The battle to become the world’s most powerful person begins—with small groups of Iowans “caucusing” to choose a Republican nominee for the White House. It is a great opportunity for them. Barack Obama is clearly beatable. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been re-elected with unemployment as high as it is now; Mr Obama’s approval rating, which tends to translate accurately into vote-share, is down in the mid-40s. Swing states like Florida, Ohio and even Pennsylvania look well within the Republicans’ grasp.
Yet recent polls show the president leading all his rivals: an average of two points ahead of Mitt Romney, eight points over Ron Paul and nine points over Newt Gingrich, according to RealClearPolitics.com. No doubt some rather flawed personalities play a part in that; but so does the notion that something has gone badly wrong with the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Rather than answering the call for a credible right-of-centre, pro-business party to provide independents, including this newspaper, with a choice in November, it is saddling its candidate with a set of ideas that are cranky, extreme and backward-looking.
That matters far beyond this election—and indeed America’s shores. Across the West nations are struggling to reform government. At their best the Republicans have combined a muscular foreign policy with sound economics, individualism and entrepreneurial pragmatism. It is in everybody’s interests that they become champions of such policies again. That is not impossible, but there is a lot of catching up to do.
Please sign on the dotted line
Optimists will point out that the Republicans, no less than the Democrats, tend to flirt with extremes in the primaries, then select an electable moderate (with Mr Romney being the likely winner this time). America is a conservative place; every Republican nominee, including those The Economist has backed in the past, has signed up to pretty uncompromising views on God, gays and guns. But even allowing for that, the party has been dragged further and further to the right. Gone are the days when a smiling Reagan could be forgiven for raising taxes and ignoring abortion once in office. As the Republican base has become ever more detached from the mainstream, its list of unconditional demands has become ever more stringent.
Nowadays, a candidate must believe not just some but all of the following things: that abortion should be illegal in all cases; that gay marriage must be banned even in states that want it; that the 12m illegal immigrants, even those who have lived in America for decades, must all be sent home; that the 46m people who lack health insurance have only themselves to blame; that global warming is a conspiracy; that any form of gun control is unconstitutional; that any form of tax increase must be vetoed, even if the increase is only the cancelling of an expensive and market-distorting perk; that Israel can do no wrong and the “so-called Palestinians”, to use Mr Gingrich’s term, can do no right; that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and others whose names you do not have to remember should be abolished.
These fatwas explain the rum list of candidates: you either have to be an unelectable extremist who genuinely believes all this, or a dissembler prepared to tie yourself in ever more elaborate knots (the flexible Mr Romney). Several promisingly pragmatic governors, including Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, never even sought the nomination. Jon Huntsman, the closest thing to a moderate in the race (who supports gay marriage and action to combat climate change), is polling in low single figures.
More depressingly, the fatwas have stifled ideas, making the Republican Party the enemy of creative positions it once pioneered. The idea of requiring every American to carry health insurance (thus broadening the insurance pool and reducing costs) originated in the conservative Heritage Foundation as a response to Clinton-care, and was put into practice by then-Governor Romney in Massachusetts. All this Mr Romney has had to disavow, just as Mr Gingrich has had to recant his ideas on climate change, while Rick Perry is still explaining his appalling laxity as governor of Texas in allowing the children of illegal immigrants to receive subsidised college education.
On the economy, where this newspaper has often found the most common ground with the Republicans, the impact has been especially unfortunate. America’s commercial classes are fed up with a president they associate with big government, red tape and class warfare. A Republican could stake out a way to cut the deficit, reform taxes and refashion government. But instead of businesslike pragmatism, there is zealotry. The candidates have made a fetish out of never raising taxes (even when it involves getting rid of loopholes), while mostly ignoring tough decisions about cutting spending on defence or pensions. Such compassionless conservatism (slashing taxes for the rich and expenditure on the poor) comes with little thought as to which bits of government spending are useful. Investing in infrastructure, redesigning public education and maintaining unemployment benefits in the worst downturn since the Depression are hardly acts of communism.
We didn’t leave you; you left us
Elections are decided in the middle. If the Republicans choose an extreme candidate, they can hardly be surprised if independents plump for Mr Obama, or look to a third-party candidate. But there could be two better outcomes for them.
The first would be if Mr Romney secures a quick victory, defies his base and moves firmly to the centre. In theory, there is enough in his record to suggest that he may yet be the chief executive America needs, though such boldness is asking a lot of a man who still seems several vertebrae short of a backbone (John McCain, a generally braver man, flunked it in 2008). The alternative is that the primary race grinds to a stalemate, with neither Mr Romney nor one of his rivals able to secure victory. Then a Bush, Daniels or Christie just might be tempted into the contest. It is a sad commentary that this late in the day “the right Republican” does not even seem to be running yet.