The whisper campaign has started already: Herman Cain can’t be elected president. It doesn’t matter that a poll this week by Rasmussen Reports shows Mr. Cain barely outside the margin of error in a head-to-head match-up against President Obama. In Republican offices in Washington and in state capitals across the nation, party functionaries are talking down one of the most attractive new personalities to emerge in national politics in years. This self-destructive behavior has less to do with electoral pragmatism than it does establishment control of the political process.
Party officials tend to be afraid of the new guy - especially if he’s outspokenly pure on thorny issues - because they like to go with the most predictable option, which typically means an incumbent or party regular. This is construed as playing it safe, but candidates who are spun as a “sure thing” often can’t win, especially during volatile election cycles when voters are anxious for new blood. As Rush Limbaugh reminded listeners on his Thursday show, new conservative star Marco Rubio wouldn’t be in the U.S. Senate today if Florida activists hadn’t rolled the GOP machine, which had gone all-out to nominate squishy Gov. Charlie Crist. Once jilted, the governor tried to get hitched to the Democrats and ended up limping along as an embarrassing, sour-grapes independent candidate.
In the Rubio case, Republicans fought the Tea Party, and the Tea Party won. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned if the elephants don’t want to ruin a grand opportunity to gain ruling control of Congress and the White House next year. The GOP’s conservative base is bursting with enthusiasm, but this activism isn’t motivated only to overthrow Barack Obama but also to elect politicians who are serious about cutting down government to save America from looming bankruptcy and collapse. That’s why 2012 is dangerous for respectable but decidedly moderate old-timers like Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar. There is counterrevolution in the air, and many in the old guard don’t have enough radical fire in the belly to get the job done.
It’s a mistake for establishment operatives to undermine the vitality of the next generation of activists to placate has-beens, but that’s standard Republican operating procedure in national, state and local races from sea to shining sea. The most notorious example was when the party threw insurgent conservative challenger Pat Toomey under the bus in 2004 to re-elect listless left-wing Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. The usual argument is that squishy incumbents must be backed at all costs to preserve their seats and keep a lock on certain legislative committee assignments. Mr. Toomey exposed this lie in 2010 by re-challenging and beating Mr. Specter, who like Crist became a turncoat Democrat out of spite.
The lesson for 2012 is that the best candidate is often the most conservative one.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, November 2011).