For a member of the conservative establishment, the last two weeks have not been ideal. Your nominal candidate — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — has not been able to consolidate his position among Republican voters, and has hit a wave of intense criticism as Democrats and Republicans begin to wonder about his core beliefs, or lack thereof. Under normal circumstances, you might switch your vote to another candidate, but the emerging alternative is Newt Gingrich, whose poor record as House Speaker is tarred by affairs, adultery, and a series of shady business ventures. Democrats are gleeful over the possibility of a Gingrich nomination, and for good reason; it would give President Obama a huge advantage in the general election. In other words, you’re stuck between two least offensive options on an otherwise terrible menu.
Or are you? Writing for The Washington Post, George Will argues that are other choices for Republicans who want that (seemingly) elusive combination of competence and conservatism:
Rick Perry (disclosure: my wife, Mari Will, advises him) has been disappointing in debates. They test nothing pertinent to presidential duties but have become absurdly important. Perry’s political assets remain his Texas record and Southwestern zest for disliking Washington and Wall Street simultaneously and equally. […]
Jon Huntsman inexplicably chose to debut as the Republican for people who rather dislike Republicans, but his program is the most conservative. He endorses Paul Ryan’s budget and entitlement reforms.
For all of his gaffes — and apparent ignorance of public policy — Texas Governor Rick Perry is the only other hopeful you could call a “plausible candidate,” given his cash flow, prior record, institutional support, and regional base. At the moment, he seems like a weak general election candidate, but that could change under the right economic conditions. Likewise, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is one of the most conservative candidates in the field, with a record that easily bests Mitt Romney’s for adherence to conservative orthodoxy. And while the Republican base isn’t thrilled by Huntsman’s easy demeanor, his stint in the administration — along combined with his stated respect for President Obama — gives him an appearance of moderation, and would make him a formidable challenger in the general election.
Unlike Will, I’m not sure that Romney and Gingrich are “too risky” for the nomination. Mitt Romney is certainly able to win a general election, and under the right circumstances, Gingrich could accomplish the same. But Will is right to point conservatives in the direction of Perry and Huntsman; both candidates are capable standard-bearers for conservativism, and in the case of Huntsman, could easily carry the GOP to the White House.