2011: the Republicans’ annus horribilis

On the eve of 2011, the GOP was reaping the benefits of the biggest turnaround in political fortunes in recent history when it recaptured the House of Representatives from the Democrats and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate to three votes. There was hope total control of Congress was one election away. And why not dream of the trifecta and making Barack Obama a one-term president? This past year had opened with the expectation the GOP was back and that it would lead the political agenda throughout 2011.

Indeed, the year got off to a good start for the Republicans, who provoked showdowns on a potential government shutdown in the spring and on the debt ceiling in the summer, gaining significant concessions from the president in the process. Obama appeared weak and his poll numbers suffered. In so doing, the GOP had shifted the focus of political conversation toward government spending, the size of government, and the need to rein in the debt.

Meantime, the economic recovery continued to be anemic and the sovereign debt problems occurring within the Euro Zone underscored the need for drastic new directions in economic policy. Comparisons with Greece were often used by Republican politicians to force Obama to back down. As a result, with the exception of the killing of Bin Laden in April, Obama has been on the defensive all year. Until this December, that is.

A future that seemed so full of potential for the GOP barely a year ago is no longer as certain. It started with the most promising and the strongest candidates, such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, all passing on the chance to run for the Republican nomination. Meanwhile, celebrity politicians like Sarah Palin and businessman Donald Trump began to tantalize the GOP party base with a possible run. The effect of this was to weaken the Republican brand, as the the entertainer-candidates came to dominate the airwaves. The party was hijacked by candidates wanting viewers as opposed to votes.

Those candidates who did opt in were soon confronted by a party base that was mesmerized, and sometimes intimidated, by the Tea Party, by Trump’s idiotic birther nonsense, and by the obsession with saying no to anything Obama proposes. Even in the area of national security, normally a strong suit for the GOP, the Republican message seemed to amount to, “We are against anything Obama is for.”

And then there was the problem of the actual candidates. They remain, for the most part, a hodge-podge of marginal types, including strict social conservatives (Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann), a flawed comeback kid (Newt Gingrich), a self-promoter flogging a book (Herman Cain), and a man whose policies are at best unconventional, at worst wacky (Ron Paul). Finally, there is the steady but unloved Mitt Romney. Ahead of the Iowa caucus, only Romney seems to have a chance to defeat Obama in the national election.

The debate season and early campaigning only reinforced the weakness of the Republican field, as Perry flamed out, Cain brought comic relief but little else, Gingrich started a comeback until he began to implode again, and Bachmann returned to her initial spot–a marginal candidate. Santorum and Paul have shown life of late, but it will be temporary, Through it all, Romney has weathered the storm, collected endorsements from establishment Republicans and continued to build the organization and financial base necessary to capture the nomination. But he’s done it without ever gaining the affection of party members.

The recent Gingrich surge, in particular, made establishment Republicans aware of just how far the base had gotten out of control. Watch or read what Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, and David Frumm are saying and you know there is pressure not to select a candidate who’s completely outside the mainstream.

Of course, the Republicans will soon have their candidate. It will likely be Romney and the contest with Obama will be firece. But 2011 was a missed opportunity. Obama’s victory in the debate over the extension of the payroll tax cut was modest in itself, but the defeat of the House Republicans was enormous in scope. Add to this the dysfunctional nomination contest and it’s impossible to not conclude 2011 was a bad year for the Republicans. The hope for them is that it cannot get worse.

Happy New Year to all and see you in primary season.

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