In 1980 Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination. He beat a future president, George H.W. Bush, two future Senate majority leaders, Howard Baker and Bob Dole, and two lesser-known congressmen. This year Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination. He beat a radio host, a disgraced former House speaker, a defeated Senate candidate, a former appointee of the Obama administration, a tongue-tied Texas governor, a prevaricating religious zealot who happens to serve in the House of Representatives, and a cranky libertarian doctor. Where did all the talent go?
Until the Republican Party can answer this question, it makes no sense to continue to carp about Mitt Romney and the startlingly incompetent presidential campaign he's running. His faults as a politician are manifest. He is robotic, unknowable (his own wife asserted at the national convention that "he made me laugh" and then failed to cite a single humorous moment), ideologically incoherent and severely out of touch with the average American. He is his party's nominee because, like the one-eyed man in the valley of the blind, he is just the best of the worst.
Since Republicans are so focused on the individual and not on the system that produced him, they miss what the real problem is. The system in this case is the series of incredibly damaging primaries and caucuses that in the crucial early stages produce a candidate who could sweep Bavaria. The Iowa caucuses alone take the GOP so far to the right that it all but dooms the winner. Romney had to vow to stop thinking. He had to virtually declare himself anti-Hispanic (criticizing Texas for providing tuition discounts to the college-age children of illegal immigrants) and while he has now moderated his approach, it is a bit late. Hispanic is not Spanish for Stupid.
Across the board, Romney pandered to the right. He did so on guns, abortion and even Iran. A GOP candidate has to oppose same-sex marriage, deny global warming and insist -- against all evidence -- that local control of education is the best. The only way around these positions is to skip the Iowa caucuses entirely. It is no place for a moderate. It is, really, no place for a thinking person. It's just preposterous that Iowa -- 30th in population among the states -- gets to be the gatekeeper for the Republican Party and, in a sense, the entire nation.
The list of Republicans who looked at Iowa's daunting demographics and did not run is more distinguished than those who did. At one time or another, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain (who was forced to drop out) were front-runners. Can you think of any two people less qualified for the presidency? How about Ron Paul, another front-runner, or Mad Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry, the cement-mouthed governor who would eliminate three Cabinet offices, if only he could remember them? How about Rick Santorum, a fun guy, who actually beat Romney in Iowa, or Jon Huntsman, a decent man with shallow political experience -- and, it seemed, aptitude?
None of these candidates were remotely qualified for the highest office in the land. Arguably, Romney was the exception -- and that's the whole point. He won just by showing up. He beat a bunch of nobodies. This is how the GOP wound up with such a weak candidate, one who espouses extreme positions he does not for a moment believe.
Open the window and listen. You will hear the moans and groans of Republican officials and their trained pundits. But where were these people when their field of oddballs was being assembled? Why were they so silent when Hispanics and women were being told to shove it and the long-dead Darwin was being debated? More to the point, maybe, how come they put up with a primary and caucus system -- Iowa first, New Hampshire second -- that seemingly was designed by a sly Democrat? The answer is that they do not have the courage nor the intellectual integrity to stand up to the know-nothing (dominant) wing of the Republican Party. They have designed a system where, politically speaking, the lowest common denominator wins. We are all the poorer for it.
Contrast the candidates of yore with the collection that took the field this year. The Republican Party has had a brain drain so that now its highest intellectual achievement is -- like an infant in the Terrible Twos -- simply to say no to everything, especially taxes. To paraphrase Marx, rise up GOP moderates. You have nothing to lose ... but losing.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group