Any Republican presidential candidate hoping to gain traction with independents in the 2012 general election will first need to prove that he/she shares basic American values by pushing back against the fringe movements of the GOP such as the birthers.
Allowing birthers to take the national stage has raised big questions about the Republican Party and its overall strategy. Why do fringe viewpoints continue to gain national traction within the GOP and what can mainstream republican leaders do to react?
Donald Trump is only the latest example of shallow political figures on the Republican side who have exploited populist fears and garnered major media attention. This list includes former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, House Representative Peter King (NY - 3), and Pastor Terry Jones. Earlier this year, when I attended CPAC, Jimmy “The Rent is Too Damn High” McMillan generated more excitement than Tim Pawlenty.
The extraordinary influence of these one-dimensional political figures becomes even more apparent when comparing these Republican sideshows to the Democrats. Who on the Democratic side has wielded as much influence with as little substance? It’s very difficult to find fringe individuals with as much influence in the Democratic Party as in the Republican Party. The GOP seems to cater to a wider base that is increasingly divided on social issues dealing with religion and race.
The influence these fringe actors hold within the GOP compromises the party’s ability to put forward a cohesive and unified policy platform to counter the Democrats. With the financial crisis slowly fading, Obama is finally digging in and threatening to raise taxes. Many in this country are fundamentally opposed to Obama’s vision for America and are desperately seeking a serious Republican candidate to stand behind. But in order to be seen as a serious opponent to the incumbent Obama – whom many disagree with on policy decisions but believe to be competent – Republican candidates need to draw clear lines between themselves and distracting sideshow figures. One could point to the Tea Party’s success in the 2010 midterms as evidence of the power of populist rhetoric, but its victories were due to it’s successful championing of our country’s economic malaise and not rhetoric on social issues.
As 2012 approaches, the mainstream Republican candidates need to decide whether to cater to these groups or to alienate members of their own party. Colin Powell lashed out against his own party in 2008 over Republican Muslim bashing and birther conspiracies. His approval ratings are hard to decipher, but his thoughtful reaction is a possible model to appeal to independents. On the other hand, John McCain, who historically has a reputation of ignoring his party, attempted to fire up the base with his selection of Sarah Palin. Had McCain selected Romney as his running mate, the election might have been closer.
As much as many Americans are looking for a fiscally responsible candidate, we are not willing to trust a candidate who caters to populist banter and fear-mongering.
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