Downcast Contenders a Serious Problem for GOP in 2012

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One of the reasons that it has taken Republicans longer than usual to get into the starting positions for the 2012 presidential race is the growing understanding of the stakes.

Political pooh-bahs tell us that every election is “transformative” and “historic,” but the 2012 contest is certain to be those things. Considering the consequences of what defeat would mean to their party and the conservative movement in America, Republican candidates have shown some appropriate trepidation about undertaking a campaign.

As an aide to one politician who engaged in heavy flirtation before opting out of a presidential run put it, “If you screw this up, it’s not just your career; it’s the future of the nation.”

There is something bordering on solemnity among the potential Republican candidates. In fact, it is probably because of this sense of moral purpose among the serious candidates that Donald Trump has been able to captivate so many voters. While the rest of the GOP field is preparing for a holy war, Trump sounds as loose as a guy talking smack before a round of golf.

This is a substantial problem for the Republican aspirants. Holy warriors aren’t much fun (especially compared to model-marrying, billionaire casino owners). Voters may have a deepening sense of unease about the direction of the country, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to elect Cotton Mather.

We traditionally think of American politics as pendular – that like the pendulum of a clock, political trends swing to the left before gravity pulls them back to the right, and so on. The excesses that follow each victory lead to the next defeat.

There is no doubt that the corrective gravity of America’s moderate plurality punishes parties for excesses. Just look at the 2010 midterm elections in which voters smacked down Democrats for focusing on an unpopular health-insurance law at a time when people were deeply concerned about the economy. Thwack!

But rather than the steady ticking of a grandfather clock, it seems more accurate to say that the American electorate is like the digital clocks in my house: None of them ever seem to agree on what time it is.

The metronomic metaphor works well in more politically settled countries. Frenchmen may disagree on how generous benefits should be or how strongly to defend Gallic culture, but the role of government is not really up for debate. Conservatives in Britain may argue that the National Health Service needs to be reformed or made less generous, but not that the whole thing should be scrapped.

The fact that Americans are even still debating over whether the government is obliged to provide health care as a human right sounds bizarre in most Western countries. It has been a settled matter for at least 40 years in Europe.

But not so in the United States, where we have been having the same debate, manifested in various topics, for four generations: What is the proper role of government?

The coming election is so consequential because it threatens to answer that question in a rather permanent way.

America has had an unprecedented series of referendum elections. Since 2002, we have had a succession of votes that came down to the news of the day. In 2002, voters were asked if they supported President George W. Bush’s response to 9/11. In 2004 and 2006, elections hinged on the conduct of the Iraq war, first to the benefit of the GOP and then against it. In 2008, the election came down to who could best respond to the financial panic that had just engulfed the nation.

But we have not had a contrast election since 2000, and there is a doozy coming. A contrast election is when the major parties work to present two different views of the government and ask voters to choose.

As Wall Street burned and American 401(k)s shriveled from juicy plums to bitter prunes, no one was much asking Barack Obama or John McCain about health care mandates and Medicare reform. Folks rightly wanted to know who could prevent the panic from turning into a depression. And Obama, the deliberate, crisp technocrat, sounded more appealing to insecure suburbanites than an irascible, old war hero.

Now, with the economy in a stall instead of a nosedive, voters are talking about broader themes – how to defeat the debt, the best way to save Medicare, if America can afford a nation-building foreign policy, whether to undo Obama’s health care law, etc. No matter which of the presidential pretenders Republicans pick, he or she will offer a policy prescription starkly different than Obama’s. And like many other contrast elections, this one has all the makings of a political realignment.

In 1964, the British Labour Party retook Westminster after a 13-year run by the Conservatives. The victory was narrow and largely due to the sordid (and sexy) scandals that had rocked the government of Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. But the victor of 1964, Prime Minister Harold Wilson was re-elected in convincing fashion just two years later.

Wilson’s re-election proved a turning point for Britain. His victory closed the debate that had bubbled in the nation from the end of World War II about what kind of government Britain should have. It would be another 13 years before Margaret Thatcher reengaged the nation in that discussion, but by then, the parameters were much more limited.

In 1979, there wasn’t much question about what kind of country Britain would be, but only how it would be administered.

American politics has seen several of these moments, often involving incumbent presidents. The 1832 re-election of Andrew Jackson, the 1936 re-election of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide are all examples of realigning contrast elections. Americans had stark choices between a new idea and an old one, and went for the new stuff with gusto.

The Republicans are approaching the coming election gravely because they understand that a second term for Obama will be a ratification of his policies and the long-term narrowing of America’s political debate that has been raging for decades about what kind of government America ought to have.

But persuadable voters don’t generally think in those terms. They tend to be more practical, less ideological and very interested in character and personality.

Republicans are running with what they believe is the grim determination merited by serious times, but to voters they will look like a clothesline full of wet blankets.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.