For the Republican Party, the last month has come close to being a political nightmare.
In Michigan, the issue of contraception dominated what should have been a discussion about the economy. Mitt Romney failed to take Rick Santorum or Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to task for pushing issues that virtually guarantee President Barack Obama's re-election. Indeed it was quite a sideshow that appeared to be a grand exercise in irrelevance, except the stakes were so high.
Obama virtually received a free month to hone his message and fatten his war chest. While Santorum and Romney engaged in a Reader's Digest-style morals debate, Obama wooed the American public - even taking the microphone from Mick Jagger. Of course there was a major crisis in Syria and a protest against Americans in Afghanistan. Those issues received little if any attention from the two leading GOP candidates as they talked about properly apportioned trees or the dangers of teenage petting. With enemies like these, Obama does not need friends.
Romney, for instance, had a legitimate shot of corralling suburban women and Independents. With his Republican mates sounding the alarm for late 1950s contraception, Obama at least in the meantime has one problem solved. As for Independents, they thought they had difficulty with liberals. The right wing has intruded literally into their private lives. Romney's Sphinx-like aplomb while all this transpired is astonishing. He has not risen to the occasion by calling a halt to the meandering nature of the social debate. Instead, he tells people how many automobiles he has. What do you expect from a man who touts General Motors cars at a Ford dealership?
Perhaps this is a problem that arises because Romney is thoroughly disliked by a large percentage of Republicans. No sooner had he left his big victory in Florida than he ran into a buzzsaw in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota. Subsequently, he has tried to solve the problem by pandering when he should give the purity right a lecture. Perhaps a moment of clarity is needed. If he does not do it, the GOP is doomed.
Many potential Republican voters care not a whit for social issues. Their concerns are with the direction of the American economy. Because a woman is pro-choice on abortion does not means she agrees with Obama on taxes. But to attempt to roll back reproductive rights is anathema to these voters and, like in 2008, virtually assures their support for the president. American election victories are made by coalitions, not by narrow interest groups. With this latest gambit, Republicans are now signaling that whomever is nominated on social issues cannot be trusted. Romney had a sister soulja moment, and he let it pass.
So much is said by Republicans about Ronald Reagan that one forgets who he was. He was a conservative to be sure, but a smart one who knew just how far to go with voters. He made no real effort to congressionally invalidate abortion. In 1982, he let Jesse Helms' bill go down to defeat with little more than token support. He certainly would find the contraceptive debate puzzling, which only confuses the issue. For Romney, Reagan is not a good role model - better Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower fought Joseph McCarthy and the populist wing of the GOP. He denounced "book burners" at a famous speech at Dartmouth. In the end when asked about "McCarthyism," he said, "You mean McCarthywasm." In temperament and style, Romney is closer to Ike than the gipper. He is a gentleman who needs to grow a political spine. The time has come for him to speak up for a new Republicanism based on the tried and true principles of the past. He is a William McKinley, not a William Jennings Bryan. But if Romney does not free himself from the narrow "base," he is destined for defeat either in August or in November.