There’s a very revealing moment in Bob Woodward’s excellent book The Choice, about President Clinton’s 1996 reelection race, in which Clinton mentions to his press secretary, Mike McCurry, that he privately hopes Bob Dole will win the Republican presidential nomination that year. McCurry is confused; sure, Dole is the most sane and rational candidate, but that also gives him the greatest chance of beating Clinton in the general election. Therefore, shouldn’t Clinton favor a kooky right-wing nut like Pat Buchanan, or a monumentally unqualified hack like Steve Forbes? “Dole’s the only one that’s got any capability to do the job,” Clinton (allegedly) said. “Something could happen to me. We could have a major crisis that goes bad on us… and they (the voters) might throw me out on my rear end.”
It was very thoughtful and insightful of Clinton to feel this way, and in hindsight he was correct. Although he fell well short of defeating Clinton, Dole would not have actually been a terrible president; he certainly would have been superior to most of his GOP opponents, or to George W. Bush, for that matter. (Since that election Bob Dole has done Viagra commercials and his craziest opponent, Pat Buchanan, has come out against U.S. participation in World War II; if you had to choose, who would you rather have had in the White House?)
I worry that we’re in a similar situation today, leading up to the 2012 election. The current Republican frontrunner, so declared by the mainstream media and a handful of unreliable preprimary polls, is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. There’s little question that Romney is a conservative, but by the standards of today’s Hannity-Limbaugh-Palin-led GOP, he just might not be conservative enough.
What he is, however, is somewhat qualified to be president – at least by the standards of his likely opponents. He’s a smart businessman, a bit of an intellectual (a rare and risky thing to be in the age of Glenn Beck and Tea Parties), and has demonstrated a degree of independent thinking unheard of in a party that is increasingly demanding strict adherence to right-wing ideological principles. I won’t even get into the comprehensive health care reform he championed and enacted in Massachusetts, and how that’s going to play out in the presidential race; but it’s unquestionably one of the most important and influential pieces of legislation signed by a Republican governor so far this decade.
Romney being a decent human being and a strong candidate (albeit one I still would not support, I must add), I am concerned that Obama and the Democratic Party leadership are going to do everything they can in advance of the Republican primaries to sabotage his chances of winning the nomination, in the hopes that a wingnut like Sarah Palin, Haley Barbour or (God help us all) Ron Paul runs away with it and then goes down in flames in the general election. Obviously, this would be a great strategy if it were guaranteed to work, but it isn’t. What Clinton apparently said in 1996 - "I want to have some confidence in the person I turn the keys over to" - applies doubly today. If Obama were to unfortunately lose in 2012, I would want, as an American, to have some confidence that whomever defeated him wasn't going to wreck the country, Bush-style.
Jonathan Chait has discussed this multiple times on his blog – the possibility that the economy might go into free-fall, or that Obama might get caught up in some personal scandal that, like Clinton, has no bearing on the job he does as president but could cost him votes nonetheless. If either of those things – or any other unforeseen circumstances – occurs, then we, as a country, could potentially be stuck with President Palin or President Paul. Is anybody prepared to take that risk? Are there any center-left Democrats out there like me who seriously disagree that Romney would be an exponentially better president than most of the kooks currently leading his party??
No, the best thing for our country would be for Romney to win the Republican nomination, probably put a token conservative (though hopefully someone more qualified to actually serve than Sarah Palin) on the ticket, and face off in a spirited (but hopefully unsuccessful) race against President Obama. At least that means the voters will have a choice between two candidates who actually know what they’re talking about.