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Riding the Florida primary momentum

On the heels of the Florida primary, Professor Jeremi Suri tells us what we should expect next out of the Republican race.

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Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs, teaches courses on the history of international affairs, global strategy and contemporary politics in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.


Jeremi Suri

Professor Jeremi Suri studies foreign policy, international relations and social change. Watch a video of Suri discussing the Republican primaries. Photo: Sasha Haagensen

Mitt Romney’s big victory in the Florida Primary cements his position as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. It also confirms that the debates among Republicans will continue. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul have all vowed to stay in the race. They have the money and the organization to do this. They also have the committed followers to make it possible.

Romney’s big win contains a big weakness. Adding the total votes in Florida, almost as many Republicans voted against Romney as those who voted for him. In a state that strongly favors his organization and money, he could not convince a majority of the voters in his party that he should be their nominee. More than 50 percent of those who went to the polls do not think he is sufficiently conservative, Christian, or charismatic for their tastes. More than 50 percent of those who went to the polls still want someone other than Romney as the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama.

These anti-Romney sentiments remain very strong. They will not go away. Even if he manages to get the Republican nomination, Romney will have a very difficult time unifying his party. He will also have trouble telling his followers the tough things they need to hear: defense spending must decrease, entitlement programs must be limited and the federal government must raise new tax revenues. A shaky Republican leader like Romney has little leverage to sell these necessities. He cannot accept these policies and still assure his followers of his conservative credentials — as Richard Nixon did when opening relations with Communist China, or Ronald Reagan did when reducing the size of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

What, then, should we expect before the “Super Tuesday” collection of 10 state primaries on March 6? First, the Republican race will get nastier. Gingrich and Santorum will continue to attack Romney, accusing him of selling-out conservatism. He will continue to attack back, as he did in Florida. The race will become more ideological and personal. It will become less substantive in its attention to policy.

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Second, talk of alternative candidates will continue. Republicans will look longingly at Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Romney will have to choreograph a difficult dance as he tries to court these figures while he also attempts to appeal to a more extreme “Tea Party” faction.

Third, and most significant, the Republicans will continue to cede the national debate about the future of the American economy and the needs of American national security to President Obama. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul will criticize the White House, but they will not have the time or the inclination to offer meaty policy alternatives. This circumstance will allow Obama to push forward with his own agenda of targeted budget cuts and protection for core social programs (like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.) Obama will re-direct American military power from Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran and East Asia. Republican in-fighting will give these and other Obama policies some freedom of maneuver. The President, not his Republican challengers, will remain the main agenda-setter for national policy debates.

We are witnessing the messiness of the democratic process, but we are also learning the limits of our present two-party system. The nomination process is forestalling the great debate about economy and security that we should have during this crucial election year. Money and extremism are driving too much of the process. The time has indeed come for another renewal of our democracy. As in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1912, 1932 and 1980, the United States is ripe for the emergence of a figure who will shake things up and draw new party lines.

Who will play this role? How will a party realignment occur? We will get clearer answers to these questions if, after Super Tuesday, the Republican Party remains unable to rally behind a candidate. The most interesting politics are ahead of us.

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