The real showdown will be late next year, when the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush expire and New Year's 2013 triggers draconian sequestration budget cuts. That's when lawmakers will realize that there really is a loaded gun pointed at their heads. Under various post-election scenarios, including lame-duck sessions, both sides will want to avoid deep cuts to their most cherished priorities. In particular, Republicans will be desperate to extend the Bush tax cuts. The real showdown and real drama will come after all of the 2012 votes are counted.
The media's focus on the soap opera or reality television show (choose your metaphor) that is the fight for the Republican nomination is filling the airwaves, at least the bandwidth devoted to politics and policy, making the super committee's collapse less noticeable. Top Republican strategist Steve Schmidt's comparison in The New York Times of the GOP fight to "American Idol" was dead-on. From one weekly debate to another, someone's up then down, someone shines, and someone is humiliated on national television. Self-inflicted humiliation is not limited to the debates; former pizza mogul Herman Cain's bout of amnesia on Libya policy came courtesy of a meeting with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the reigning contestant darling. No surprises, given his intellect, ideas, and creativity, which make him more deserving than some previous star candidates. Predictably, as soon as the Georgian's stock rose, the closet door opened and the baggage tumbled out, likely perpetuating the surge-and-decline pattern that befell Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Cain.
Here is an alternative view: Two-thirds of today's Republican Party is really, really, really, really conservative, not so much the party of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, George H.W. Bush or for that matter, even Reagan or George W. Bush (not much talk of 'compassionate conservatism' from the current field). The remaining third would be happy with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Utah Gov. John Huntsman or, for that matter, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, or Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. But the party's center of gravity is firmly on the right.
One by one, the "real" conservative champions have disappointed the base, so its allegiance has shifted from one brief hope to another. As the right realizes that someone of its ideological ilk won't be the 2012 Republican nominee, conservatives will advance through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, starting with denial before moving on to anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
The reward for enduring the excruciating process will be the emergence of a nominee who is more electable than any of the right's first choices. The victor won't scratch their ideological itch but will have a better than even-money chance of winning a general election. In the end, that will suffice. The one thing that unifies conservatives is the desire to prevent President Obama's reelection.
The $64,000 question is whether or not Romney will win the nomination quickly and cleanly. To be sure, plenty of Republicans have huge issues with Romney. For some it's his Massachusetts health care plan, for others it's his flexibility on some social and cultural issues. Others are uncomfortable with his Mormon faith. Once all the conservative champions fall, will the base reluctantly acquiesce with just isolated pockets of resistance or will there be broader opposition, forcing Romney, even after he locks up the prerequisite number of delegates, to continue to pivot right to prevent a wholesale insurrection?
Although most Americans vote for or against presidential candidates, not running mates, nominees, particularly weak ones, often must perform unnatural political acts of ticket balancing to maintain firm hold of the party faithful. In some cases, like Ronald Reagan picking George H.W. Bush or John Kennedy choosing Lyndon Johnson, it wasn't too awkward, but in other cases, say Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., choosing Alaska's then-Gov. Sarah Palin, it illustrated the 2008 Republican nominee's fragile position. Imagine the contortions he must have endured to wind up with Palin.
In 1992, Arkansas's then-Gov. Bill Clinton's choice of then-Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee was reinforcing, a running mate of nearly identical geographic, demographic, and ideological leanings-a choice designed to drive the clear message of moderate Southern Democrats and generational change. In that pairing, the sum was greater than the parts and the matchup proved enormously effective.
If Romney has a fast and tidy nomination wrap-up, he can choose a running mate who personifies mainstream competence, maximizing the decision in the minds of moderate, independent, and swing voters that 2012 is a referendum election focused on the president. This scenario clearly provides a higher percentage shot for the GOP than one that presents an alternative vision of the country. A choice election rather than a referendum could go either way for Republicans.