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The politics of fear

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Michael Gerson
September 20, 2011
— Many Americans are still picking through the wreckage of overturned mortgages and lost jobs, trying to rescue old pictures of their middle-class aspirations. But another economic tropical storm is now being tracked.

It is probable that the Greek government will default by the end of the year, perhaps followed by Portugal, Spain and Italy. The shock to international markets would further undermine the economic confidence needed for a healthy American recovery.


Few believe that President Barack Obama would be able to rally the world during a Eurozone crisis, especially since he is increasingly irrelevant to the politics of his own country. His American Jobs Act—combining minimal ambition and minimal creativity—was greeted with bipartisan skepticism. Obama has repeatedly demanded that Congress “act now.” In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has effectively told the president to get in line for the Senate’s “next work period” in October.


In this atmosphere of mounting challenge and diminished leadership, economists have lowered their predictions of future economic growth and now see a one in three chance that America slips back into recession during the next 12 months.


With the arrival of a second economic crisis, America would enter a new phase. Our politics would pass beyond tea party anger toward a more generalized economic fear—the fear of durable stagnation and national decline. And this raises a large political question: Would an economic crisis favor a revolutionary candidate or a reassuring candidate?


In Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, we have undiluted representatives of each type. Perry is purposely provocative in style and content. He questions the legitimacy of 70 years of federal entitlement commitments. He proposes a fundamental reordering of the relationship between the federal government and the states. He is highly critical of the Federal Reserve and its chairman. Perry’s specific economic policies remain defiantly unspecific, but his rhetoric and intentions are ideologically ambitious.


Romney is running at Perry from the reassuring center. Both are harshly critical of Obama’s economic policies. But unlike Perry, Romney refuses to hurl the accusation of “socialism.” Romney argues that an overbroad condemnation of Social Security would leave Republicans “obliterated as a party.” His own 59-point economic plan contains a “number of options” for incremental entitlement reform—an approach The Wall Street Journal has criticized as “timid and tactical.”


But Romney’s timidness on some issues is his main tactic against Perry. With the economy suffering a series of complex maladies, who wants a surgeon who only performs amputations?


The outcome of a presidential primary can’t be predicted by a single theory. A well-run campaign, or a poorly timed gaffe, can make all the difference. And, even at this late hour, the GOP field may not be complete. Republicans may insist on a choice beyond category A, the combative tradition of Barry Goldwater, and category B, the business-oriented blandness of Thomas Dewey.


But if this is the choice during a period of national stress, the advantage goes to the reassuring. During the financial panic of September 2008, John McCain’s response was emotional and chaotic—suspending his presidential campaign in order to make time for a series of rash and contradictory statements. Obama said little of interest, but he said it calmly. And he benefited greatly.


Within the Republican Party, primary voters have a history of preferring less ideologically vivid, more electable candidates. Iowa caucus-goers—disproportionally religious and conservative since the late 1980s—do their best to change this habit. But they seldom pick the eventual winner in contested races.


The party faithful may flirt with Phil Gramm or Pat Buchanan, but they typically end up at the altar with George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole. Goldwater was the great exception—a grand ideological romance that was eventually consummated. But his selection was made in a time of economic optimism—with unemployment about 5 percent and falling—and not in a sobering period of economic hardship.


None of these historical precedents make Romney a shoe-in. But they indicate his prospects are better than his current polling. Perry is a perfect candidate for a time of tea party anger—say, around 2010. But Romney has a better case in a time of economic fear—like the one we may be entering—when competence becomes a desperate political demand. In this case, Republicans may choose, once again, not the purist they love but the old hand they trust.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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