If there's one thing Mitt Romney probably believed he could count on in this race, it's the electability argument. I'm not a loose cannon, he could say, and so my candidacy won't implode because of a sex scandal or a crazy comment. And since we all know that debate over the economy will dominate the fall campaign, I'm best positioned to win that argument, as someone with business experience.
It seemed to make perfect sense, but now, polls are showing that Republican voters actually think Newt Gingrich is the more electable one. To clear-eyed observers, this seems akin to believing that while Charlie Sheen is fun to party with, he's also the kind of responsible caretaker to whom you'd entrust your children for a week.
But it isn't surprising that the polls show Newt winning the electability argument. It's because he's winning. When you tell a pollster that you've decided to support Candidate A, you're unlikely to then tell them that Candidate B is the one who's more electable. We work very hard to justify our choices, and it isn't difficult to come up with a rationale, however tortured it might look to someone else, that our choice for president is the guy who'll win the whole thing.
That doesn't mean Romney can't win the electability argument if he works hard enough at it. Newt Gingrich is, after all, both personally repellent to most non-Republican voters and notoriously reckless. It isn't a tough case to make. And Romney is right that if he's the nominee, there will be more discussion of the economy (though there's no guarantee he can win that argument, once the Obama campaign starts airing ads featuring workers Romney laid off when he was a leveraged buyout king.) But this does highlight something important: the campaign could be profoundly different depending on who the nominee is. As Michael Kazin explained, there are reasons progressives should be praying for Gingrich to be the nominee:
Gingrich has many flaws, but downplaying his ideological ambitions is not among them. He rose to power by being an articulate, if savage, exponent of a conservative world-view, and his nomination, if it occurred, would represent the triumph of rhetorical boldness over Romney’s cautious artifice.
And it would also provide Barack Obama with an opportunity to advocate the progressive principles that inspired him to run for the office in the first place. When Gingrich calls for setting up a private retirement system to compete with Social Security, the President could explain why the current system is equitable as well as cheaper and more reliable. When Newt proposes that boards of citizens vote on whether undocumented immigrants in their localities should stay or be deported, Obama can respond with tales of the vigilante groups that terrorized German immigrants in World War I and Japanese-Americans in World War II. When Gingrich argues for a flat tax, the president would defend the egalitarian logic that underlies the progressive income tax. And if Newt really wants kids to spend time mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets of their schools, the president can remind him why child labor laws got passed in the first place.
Perhaps it's a bit optimistic to expect a high-minded contest of ideas, but there's little doubt that a race with Gingrich in it would be more ideologically clarifying. In other words, neither Romney nor Gingrich is particularly electable—but for entirely different reasons.