Friday, January 6, 2012

A choice not a candidate

The presidential election cycle is moving into the voting phase, beginning as it has for years with Iowa caucuses.

Iowa is not a typical state. It has far fewer people of color, lower household incomes and greater numbers of people over 65. Caucuses are also not real elections, but gatherings of the party faithful. But Iowa usually thins the field, leaving one or two stronger candidates in the party out of power to move on to New Hampshire and the first primary election.

In this week's Republican caucus, three candidates finished within a handful of votes of one another. Each represents different and hostile constituencies that seem to have little in common other than a desire to cut taxes and an even greater desire to defeat President Obama.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and winner by eight votes, is the darling of the classic Republican business constituency. He is a one-percenter. Many of his supporters are one-percenters, or wannabes. He is wealthy, incredibly wealthy, and his supporters have chosen tax relief for people like themselves as America's greatest problem.

On the other end of the constituent scale is Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania. Santorum projects an everyman image. He is an avowed evangelical—anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, supporter of the teaching of "intelligent design." His constituency is not corporate. It is largely old, straight and white.

The third candidate to emerge from Iowa is Ron Paul, Texas congressman and avowed libertarian. Paul favors loosening marijuana laws. He supports the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008. His constituency tends to be significantly younger, libertarian, isolationist and pro-gay marriage.

This is not the first time Republicans have found themselves facing an election without a strong personal or political commitment to any particular candidate. Rather, we see a battle between electability and ideological purity.

Right-wing author Phyllis Schlafly, in a 1964 polemic, "A Choice Not an Echo," complained that Republicans constantly sold out conservative principals to appeal to a more moderate electorate only to go on to defeat. That year, the party nominated conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who then went on to a historic election loss.

Schlafly and similar ideological purists should be happy that there are clear choices this year.

The difficulty for Republicans is that none of the choices to date appears to be all that electable.

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