Journalists and political junkies, quit fantasizing. Your dream of a contested Republican convention won't happen. None of the four surviving candidates is going to stand down for a Mighty Mouse Here I Come To Save The Day candidate.
But that leaves the GOP with a serious dilemma. They're stuck with the unlovable Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, and the extremist Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Well, Newt and Mitt have been sounding pretty extreme lately, too. Every indication is that these four will keep battering each other throughthe nomination process.
But from there things look more familiar. One of these guys, other than Paul, will end up with the devalued prize of the Republican nomination. What does the party do then?
The answer is both remarkably cynical, realpolitik practical, and very familiar. The sports analogies are over-used, but Hunter Thompson used them where applicable so I will too. Fourth down and long? You punt and play for field position. Call it the Bob Dole Scenario.
I was a downballot candidate in 1996 and I felt the wind go out of the Republican sails the minute Bill Clinton signed welfare reform. As a Johnson County lefty I cringed, but in the places I was running they loved it.
This left Republicans with one of their biggest issues off the table. They were already saddled with a candidate who was respected but not loved in Bob Dole.
One upside of the post-1960s polarization of the parties is that there are fewer and fewer independent voters left. The independents who lean one way or the other may still CALL themselves "independent" because journalists teach them that's a good thing to call yourself, but functionally they vote as partisans. In modern terms, 2008 was a landslide. Barack Obama's 53% and John McCain's 46% probably represent the high and low marks for a major party. That is, 92% of the electorate already has their mind made up to vote for Obama or the Republican nominee in a two way race.
(And it IS going to be a two way race. The much-ballyhooed Americans Elect project, in which the raging moderates are supposed to save us from ourselves, is doomed to failure without a prominent, Perot-like candidate. One guess who's leading their online nomination poll? That's right, Ron Paul of course. And he's not going to defect and damage the future prospect of his son. How libertarian can you get -- you name your son Rand?)
Let me tell you the dirty little secret about "independents." By and large they're not the thoughtful and serious type who "study the candidates." They're usually the least likely and least informed voters who are the most susceptible to the weakest arguments. They say they hate negative ads... but they're persuaded by them. They're the Which Candidate Would I Want To Have A Beer With vote.
And they're the most likely to buy into the American fallacy of split ticket voting, then complain afterwards when the two parties -- who fundamentally disagree on almost all important issues -- can't "work together" and "compromise."
This, the likely Republican strategy for the fall.
Along about August 1996, the GOP realized that Bob Dole wasn't going to happen. So they pretty much openly scuttled him. This was just two years after the 1994 congressional takeover, and Republican control of Congress was still in doubt. Sound familiar?
The Republicans of 1996, saddled with a weak nominee, tacitly acknowledged Dole's likely defeat. They scuttled their own candidate and instead made the case that continued control of Congress was needed as a check and balance on Bill Clinton.
The independents, whose understanding of the presidential race was roughly "Bob Dole too old," bought it. We got continued divided government, and impeachment along with it.
The Bob Dole scenario is the next the Republicans can do this year. But the raging moderates and the low-information independents should learn from the lessons of the last year that Working Together and Compromise are no longer possible. Make a real choice, give one party or the other a mandate, and live with the consequences.