The Agony of the GOP Establishment

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Psst, pick the guy on the left. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Establishment finds itself with a problem no party Establishment wants to have. It has a presidential race between a decent candidate, who could probably win the general election but is distrusted by the primary electorate (Mitt Romney), and a candidate perfectly in tune with the primary electorate, who would make for a terrible general-election candidate (Rick Perry). How to steer the voters away from the guy who makes their right-wing hearts flutter, and toward the electable guy?

Today's Quinnipiac poll in the Republican must-win state of Florida casts the party's nightmare in sharp relief. The poll shows Romney leading President Obama 47-40, and Perry trailing him 44-42. But Perry leads Romney in a two-way matchup in the state's nominating primary, 46-38.

Romney has been trying to discredit Perry by hammering away at his description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme." But this is another issue where Perry's position, while poison among the general electorate, is perfectly at home within the GOP electorate:

Voters in Florida, with the nation's highest concentration of senior citizens, say 58 — 33 percent that it is "unfair" to describe Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," as Perry has done. But among Republicans, the only ones allowed to vote in the state's crucial primary, 52 percent say that is a fair way to describe the nation's retirement system.


This is the dilemma the party elite must navigate. Now here is what compounds the dilemma. If you're a Republican opinion leader, you want to promote Romney over Perry. At the same time, you have to account for the possibility that Perry might win the nomination anyway, which means that you can't say anything that could be used against him in the general election. You need to gently suggest to Republicans that Perry is too crazy to be elected president, without suggesting to swing voters that he's too crazy to be elected president.

Let us observe the efforts of two such party voices today. Karl Rove, in his The Wall Street Journal op-ed column, points out that the candidates leading in the polls in the last GOP primary did not wind up winning. He adds, "much of [Perry's] support is based on what people believe him to be rather than what they know him to be." What do they know him to be? Rove does not say. He is sending a message to Republican thought leaders, but a message deliberately buried in obtuse phrasing.

Meanwhile, conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin gently suggests that Perry's patronage operation in Texas might be a problem. Rubin has a wonderful line: "I understand all too well the inclination among conservatives to shelter Perry from criticism." (All too well? This is either an unintentional confession of political hackery, an intentional confession of political hackery, or just bad writing.)

Rubin's argument, of course, is very careful: Perry must "justify this conduct to a national electorate." In other words, she's not saying he's done anything wrong, only that there's a danger swing voters will believe he's done something wrong. All criticisms must be couched in the subjective, conditional form, so as to avoid subverting what may well be the party standard-bearer.

I sympathize with their agony. They are like parents warning their daughter not to marry the no-good boyfriend — they want to strongly steer her away from a huge mistake, but must also take care not to poison the relationship in case the advice is unheeded. The party Establishment is trying to make itself heard, sotto voce.