The conventional wisdom among liberals is that despite a sinking economy and poor personal polling numbers, President Obama is actually in a good position to be re-elected. Democratic optimism stems from a belief that the Republican field is so poor the president can’t help but be made to look good by comparison. The evidence of considerable support for Ron Paul, who is a genuine problem for the Republicans, the unlikely rise of Rick Santorum, the comic antics and mishaps afflicting Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the now withdrawn Herman Cain have been enough to convince even some conservative commentators that the GOP dustup in Iowa has been an embarrassment for the party.
But Obama and his political team would be well advised to put aside this foolish optimism. The GOP field’s behavior hasn’t always been edifying, but the way the race has developed is not to the president’s advantage. Whether or not Mitt Romney finishes in first tonight, the most electable Republican will emerge from the state strengthened and with no credible alternative in position to stop him. That is the last thing Obama wanted to see happen in Iowa and what will follow in the upcoming states is likely to bring him even worse news.
So long as the political focus is on the clown car of candidates who won’t be nominated by the Republicans, it’s easy for Democrats to claim their opponents are a joke. But the cavalcade of conservative contenders who each took a turn proving they weren’t ready for prime time only served to pave the way for the one Republican who poses a real threat to Obama: Mitt Romney. That was not the most likely outcome of this contest as Romney’s lack of a connection to Tea Partiers and social conservatives had seemed certain to doom his candidacy back in the summer.
As to whether having to compete with right-wingers will taint Romney, here again, Democrats are letting their wishes override common sense. Romney needed to reach out to conservatives to make it a little easier for them to make their peace with him once he’s the nominee. A lot of people on the right are unhappy about the prospect of a man whom they believe to be a soulless, non-ideological technocrat leading their party. But if Obama really thinks most conservatives would prefer to stay home in November and let him be re-elected, he’s dreaming.
The point about the GOP also-rans is though they are the center of attention today, they will quickly fade from the spotlight once their candidacies end. That end will come sooner for some than others. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum appear to be set up for a long primary run against Romney as the GOP’s delegate selection rules always intended. But the contrast will not hurt the eventual nominee in the eyes of the general public. Paul’s prominence is a problem to Republicans. However, his presence in the race will be an opportunity for Romney to emphasize his mainstream views on foreign policy and his opposition to extremism. That won’t hurt him in the general election.
Nor will the exercise of having to stay on his toes on the stump for an extra few months. In particular, Santorum may well do his party a service by serving as the eventual nominee’s tough but not dirty sparring partner. The result will be a better Republican candidate next fall. Like the strange turn of events that left Romney as the inevitable nominee, this isn’t good news for Obama or his party.