Imagine a national politician who's vocally pro-EPA, pro-OSHA, pro-affirmative action and for expanding national health care. Obviously, he'd be a Democrat. He would also be Richard Nixon in 1970. The GOP presidential nominee won't be able to survive the taint of wingers competing for headlines.
As the Tea-Party GOP loudly tries to "take America back" ...to the 1920s, commentators who focus on "it's the economy, stupid," are missing a parallel point -- it's also "the stupidity, stupid."
There seem to be two camps of analysis about the 2012 presidential election -- either it'll be a referendum on the incumbent, per usual, which means a 50-50 race since Obama's favorables roughly equal his unfavorables... and/or it'll be a referendum on the struggling economy -- with the key litmus numbers being whether unemployment is under 8% and gas under $4.
If history is any guide, that's right. But it leaves out a big new factor -- whether the Republican competition for craziness so taints the GOP brand that Obama becomes the safe choice, really the only choice . Recall in this context the well-traveled joke about the two hunters running from a bear -- they needn't outrun the bear... but each other.
The only elections I can recall where the extreme of a party or nominee became an issue was 1968 and 1972, as anti-war students became a perfect foil for Nixon, and 1980, when Reagan had to prove that he wasn't a war-mongering nut. His performance skills in the debates (and Carter's high unfavorables) enabled him to easily pass his orals.
This cycle, every time Obama seems on the rise, a Greek near-bankruptcy or gas price crisis appears to suppress his popularity. There's a lot of data, as scholar Edward Tufte demonstrated in his seminal 1978 book, Political Control of the Economy, showing that the best predictor historically of a presidential contest is the economic growth rate in the year of the election. As Ezra Klein thoughtfully wrote in the Washington Post four months ago, "it's always the economy stupid."
But there's another variable this cycle -- the looney right uttering sound-bites that win headlines, not votes. As the Republican primary season begins with the first debate being a few months away, one thing we can rely on is a daily competition to see who can come up with an idiotic charge that panders to the half of the GOP that believes Obama to be an illegal alien and Muslim socialist. Half.
Independent voters who care about jobs will unlikely be impressed by Trump's birther attacks, Bachmann saying that Planned Parenthood is the "Lenscrafters of abortion", Gingrich concluding that the President's philosophy is "as bad as Nazism or Stalinism" or Huckabee asserting that Obama's values were shaped by the anti-colonial "mau maus"? Or consider any of the scores of examples of Tea Party nastiness, from pictures of him as an ape to Limbaugh talking about Michelle's weight. The Slur de Jour election has begun.
Will it be fair to hang these around the neck of, say, Mitt Romney, who hasn't yet played this kind of political Rollerball, if he's the nominee? No more so than the most radical anti-war protestors were exploited to slime Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Beyond sounding extreme the GOP, according to polls, is definitionally out-of-the-mainstream. The GOP is flirting with electoral disaster when it talks about ending Medicare, Medicaid, the EPA, Department of Education; defending the needy rich; and threatening to throw the credit of the U.S. into bankruptcy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling next month. Mind you, that's about borrowing now to pay off our existing debts. At our founding in 1789, refusing to pay your debts landed people in prison. Now Republicans may adopt that as policy.
And look what happens electorally when the GOP pushes too far ideologically: after they abolished collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, "Reagan Democrats" in union households fled their adopted party in a recent statewide judicial election.
So sit back and watch the GOP Goldwaterize itself in a frenzy of ideological purity and hateful rhetoric. And the President's calm, cool manner is the perfect antidote to those who demonize and divide. So run Sarah run, run Michelle run, run Newt run and keep scaring seniors and the middle class Paul. As Obama's recent attacks on Ryan's "radical" fiscal plan make clear, he knows that FDR beats Ayn Rand.