for power may well make him willing to risk default, however politically self-destructive that may seem to those who remember the Gingrich shutdown fiasco. Meanwhile, Boehner and McConnell, whatever their public praise of the tea party or Cantor, are the establishment GOP and must answer to the corporate/financial interests that bankroll the party, are frightened of right-wing populism, and want the debt ceiling raised, pronto. (Don't forget, McConnell backed the candidate opposing tea party hero Rand Paul in the 2010 Kentucky senatorial primary.) It may not be clear if the establishment GOP, exemplified by Romney, can prevail over the tea-party right, exemplified by Bachmann, Palin et al, until we get through the presidential primaries.

Adam: Nice segue to the next question — which goes: "Michele Bachmann and Ricks Perry and Santorum and the ever-present specter of Sarah Palin — are they at all viable, as potential presidential candidates? Or can I safely label them as loud, media-grabbing distractions and get back to the business of worrying about whether Mitt Romney’s hair has a legitimate chance of unseating Obama?"

I'll add my own related question: Do you put Rick Perry in the same category as these others? Tea partiers seem enthusiastic about him, but as the governor of a state the size of Texas, is he also a member of that establishment GOP? Karl Rove, representing that establishment, backed Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson when she ran in the gubernatorial primary against Perry. (Joe Hagan's profile of Rove, which ran in the magazine last March, went into this in nice detail.) So I suppose that suggests he is a Republican outlaw. But Perry seems the one potential candidate to straddle categories.

Frank: Santorum is going nowhere. Palin's intentions remain a mystery, even if conventional wisdom has it that she'll not run. Bachmann has the capacity to create real havoc. But Rick Perry, should he get in, might be the real right-wing threat to Romney. He's beloved by the religious right and is far closer to the tea partiers — remember, he at one point suggested Texas might secede from Obama's U.S. — than to the establishment. (Perry has further riled the Bush wing of that establishment, exemplified by Rove, by dissing W.) I'd still give the odds to Romney for the nomination (though Perry, too, has great hair** ), but the fact remains that many Republicans across the party's ideological spectrum really do not like him and/or trust him (not without reason!) — which is why his fund-raising is below expectations for a supposed front-runner and why he's far from invulnerable.

Adam: There was a fascinating article in the Times recently that suggested that, for baboons anyway, it was better to be a beta male than an alpha male. Too much stress for the alphas defending their territory. That lesson apply to this race? Who's the alpha here? (I already know you're gonna say Michele Bachmann.)

Frank: The problem may be that on the Republican side there really isn't one, Bachmann included. I mean, Romney? Pawlenty? Even Newt is now best known for tagging along with his wife as she partakes of breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Tiffany's. Hence, perhaps, the Rick Perry boomlet: For better or worse, he's seen as a boot-wearing Texan who kicks ass.

Adam: Before we get back to the questions at hand, care to suggest a plausible scenario in which Michele Bachmann wreaks the havoc you describe? You're a student of the dramatic arts: What does that movie look like?

Frank: Carrie?** Carrie Just joking! If Palin does not get in — and doubly so if Perry does not get in — she could well be in a position to hold a potential nominee like Romney hostage to tea party demands in much the way Boehner has been humbled, if not castrated, by the party's congressional tea party wing (including Bachmann) in the D.C. negotiations over the past couple of weeks. It could make for a hell of a convention drama. And as a delectable subplot we now have Bachmann's pray-away-the-gay husband, whose own sexually ambiguous profile (not to mention moves on the dance floor) has become fodder for both Jon Stewart** Jon Stewart and Bill Maher in the past week and could be the farcical gift that will keep on giving.

Adam: Michele Bachmann had a pretty good fund-raising haul, but Obama had an amazing quarter. A reader asks whether his $86 million quarter surprised you, and whether that suggests to you that he's going to have an easier road to reelection. Let me add a slightly different question. Does the prospect of Obama raising, say, a billion dollars unnerve you? Not strategically, where money is obviously crucial, but in more idealistic terms, provided any of us has any of that left. It makes me queasy, I have to admit.

Frank: Obama's fund-raising makes me queasy, and for the same reasons, I suspect, it does you. Who is buying what? But the total did not surprise me. And I don't think it's a reliable indicator of his prowess in 2012. The economic fortunes of voters in this stalled recovery will be a far more important factor.

Adam: There was a nice post by Nate Silver the other day describing just which economic indicators to look for; he discounts the importance of the job numbers and cites others he believes are more telling, such as reports on GDP, consumer confidence, and the inflation rate. I find Silver addictive in an election season, which these questions would suggest, sadly, is what we're already in. (I'm right with Tom Friedman in bemoaning the shrinking period of actual governance.) Which gets us to this last question, offered by reader Mike Mcardle (I'm paraphrasing here): The last presidential election was extraordinary for many reasons, certainly not the least of which was that America elected a black president. Yet he's almost never talked about anymore as a black man. While that's surely a sign of progress, how deceptive is it? How do you think race plays into Obama's presidency? People will certainly write books on the question. So let's try it in a paragraph!

Frank: There's definitely been progress. It's also a sign of progress that the widespread, baseless 2008 caricature of Michelle Obama — pushed by Fox News and Christopher Hitchens — as some kind of sixties-style, fist-bumping black "separatist" has largely vanished. But basically, we still do have about a quarter of the country (according to polls) that refuses to believe that Obama is a "real" American — a group that includes not just birthers (from Donald Trump on down) but also conservative "intellectuals" like Dinesh d'Souza who (in Forbes) railed about Obama's "Kenyan anti-colonialism." These attempts to delegitimize Obama's American bona fides, to portray him as "foreign," are all encoded racial animus. We'll wait for history to weigh in, but this race-obsessed minority may do more damage to the GOP that houses it than to Obama over the long run.

Adam: Okay, Frank, thanks. Until next week ... Readers, please send your questions to askfrankrich@nymag.com.