01/26/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Republicans Should Pray for a Long Primary Fight

On Monday, Mitt Romney blasted Newt Gingrich's record by observing that, "the speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994, and at the end of four years he had to resign in disgrace."

Mitt Romney, the electability candidate, has won only one general election in his nearly two-decade political career. He did not seek re-election and left that single term with an approval rating of just 34%. A competent opponent might just describe that as resigning in disgrace at the end of four years.

Down ballot Republicans had better pray for a long primary fight, because the free passes aren't going to keep coming forever, there are limits to what gerrymandering and opposition retirements can do, and these are, to be blunt, terrible candidates. The eventual winner is going to lose his only advantage the moment the fighting is over: namely, that he is not one of the party's other candidates.

The case for Mitt Romney has become that he is not Newt Gingrich, just as the case for Newt Gingrich has always been that he is not Mitt Romney. The case for both, at the moment, is that neither is a lunatic who for years published insanely racist fringe conspiracy newsletters, or a sodomy-obsessed weirdo. This is... not a high bar. I get the feeling that somewhere, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are looking at their Fox News checks and wondering, Was it worth it?

If our standard is to be "I'm not that guy," Romney clearly has the stronger case. It's hardly even controversial to observe that Gingrich is widely regarded by the public as a particularly nasty, lying, moralizing hypocrite. Given just how openly unlikable the man is, it's a miracle his favorability rating is as high as 27%. While former Republican presidents have traditionally won general elections as compassionate conservatives, Gingrich plans to seize the nomination by being the meanest of the lot. It might earn him the nod, but it isn't much of a general election strategy.

Typing that, I felt like I had engaged in off-limits name-calling -- the sort of thing I should be above. So I revisited the sources linked. Given the available information, "particularly nasty" is a bit of a judgment call, but the rest are simply statements of fact. So far, Gingrich has responded to legitimate questions about his character with hissyfits that played well with the appalling Republican debate audiences, but are unlikely to win him any support among rational people of any political inclination. His repeated implication seems to be that he is a man of so little character that to even discuss his actions would be too sleazy. The man is, simply, every down ballot Republican's worst nightmare. If he does win the nomination, John Boehner will begin packing up his office the day he returns from the convention.

But what, aside from not being Newt Gingrich, is the case for Mitt Romney?

Undoubtedly, his general election strategy will be shifting from "I can beat Barack Obama" to "I am not Barack Obama," apparently without irony. His supporters would point to polls that currently show him losing to Obama by about ten points fewer than Gingrich. But, oddly enough, that is still a loss. His other key electoral advantage is that he is assumed to be popular (for a Republican) in Michigan. But I have yet to see any indication that he is popular enough there to flip the state in a scenario in which Barack Obama hasn't imploded so badly that it wouldn't matter one way or another.

Then there is the argument that Romney is the moderate, and therefore more capable of attracting independent voters. Ignoring for a moment that this is still based on the idea that he is not Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney is not a moderate. He has simply had his eye on the general election while his rivals were clawing to the right, each hoping to claim the Not Romney title that Gingrich seems to have secured. Nor is the man a conservative, or a liberal.

He is, in fact, a walking coat hanger. At different times, Romney has presented himself as a liberal, a moderate and a conservative. What he has never presented himself as is anything that didn't help him in the moment politically. In Massachusetts, Romney campaigned and governed like some wingnut's caricature of Barack Obama. He even told liberal interest groups that, if sent to Washington, he would champion their causes. Now he's moved to the right, enough to perhaps win the GOP nomination but not enough to hurt his chances in a general election. Mitt Romney doesn't play to lose, you see -- he just has a knack for it.

There is some advantage to this kind of posturing, of course. But these repeated reinventions offer, at best, diminishing returns. Remember what happened when John Kerry was labeled a "flip flopper"? Kerry was the very model of consistency compared to Romney. And when it comes to enormous, politically motivated reversals on huge issues, Gingrich isn't far behind. To differentiate oneself from Mitt Romney, all any opposing candidate has to do is convincingly fill a suit -- and Gingrich struggles to do that! This bodes poorly for either in a general election.

There are other, huge general election problems both share, of course. They both have long histories of major gaffes on the campaign trail. Both are easily linked to the kind of abuses that people associate with the financial crisis. Both will face major turnout problems in a general election (Romney with conservatives, Gingrich with right-leaning Independents). Both would enter a race against even a president as divisive and sometimes unpopular as Obama at a huge disadvantage.

Still, there is something to be said for a tough primary fight, the shelter it provides and the often-vapid marketing it demands.

If Barack Obama hadn't managed to beat a candidate as strong as Hillary Clinton to win the nomination, no one would ever have taken a 2/3-term senator of no legislative accomplishment and no remarkable personal qualities beyond high intelligence and an uncanny resemblance to some painfully naïve freshman's favorite professor seriously. (You know, the one who "never completed a single work of legal scholarship," but hoped to one day become the subject of a student's inspirational screenplay.) If Hillary Clinton hadn't carried on with such resolve, the once bitterly divisive first lady would not have become the nation's most popular living politician -- or the only Democrat who can run with credibility in 2016 no matter how popular or unpopular Obama is when he leaves office. If Mitt Romney is allowed to tell voters that he is palatable for a few months more, it will be taken for granted by many voters and pundits that he is, in fact, eminently electable before the general election really kicks off.

For Gingrich, the advantage is the shelter of the primary bubble. Mitt Romney cannot openly attack Gingrich's most vile personal qualities, because Republican voters just do not want to hear it. Nor can he ask voters to punish Gingrich's about-face on issues like universal healthcare or climate change, because he is himself the very definition of the finger-to-the-wind politician.

If Romney were the Republican nominee, no Bloombergs had entered the race and the general election were held today, one could guess purely unscientifically that Mitt Romney's odds of winning would be somewhere around 40%. Imagine what they will be after the Obama political machine, armed with Romney's frequent missteps, his out-of-touch crony capitalist lifestyle and record consisting almost entirely of inconsistencies, gets to work him over for six months or so. That's what Republicans have to look forward to in the best case scenario.

For now, maybe they should just enjoy the ride.