The time has come to praise that most mocked, maligned and misunderstood of Americans: the Republican primary voter.
The longer the primary campaign drags on, the more its noise and nastiness are being cited as proof that Republican America has gone crazy.
Let’s stipulate that this has not been the most edifying of primary seasons. The policy debates have often been vacuous, the rhetoric shrill, the attack ads pervasive and wearying. Almost four years after the Bush presidency, the Republican Party is obviously still rife with dysfunction, and struggling to define itself for a new era and a changing country.
But against this backdrop, the party’s voters have behaved remarkably responsibly. Confronted with a flip-flopping, gaffe-prone front-runner whom almost nobody finds very appealing, they have methodically sifted through the alternatives, considering and then discarding each in turn.
A crazy party might have chosen Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann as its standard-bearer. The Republican electorate dismissed them long before the first ballots were even cast.
A crazy party wouldn’t have cared how Rick Perry debated so long as he promised to visit Texas justice on the Democratic Party. The Republican electorate did care, and delivered him less than one vote for every $1,000 dollars his campaign spent.
A crazy party would have either elevated Ron Paul to the nomination or damned him as a heretic. The Republican electorate has given him almost exactly the level of support and celebrity that a generally crankish, occasionally prophetic politician deserves.
A crazy party would have nominated the candidate who offered the most implausible policy pledges – Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, Tim Pawlenty’s justly ridiculed promise of 5 percent growth a year, or Perry’s flat tax. The Republican electorate is poised to nominate a candidate whose domestic agenda is often light on details and imagination, but a long way from crazy.
Yes, Republican voters probably should have given Jon Huntsman more consideration, and South Carolina voters in particular shouldn’t have rewarded Newt Gingrich’s snarling, preening, media-bashing debate performances with an upset victory. But that irruption of folly came and went, and then the pattern of Iowa and New Hampshire reasserted itself: not a mad elopement with a right-wing Mr. Wrong, but a slow trudge toward the altar with Mr. Good-Enough.
Even the elevation of Rick Santorum as the last not-Romney standing testifies to the Republican electorate’s relative sobriety. For all his follies and failings, Santorum is a more plausible presidential candidate than most of this season’s alternatives – more experienced than Cain and Bachmann, more substantive and eloquent than Perry, more principled than Gingrich.
If the current race pitted Jeb Bush against, say, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels, nobody would be talking about how the party has gone off the rails. But those three men all found reasons not to run. If it were being held two years hence, and featured Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, the excitement on the Republican side would rival what the Democrats enjoyed in 2008. But those four, and others like them, decided they weren’t ready yet.
So the primary electorate was left to choose from a roster of retreads, mediocrities and cable-news candidates. And given their options, Republican voters have acquitted themselves about as sensibly, responsibly and even patriotically as anyone could reasonably expect.