THE BLOG

A Primary History Primer

02/02/2012 12:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

Let me be blunt: When Republicans run against an incumbent Democratic president, they usually choose a damaged war veteran as their candidate. The '96 election set the pattern: Bob Dole v. Bill Clinton. (A less caustic analysis is that they pick someone who has run before in primaries and lost. It was Dole's turn, given that logic.)

The secondary GOP default for picking a nominee is to hand it over to whichever suitable patrician is available, one preferably with strong political family connections. In 2000, that was George W. Bush, who, though absent of most of his father's abilities, had one large advantage his father lacked: his six-pack ordinariness, his common man touch. It proved to be the right cultural mix for the times, even though Al Gore won the popular vote and had the election stolen out from under him by the Supreme Court.

The Democrats in 2004 threw up their own patrician, John Kerry, also a war vet, perhaps damaged, at least by the Swift Boat forces. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama continued his run of electoral luck and the Republicans broke their pattern and nominated John McCain, yet another damaged war veteran, someone born to lose.

Among McCain's problems was the conflict that damaged him -- the Vietnam War. It was a war no one wanted to revisit. Indeed, when Dole ran in '96, it was at the height of the "Greatest Generation" craze. Dole profited from that, but nothing else. The Vietnam War in the 2008 primaries was shouldered by Hillary Clinton and, finally, Democrats turned away from Hillary and it: It was the war her husband, Bill, had managed to avoid. One reason Barack Obama won the nomination is that the electorate was tired of both the Vietnam War and the Clintons.

Obama represented the future. Boy, the public was thirsting for the future -- to put behind them the Bush family, the Iraq and Afghanistan war, the Wall Street meltdown. They wanted to turn the page and no page was more different than Barack Obama. But when they finally read the page, it turned out to be the same old, same old.

Now, in 2012, we have a GOP with an unappetizing choice, devoid of damaged war vets; in fact, there are two chicken hawks available, with no more military service between them than Bill Clinton had: both Romney and Newt Gingrich had deferments from the draft, and when the lottery was inaugurated Romney drew a high number. By that time, Gingrich had children from his marriage to his former history teacher.

Everyone, though, of the appropriate generation, has been damaged one way or another by the Vietnam War. Only Ron Paul, ancient as he is, brings up Romney and Gingrich's lack of service, since he served in the Air Force from 1963-68 as a medical officer. It is nothing short of amazing to listen to Ron Paul take on (in his "victory" speech after his fourth place finish in the Florida primary) the mantle of the only anti-war candidate in the field, both Democrat and Republican. Apparently, it is one of the major things that attracts the young to his candidacy.

After Florida, it appears to one and all to be a "two man" race. Romney, like George W., is assuming the role of the patrician candidate -- son of George Romney, born in Mexico but a future presidential wanna-be (the birthers were a generation late; but John McCain had the same problem, since he was born in the Panama Canal zone), a governor of Michigan and a member of the Nixon Cabinet.

Gingrich will continue to be a pest, though it is not out of the world of probability to imagine a Romney/Gingrich ticket, if only to "bind" the splintered party together.

But, and this is a large but, Mitt Romney has one precedent hidden in his history that may ultimately benefit him. Romney personifies everything associated with Wall Street and the beleaguered 1%. He is the person who represents the 2008 meltdown, the cause of wealth disappearing everywhere (except into Swiss accounts and banks in the Cayman islands), the reason TARP and both the Bush and Obama administration spent the people's money to bail out the too-big-to-fail financial industry.

One would think someone who represents to a tee everything the majority of Americans finds reprehensible in recent history could not win the presidency a mere four years after the Wall Street crash and the start of the Great Recession.

Yes, one might think that. But here is the counter example: What would be the odds that seven years after 9/11 a man with the middle name Hussein would be elected President of the United States? A trillion to one? That is the precedent that Romney may be counting on -- that the voters of America will do something totally unexpected and then suffer their bitter disappointment later, silently or not so silently, given their own past precedents.