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KUHNER: Republican alternatives

If GOP doesn’t select a competent conservative, Obama will win again

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The prospective GOP presidential field is emerging. Republicans risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Mike Huckabee is out. Donald Trump threw in the towel. Newt Gingrich is floundering. Outside of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (who also may not run) there is only one other big name: Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor has many good attributes. He is telegenic, articulate and smart. Moreover, he is independently wealthy and possesses a formidable fundraising machine. This is no small matter when contrasted with President Obama's goal of amassing a $1 billion campaign war chest. The GOP establishment thinks only Mr. Romney can stop the Obama juggernaut.

They are wrong for Mr. Romney has some vulnerabilities. He has changed positions in the past to suit his political interests. While governor of staunchly liberal Massachusetts, he strongly supported abortion rights and gay marriage. He now claims to be a pro-life social conservative.

Yet his greatest problem remains Romneycare. Last week, he delivered a major health care address at the University of Michigan. His goal: to defend the merits of his state reform initiative as he blasted Mr. Obama's massive health care overhaul. Mr. Romney wants to have it both ways. He argues that Romneycare worked in Massachusetts - even though it is predicated on an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, along with huge government subsidies and vast regulations. For all of his spin, Mr. Romney cannot overcome one salient fact: His mandate-subsidize-overregulate model served as the blueprint for Obamacare. Hence, the Democrats will forcefully argue that if Romneycare was such a policy success, why not have Washington export it to all states? The logic is inexorable: What is good enough for Massachusetts should be good enough for America as well.

The 2012 election will focus heavily on Obamacare. Americans don't want it. It is a multitrillion-dollar entitlement program, which the United States can no longer afford. It will push America over the fiscal cliff. For Mr. Obama, it is not just a policy disaster but a political albatross. A Romney candidacy, however, will take away the GOP's decisive advantage. The issue will no longer be Mr. Obama's failed government-run health care system; rather, it will be Mr. Romney's soft spot. The message will get lost because of the messenger.

Beltway Republicans are repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. Contrary to popular myth, the New Deal failed to restore economic recovery. In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's tax-and-spend policies worsened the Great Depression. FDR's creeping socialism was resented by large segments of the electorate. Yet he won re-election three times.

This was because Republicans failed to offer a compelling alternative. Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey - all of these GOP presidential nominees were trounced by the Roosevelt coalition. They were mediocre candidates - and liberal internationalists. They sought to co-opt part of FDR's agenda instead of waging a frontal assault as championed by the great conservative nationalist Sen. Robert Taft from Ohio. The result: Republicans spent nearly two decades in the wilderness.

Mr. Romney is the Dewey of our time - a Northeastern moderate governor running as a center-right unifier. As with Dewey, the GOP money boys like him, and he looks and sounds presidential, but he may not be unable to galvanize the Republican rank and file. He is a risky choice.

Which begs the question: Can the GOP win in 2012? Recent polls show that 45 percent of Republican voters are unsatisfied with the prospective crop of nominees. This is surprising since many can - and should - beat Mr. Obama. The problem with the so-called first-tier candidates - Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich, Mrs. Palin - is that they have considerable political liabilities. Democrats will be able to use that as a foil to distract the electorate from Mr. Obama's dismal record. Along with their media allies, they will make the issue the Republican challenger and not the president's performance.

That would be a red herring. Mr. Obama presides over the most incompetent, radical administration in history. His presidency increasingly resembles a bad TV show: "Community organizer meets the West Wing." Under his leadership, Washington is broken.

Hence, the Republicans have a clear path to power: Make the election a referendum on Mr. Obama. If they do that, they will win - and win big. A serious conservative challenger, with few policy or personal skeletons in his closet, will smash Mr. Obama's decrepit regime. The GOP has numerous good candidates. If you are a Tea Party populist, there is Michele Bachmann. If you are a fiscal conservative, there are Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty or, very likely, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. If you are a libertarian, there is - God bless him - Ron Paul. And there is a major heavyweight still deciding whether to run: Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Mr. Obama is in trouble. His popularity is sinking - despite the killing of Osama bin Laden. As the economy stagnates and gas prices skyrocket, he will become even more vulnerable. The Republicans don't need a celebrity or prominent figure at the top of their ticket. They need a competent leader. There are more than enough to choose from. Hence, the mantra for the GOP nominating season should simply be: Choose a candidate with sound principles, a good record - and no major baggage. Republicans will then sail to victory.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.

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