To understand the 2012 Republican presidential contest in the fall of 2011, think of GOP voters as a young maiden writing for advice from a wise elder such as Ann Landers.
“What’s wrong with me? He’s handsome, an excellent provider, well-educated, and he comes from a good family. He neither drinks nor smokes and doesn’t run around. While courting me relentlessly for several years now, he has always been well-mannered and unfailingly attentive to my changing moods. These are all huge pluses.
“But here’s my problem: He just doesn’t make my heart race. And he’s not much fun. Should I stop looking for excitement, grow up and simply settle for ... Mitt?”
All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, Republicans have been behaving like Democrats who, we all know, too often let their emotions rule when picking a presidential nominee. As I’ve said before, when it comes to presidential nominations, Republicans fall in line while Democrats fall in love. (See Barack Obama, 2008.)
The Republican Party prefers its standard-bearers to be familiar, well-traveled. Ronald Reagan, now the party’s consensus patron saint, first sought the nomination in 1968 and then again in 1976 before finally winning it in 1980. Bob Dole was the vice-presidential nominee in 1976 and ran unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination in 1980 and 1988 before finally winning the prize in 1996.
Richard Nixon was one of only two Americans nominated five times by a major party for national office. George H.W. Bush had failed to win the 1980 presidential nomination and had twice been elected VP before becoming the 1988 nominee. His son had won two terms as governor of Texas. John McCain had finished second in 2000 to George W. Bush before winning the 2008 nomination.
I can still recall the Republican activist in Ottumwa, Iowa, before that state’s 1996 Republican caucuses. He explained why that year he was supporting the Kansas senator: “It’s Bob Dole’s turn.”
I have never heard any Democrat say those words. Democrats are glandular types. They fall head-over-heels for presidential candidates they hadn’t known just weeks earlier. Remember first-time candidates George McGovern (1972), Jimmy Carter (1976), the comet-like Gary Hart (1984), the suddenly emerging Michael Dukakis (1988), the newcomer Bill Clinton (1992), John Kerry (2004) and Obama? Since 1968, the only real known quantities Democrats have picked were two men who had served as vice president: Walter Mondale and Al Gore.
While Republican voters value in their candidates the credential of having run previously and lost, environmentally minded Democrats never think of recycling their leaders. Any Democratic presidential candidate who loses immediately and unceremoniously is dropped like a bad habit.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has run before. He has won a tough election in a heavily Democratic state. He is well-funded and has assembled a competent, professional campaign staff. He has been exceptionally sure-footed.
But to what end? Respected Republicans publicly behaved like Justin Bieber’s teeny-boppers in their feverish pursuit of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Normally sensible Republicans now want to have a crush, want to feel tingly all over. They’re even flirting, according to latest polls, with pizza executive, radio talk-show host and motivational speaker Herman Cain, who has never run in a general election for any public office (obviously, to take political advantage of the “experience” issue against the incumbent in 2012).
Forget falling in love, Republicans. As Democrats can attest from listening tearfully to too many concession speeches, love in politics is overrated.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.