Money, the GOP primaries, and the Pain of Missed Opportunities

Karen Tumulty has a good, comprehensive rundown of the GOP’s primary tumult (too easy) in the Washington Post.

This part’s particularly interesting:

Republicans celebrated two years ago when the Supreme Court issued a ruling that allowed groups, corporations, unions and individuals to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns, as long as those efforts were not coordinated with the campaigns.

They now realize that the new unregulated money is one of the main reasons, whether for good or bad, that the race continues and remains so unpredictable.

Before that ruling, when a campaign ran out of money, the candidate usually dropped out. Fundraising networks were also the tool by which the establishment bestowed its benediction upon a favorite contender and crowded everyone else out.

The most spectacularly successful example of that strategy in recent years was the one employed in 2000 by George W. Bush and the “Pioneers,” who each committed to raise $100,000 toward his election. They did it the old-fashioned way, by bringing in 100 checks for $1,000 each.

But that kind of money looks like chump change compared with, say, the $11 millionthat Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family have donated to a super PAC that supports Newt Gingrich. Without those contributions, it is hard to see how Gingrich’s candidacy would be alive today.

When Citizens United first came down, there was a lot of sturm und drang about how the GOP would use the new rules to beat up on Obama and Democratic candidates in general. I’m not sure people gave enough thought to how these rules would affect primary races, or to the fact that the first party to really be affected by them would be the GOP, since they actually have to choose a candidate for 2012.

Zooming out a little, it’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of potential for missed opportunity for the GOP in November. The party has a perfect chance to forcefully swat away everything Obama was supposed to have represented in 2008 — a grand revitalization of American liberalism, the permanent engagement of millions of left-leaning young voters who had never before cared about politics, the notion that Americans would hold Republicans accountable for the failings of supply-side economic policies. How often do you get an opportunity like that, to dramatically undo one of your most painful defeats?*

In general, I’m much more sympathetic to explanations of electoral outcomes that invoke big, cyclical forces mostly beyond human control than to those which appeal to “turning points” in campaigns, to gaffes and big, dramatic moments. But still — if Obama is reelected, the GOP will have a long list of obvious blunders to peruse wincingly over the next four years.

* veering dangerously close to New England Patriots territory here

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.