In the Arena

Romney=Kerry; Perry=Dean?

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In my print column this week, hidden behind the magic wonderwall, I indulge in a little presidential campaign history: Four years ago, in September 2007, John McCain–the eventual Republican nominee–was dead in the water, having raised and wasted a ton of money and fired most of his staff. Eight years ago, John Kerry–the eventual Democratic nominee–had tanked as well, the victim of staff problems, indecision and Howard Dean, whose passionate candidacy had captured the fancy of Democratic activists.

This year, Mitt Romney is facing a similar swoonlet, with Texas Governor Rick Perry–who tickles the GOP’s base as Dean did the Democrats–sweeping past him in the near-meaningless early horserace polls. Perry, as the world now knows, is a bit of a wild…

man. In normal circumstances, a candidate who implies that the government’s most popular program–Social Security–is unconstitutional would not have much of a future in presidential politics and I wouldn’t be surprised if Perry self-immolates in the struggle to stay hot in the cold Iowa winter. (In any case, the presence of both Perry and Bachmann in the race splits the anti-Romney vote in Iowa, increasing his chances of a fair showing there.)

That doesn’t mean Romney can just sit tight and wait for Perry’s collapse. It also doesn’t mean, as some of my more dunderheaded colleagues have been suggesting, that Romney should run ads to destroy Perry forthwith. (Negative ads are extremely toxic in primary campaigns–they should be used with the utmost caution.) It means that Romney has to start showing some strength and gumption. It means that his only path to the presidency is as a moderate-conservative truth-teller–a rocky road given his hilarious flip-floppery in the past. He took a step in the right direction by standing up to the religious nutballs on science: he said, in effect, that he believed evolution was God’s plan.

But his real test is going to come on the role of the federal government in American life. John Kerry won his nomination because Dean flamed out, but Kerry remained a weak candidate because he couldn’t quite make up his mind about the most important issue in 2004–the Iraq war. Sooner or later, Romney is going to have to make clear where he stands on the role of Washington–from no-brainers like Social Security and Medicare to more difficult questions (for conservatives) like whether or not to have a Department of Education, whether to have an Environmental Protection Agency, whether to have a Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

In the end, I think it’s important for the Republicans to run a plausible President as its candidate in 2012. There are those who say that Perry is a clown who could never win a general election, and the chances are they’re right. But you just don’t mess around with the presidency.