Should GOP go for inspiration or victory?

Julian Zelizer

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Republicans face choice between their hearts and their minds
  • He says GOP must choose between a candidate who inspires and one who can win
  • At this point, Romney looks like a stronger candidate in a general election than Perry, he says
  • Zelizer: Sometimes parties have chosen inspirational candidates who lose

With all the talk about the ideological and strategic divisions within the GOP, the real choice that primary voters will have to make next year is a simple one.

Republicans have to decide whether to pick a candidate who appeals to their hearts or to their minds. The field is still fluid, but so far Texas Gov. Rick Perry appears to be the candidate who appeals most strongly to the ideological passion of conservatives, even though he stumbled in last week's debate.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who doesn't inspire that passion seems to be the right man at the right time to defeat a struggling incumbent president. In recent weeks, at least based on the polls, logic seems to be a stronger pull.

Traditionally, voters tend to go for the candidate who appeals to their hearts, even if the choice may be less likely to win. The primary process favors candidates who play to the base of the party and voters want someone they can believe in.

The outcome of making this choice has been mixed. When voters selected the unknown former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter over establishment Democrats like Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Birch Bayh in 1976, going for the person who promised to rebuild trust in American politics, their candidate defeated President Gerald Ford.

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In 1980, Republicans went for Ronald Reagan, despite concerns about his experience and habit of making controversial statements, over the candidate with extensive national credentials, George H.W. Bush. Reagan won. Similarly in 2008, Democrats decided that the charismatic and inspiring Sen. Barack Obama was more appealing than Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose experience and skills didn't win over as many voters.

Yet there have been times when the choice who excited the party base didn't work out. In 1964 Republicans nominated the ideologically conservative Barry Goldwater, the candidate who rejected the kind of moderation that was championed by northeastern Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller.

    Just eight years later, Democrats made a similar decision when they went with South Dakota Democrat George McGovern who reflected the passions that many primary voters felt, but proved not to be the right person to take on a then-powerful Richard Nixon.

    And there have been occasions when the safe choice has worked out well. In 1988, Republicans went with Vice President George H.W. Bush, after rejecting him a few years earlier, as he seemed well placed to preserve Republican control of the White House.

    In the upcoming election, there is reason to believe that the safe choice, Romney, might be the better one for Republicans. Most importantly, of the candidates who excite Republican activists, most come with huge risks.

    Within a few weeks, some of the stories coming out of Texas, such as a controversial vaccine program, and some of the statements from Perry about Social Security being a "Ponzi scheme" have raised significant concerns about his viability on the campaign trail. The other candidates who stir up the crowd, such as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, D-Minnesota, also have displayed a penchant for making statements that raise more fears than hope.

    Then there is Romney, who doesn't really stir many Republicans. But what he lacks in charisma or rhetorical firepower, he makes up for with a series of assets. With President Obama struggling and the economy likely to continue in its current state, Romney offers a Republican antidote of sorts.

    He is a moderate Republican who has shown his ability to win in a blue state. His experience in the financial world offers a credential that appeals to many moderate voters looking for economic recovery, while his service as governor shows that he can handle an executive position. He looks like a president, and that cannot be discounted in our media age.

    Given that he has been through the campaign circus before, most of his flaws and weaknesses have been exposed, and there is some evidence that he will perform better as he goes into a general election and does not try to pretend to be a right-wing zealot, which he is not.

    If current economic conditions continue, Romney could very well be a candidate who attracts core Republicans who just want President Obama out of the White House as well as independents and even moderate Democrats who are no longer comfortable with the status quo.

    Romney's fate comes down to one question: Are Republicans willing to abandon their desire for someone who moves them to support someone who is more likely to win?

    It may also depend on whether another candidate who potentially could win, namely a governor in Trenton, New Jersey, who has spent the last few days speaking with donors and Republican operatives, decides to enter the contest.

    But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also remains relatively untested on the national stage and he too would bring some real risk to the GOP ticket that Republicans might not be willing to take on.

    As a result, Romney could very well be the person who delivers Republicans back to the White House only a few short years after President George W. Bush ended his term with disastrous approval ratings.

    Yet politics is a game full of unexpected twists and turns. Republicans might still choose a leader who fires them up, even at the risk of ending up defeated like the GOP of 1964 and the Democrats of 1972.