The Republican presidential field is so screwed up and incompetent, even a buffoon like Rick Perry can climb to the top of the polls. And like Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann before him, a series of gaffes and just plain strange behavior has brought him crashing down.
After Perry stumbled, Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, rose to the top. He came up with the bold “9-9-9” tax plan that was so stupid it almost made Perry look competent. Even though conservatives realized that his tax plan wouldn't work, Cain rode high in the polls just because he wasn't Mitt Romney, and people liked his straight talk. He continued to stay on top of the polls by the Republican voters, who seemed to be saying: “He's stupid, but so are we.”
Bold idiotic solutions and plain talk, however, could not keep Cain on top. After allegations of sexual harassment surfaced, Cain's promise to keep a “hands-on” approach to politics took on a whole new meaning.
Cain's fall from grace has caused the GOP to find another anybody-but-Mitt-Romney candidate. This time, it's former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. After surviving Trump, Bachmann, Perry and Cain, you would think that Romney might start capitalizing on all the craziness going on around him and begin to build the support needed to capture the nomination. After all, he is the candidate with the best match-up numbers against Obama.
Although Romney's been holding steady at or near the top of the polls, he is not liked by the base of his party. Many leaders in the GOP seem to want to throw the election rather than see Romney as president, and then try again in 2016. The main problem is that many Republicans are distrustful of his recent public reversals on gun control, abortion and gay rights. And then there's the health care overhaul law that he pushed through as governor of Massachusetts, which is similar to Obama's.
The rise of Gingrich is surprising because he was written off as recently as last spring. He is a polarizing figure, often controversial and prone to contradictory statements. Obama would love to run against Gingrich, who would most likely self-destruct over the course of a presidential campaign. However, it seems unlikely that his bid for the nomination will survive the close inspection given a newly appointed front-runner. That's been the problem for the other GOP rejects.
The common thread running through this highly unusual campaign season has been the series of gaffes, inconsistencies, and inept behavior by all the candidates, even though Romney kept the gaffes to a minimum. And although Romney may look presidential, his proclivity to change sides on seemingly every issue has not helped his cause. The only reason Romney has remained consistently near the top of the polls is because he has stayed under the radar. In other words, he has had solid debate performances and no meltdowns regarding the location of Libya or how many women he has groped.
Gingrich has a few personal and political problems to overcome. Most recently, reports have surfaced that he received $1.6 million in political consulting fees from the embattled mortgage giant Freddie Mac, one of his favorite targets on the campaign trail. However, there is one major difference between Gingrich and the other challengers to Romney. He has been around for a long time, and he may be many things, not all of them good. But politically inept definitely isn't one of them, which is what separates Gingrich from Bachmann, Cain, et al.
Being the front-runner has put a spotlight on Gingrich's stance on immigration, an issue he raised during the recent GOP debate. He broke from the majority of his party when he called for “humane” treatment for otherwise law-abiding immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, establishing deep family and community ties.
The GOP response to Gingrich's compassionate position on immigration was swift, and some conservatives asserted that he had wounded his candidacy, perhaps fatally. The position Gingrich took on immigration has proven to be political risky for Republicans trying to appeal to the party's conservative base. Rick Perry had to apologize for saying that critics of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants “did not have a heart”. So much for compassion. There doesn't seem to be much room for that in the Republican party.
Gingrich may have upset his base, but he's not stupid, and he has stood by his position, with no apologies. What looked at first like a debate gaffe has, on closer inspection, seemed to be a calculated tactic to draw a contrast with Romney, who has been tough on immigration while running for president, but not so much when he wasn't. While Romney is taking the politically expedient immigration stance, Gingrich's aides say that he was saying the same thing at forums and town halls long before he was running for president.
It's getting late in the campaign season – just a month-and-a-half remain until the Iowa caucuses – so it's possible that the weakest field of candidates in memory may come down to Romney and Gingrich.
If Gingrich is to have any chance, he needs to transform his image. He's been married three times, and some Republicans think that this alone could disqualify him. But there are also the contradictions and reversals in his record, including past support for an individual health insurance mandate and for government action to combat climate change. These things make him seem just as inconsistent as Romney, the notorious flip-flopper. And Gingrich isn't helping himself by waffling on the nature of his services to Freddie Mac, where he received the aforementioned $1.6 million for doing nothing more than lending his name for political purposes.
Even with his excess baggage, Gingrich is the only candidate to seriously challenge Romney who doesn't seem deranged or just plain stupid. He's able to give a speech without sounding drunk, unlike Perry, and can hold his own at a debate, unlike Perry and just about everyone else. So Gingrich may have a chance at the nomination, unlike the previous front-runners who have crashed and burned.
Obama is vulnerable in 2012 because of the economy, and there is little expectation that it will improve significantly. The President, however, has the advantage of being the incumbent, has had recent success in foreign policy, and has been looking more presidential since last summer's debt ceiling debacle. The fact that the polls show the actual candidates scoring lower than a “generic” Republican when matched against Obama shows that maybe the Republicans just don't have a qualified candidate running.
While the Republican party continues to lose credibility with every debate, Obama continues to do his job quietly and without much fanfare. The fact that he's been blocked by Congress on pretty much every major piece of legislation is bad for the country, but the approval rating for Congress is in single-digit territory, and that's a good sign for Obama. Although his own ratings are not great, the fact that the Republican party has failed to come up with a nominee who is a viable alternative is good news indeed for Obama.
While Obama waits for Gingrich to push the self-destruct button – as have all the previous Republican front-runners – he is waiting for Romney to be the last man standing, and is preparing for that. Is Gingrich the Clown Prince of the GOP circus, or is he a contender? Regardless of the answer, the President can relax and enjoy his holiday season knowing that the Republican Party may have run out of options.