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Morning Jay: No Frontrunner? No Problem!

6:00 AM, May 11, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Third, the party does not need to fall in love with its nominee. Sitting in the background here is my (admittedly heterodox) opinion that "enthusiasm" doesn't matter all that much for presidential elections. The most loyal partisans usually are the ones who make a regular habit of voting in presidential elections, regardless of their enthusiasm. Additionally, to the extent that enthusiasm does matter, it's important to remember that a close election will drive up interest, and therefore turnout, while a Republican blowout will make all this irrelevant. Enthusiasm could indeed be a problem in an Obama blowout, as that might open up scores of new House and Senate pickup opportunities for the Democrats. Finally, the Obama administration has thoroughly alienated the conservative base, meaning that we can expect it to turn out, at the least, to vote against the president if not for the GOP nominee (recall how the Democratic base turned out in droves for the thoroughly lackluster John Kerry). 

While a nominee doesn't have to make the base swoon, there are three things he has to demonstrate:

i. Electability. He has to show that his victory in the nomination battle will enhance, not diminish, the party’s chances against Barack Obama.

ii. Governing skill. The legislative branch is of particular concern. Managing Congress is a lot like handling a two-year-old. It requires a deft touch, and a caregiver who knows when and how to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. This is a big reason, incidentally, why Obama has gotten into such political trouble: he allowed Nancy Pelosi and a narrow coalition of liberal Democrats to run the show on Capitol Hill. Managing congressional Republicans is different from handling the Democrats, but it is still no little feat. The party needs a president who, after victory, will know how to do that. An open nomination battle is the best opportunity to vet the prospectives on their governing abilities.

iii. Party stewardship. It’s often forgotten that leading a political party is a significant part of a president’s job. And so, it is vitally important that Republicans nominate a candidate who will leave the party in better shape than he found it. If the GOP wins in 2012, this is unlikely to be an issue in the next Congress, as the Republicans will probably have a majority in both chambers. Yet after the 2014 midterm, that could all be gone, and a Republican in the White House may be matched against a Democratic Congress. Will that commander in chief make good choices that enhance his reelection prospects without damaging the party? Or will he compromise on the party’s core values to save his skin? 

So, all in all, the fact that nobody has emerged as a breakaway frontrunner is not at all a reason to worry. It's just due to a confluence of unrelated circumstances, and it opens up an opportunity for the party to reflect on its position in American society. Republicans should worry if, and only if, none of the prospectives performs competently across these three metrics. That seems extremely unlikely to me.

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