On the other hand, there is also something to be said for calculation in a politician. Successful political leaders need to have a realistic sense of what public opinion, and the political system, will bear, a sense cultivated by the habit of calculation. And there is a limit to how much political risk conservatives should want a president allied to them to take. Most of the time conservative activists should be trying to reduce the risks of advancing conservative initiatives rather than to goad elected officials to political recklessness. Conservatives should, that is, point the way for ambitious politicians to advance good ideas that can command the support of a national center-right majority.
Governor Romney’s political career may not reflect the ideal balance between conviction and calculation. But a presidential primary offers a choice among imperfect alternatives, not embodied ideals. Weighed against the available alternatives, Romney comes out ahead — way ahead — because he is the only one of the primary candidates with a good shot at achieving a prerequisite for advancing a conservative agenda as president: namely, actually becoming president.
Huntsman is highly unlikely to win the nomination because Republican voters divine in him a disdain for them, and return it. The others, even if they got the nomination, would be almost-certain losers in a general election. They are either too out of sync with the electorate, too personally erratic, or both.
Representative Bachmann says that President Obama is certain to lose reelection, so Republicans should feel free to nominate the candidate of their dreams, without regard to electability. The president certainly looks beatable. But writing him off is unwise. His approval numbers are weak but not disastrous, the Republican party remains unpopular, incumbency almost always carries advantages, and the composition of the electorate is likely to be much more Democratic than it was in 2010. If the bottom drops out of the economy, perhaps as a result of Europe’s disorders, then maybe even Gingrich or Perry could win the race. But the stakes are too high for that kind of gamble.
Even if one of them did win the White House, what we have seen of their campaigns suggests that his presidency would be a bumpy ride. In Perry’s case, the problem would be an apparent unfamiliarity with national issues that looks good only in comparison with Herman Cain’s proud ignorance. Gingrich, meanwhile, is a constant reminder that political leaders can have too much, as well as too little, imagination. His recent proposals on immigration are classic Gingrich: innovative-sounding, accompanied by high-tech gadgetry, and wholly absurd. Local community boards will decide which illegal immigrants to expel! We will be “humane,” while denying temporary workers the vote and stripping their children of citizenship!
The last time Gingrich held office, he reached a depth of unpopularity that suggested that the public did not merely disagree with his policies but disliked him as a person. Memories have faded, and his current fans say he is a changed man. But he still has the rhetorical style — by turns incendiary, grandiose, and abrasive — that turned off middle-of-the-road Americans then. (November 16: “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher . . . ”) And he does not seem to have learned that aspiring presidents should weigh their words carefully. Recall the events that led to his campaign’s meltdown this summer, in which he first praised Paul Ryan’s plan for entitlements, then condemned it as “right-wing social engineering,” and finally apologized to Ryan for the comment.