The options in the GOP’s ‘binary choice’

Whereas Mitt Romney was, for a while, considered the apparent frontrunner for the Republican nomination, we seem to be well past that point now. By every metric — polls, fundraising, endorsements, etc. — the former governor appears to have the top tier all to himself.

One could make a plausible case that Romney is a bubble that could burst very quickly. He is, after all, a former pro-choice governor who supported gay rights, gun control, and combating climate change, who distanced himself from Reagan, attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers, has a dreadful record on job creation, and changed his mind about more issues than perhaps any politician in America. There’s also the unfortunate fact he succeeded in health care reform in a way Republicans hate.

Romney is cruising now, but a sustained offensive against him could derail his chances and turn the party’s activists against him in a hurry.

But for the sake of conversation, let’s say that doesn’t happen. George Will argues today that, if the race stays on its current trajectory, the Republican contest “probably will become a binary choice — Romney and the Not Romney candidate.”

There’s some misguided nonsense in this column, but Will’s point about a binary choice sounds right to me. So, who’s the Not Romney going to be? It’s supposed to be Tim Pawlenty, but he’s struggling to catch on. It could be Michele Bachmann, but she’s stark raving mad.

And then there’s Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who received a flattering write-up from Will.

He was a “10th Amendment conservative” (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”) before the Tea Party appeared. And before Barack Obama’s statism — especially Obamacare’s individual mandate — catalyzed concern for the American project of limited government.

Social issues, especially abortion, are gateways to the Republican nominating electorate: In today’s climate of economic fear, a candidate’s positions on social issues will not be decisive with his electorate — but they can be disqualifying. Perry — an evangelical Christian, like most Republican participants in Iowa’s caucuses and the South Carolina primary — emphatically qualifies.

Left unsaid is that Romney does not qualify, at least not as easily, given that he’s part of a religious minority his far-right party is skeptical of, and was pretty liberal on social issues until Romney decided it would be politically advantageous to reinvent himself as someone new.

Some of Will’s argument is just lazy. The columnist makes Perry’s economic record out to be some kind of miracle, which it isn’t. He dismisses President Obama as accomplishment-free, which is demonstrably ridiculous, even for a conservative pundit. Will views Perry as some kind of savior candidate, without noting that savior candidates nearly always fail.

But the column itself is a reminder that the media establishment is looking to create a dynamic pitting Romney against a top-tier, anti-Romney candidate. If Perry throws his hat in the ring, he’s positioned to play that role well.