Why Republicans Should Embrace Operation Hilarity

With polls indicating that Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are in a virtual tie in Michigan less than 24 hours before tomorrow’s primary there, it may be time for Republicans to start hoping that “Operation Hilarity” succeeds.  Operation Hilarity, of course, is the plan hatched by left-leaning blogger and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas to have Democrats vote in Michigan’s Republican primary in order to defeat Romney in his “home state”.  If Democrats can swing the Michigan election to Santorum, Moulitsas  believes, they may derail Romney’s candidacy, extend the Republican nomination fight and weaken whoever the eventual Republican nominee might be for the general election.  Moulitsas isn’t the only one pushing this idea; already Michiganders are receiving 30-second robocalls organized by a Democratic operative urging them to vote for Santorum in order to “embarrass” Romney.

Note that the Democratic-inspired strategy in Michigan mirrors the advice Republican Sarah Palin gave fellow partisans a month ago, when she urged them to vote against Romney in order to extend the nominating process.  She argued that by doing so, it would give time for all the Republican candidates to be fully vetted, but it was clear she was particularly concerned about Romney, the frontrunner whose conservative bona fides remain suspect to many Tea Party activists. More recently, Palin openly speculated about the possibility of a brokered convention, allowing that it might not be a bad outcome and offering to do what is necessary to “help” her fellow Republicans if it came down to that.  Although she didn’t specify the nature of that “help”, one imagines it centers on her volunteering to head the Republican ticket.

The ultra-liberal Moulitsas and Tea Party favorite Palin reading from the same electoral playbook?  As Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson might ask, “What up with that?”  The liberal Senator Ted Kennedy once remarked about cosponsoring legislation with Strom Thurmond, his conservative Senate counterpart from South Carolina, that “Whenever Strom and I introduce a bill together, it is either an idea whose time has come, or one of us has not read the bill”.

In this case, I suggest the Palin-Moulitsas “cosponsored” strategy indicates it is an idea whose time has come.  Here’s why.  Assuming the latest polling is correct, it is almost certain that Romney will not quell the growing doubts regarding his candidacy even if he squeaks by Santorum in Michigan and wins Arizona, which also holds its Republican primary tomorrow.  In my previous post I noted veteran prognosticator Charlie Cook’s latest column in which he admits to increasing skepticism regarding the viability of Romney’s candidacy. Today New Yorker columnist Ryan Lizza suggests that members of the Republican establishment may be starting to walk back their endorsements of Romney.  None of this should surprise longtime readers, of course; I’ve been citing evidence of Romney’s weakness since before the Iowa caucuses. It simply has taken awhile for others to catch on.

The problem for Republicans, however, has always been finding a suitable alternative.  The only non-Romney candidate that ever showed evidence of inspiring the base to turn out and vote was Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.  His victory there, however, led Romney to once again bury poor Newt in an avalanche of negative ads, much as he did in the run-up to the Iowa caucus.  Romney’s strategy had the desired effect; the Newtster fared poorly in Florida and to date has never really recovered.  Santorum, meanwhile, for all the media hype coming off of his caucus victories in Minnesota and Colorado, has so far not demonstrated that he can win in any state where turnout approaches double-figures, although he may snap that skein tomorrow in Michigan.  Nonetheless, among many Republicans there remain huge doubts regarding Santorum’s unyielding brand of social conservatism.

So what’s a good Republican to do?  To this point, it involves a lot of handwringing and hoping that someone – anyone! – will step forward to excite the base and win this nomination.  For all his money and organizational advantages, it is clear that Mitt simply lacks the political acumen to win this race in convincing fashion.  His victories to date testify more to his ability to drown his opponents in a sea of negative ads than to any power to attract broad-based support based on his own attributes.  Yesterday – as only Mitt can – he once again showed that he just doesn’t connect with the NASCAR shot and beer crowd, and he never will.  Ironically, the latest evidence came at a genuine NASCAR event; visiting the Daytona 500 Romney was asked about his love of racing.   He replied, “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”  That’s right.  Mitt rubs shoulders with the owners.  Santorum, meanwhile, had his name plastered on an actual race car.   Mitt, you will recall, prefers Cadillacs.

As we near Super Tuesday, however, it becomes increasingly clear that there simply isn’t time for one of the usual non-Mitt suspects – say, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush or Chris Christie – to get on the ballot in enough states to win the nomination outright – not that any of them has shown any willingness to do so.   Increasingly, for Republicans who are less than thrilled with the current crop of candidates, that leaves one option – the brokered convention.  More than one Republican strategist has openly speculated that the possibility of a brokered convention,  once considered completely unrealistic, is now at least plausible if still unlikely.  A few are even whispering, as Palin implicitly suggested, that it might be for the best if it allows a new Republican to step up.

I think Republicans are missing an opportunity here. Rather than wondering whether a brokered convention might occur, it’s time for Republicans to embrace the Moulitsas strategy in order to make certain it does occur.  That means an orchestrated campaign designed to prevent Mitt from securing a majority of delegates and winning the nomination outright.  Without active intervention, Romney is likely to slog his way to an uninspiring victory by dint of his massive advantage in resources.  He will simply outlast, if not outwit or outplay, his fellow Survivor contestants.   To prevent this, Republicans should organize against Mitt by backing his opponents – all his opponents.  The idea is to go into the convention with none of the current candidates having any real claim to the nomination.   If they are all discredited, it makes it easier to propose an alternative – and harder for the alternative to say no.  After all, it’s one thing to say I don’t want to endure three months of chicken wings, cheap hotels and character assassination.  It’s another to say I won’t accept a draft at a three-day convention.  I defy any of these non-Mitt’s to go Shermanesque on a desperate party and refuse a draft nomination.  It’s simply not going to happen.  They will fall all over themselves to do the right thing by the party and run for President – if asked.

Let’s be clear. There are real risks to this strategy.  No one can be sure how a brokered convention will play out.  Certainly it raises the possibility that the party establishment will lose control of events.  But then, that might be for the best, given their misguided efforts to ram Romney down Republican voters’ throats.  It is also true that whoever is chosen will not have been battled-hardened by a nomination run before the rigors of a general election campaign.  But keep in mind that in the pre-reform period, parties often chose candidates via a convention fight.  It’s not like this is completely unchartered waters.  And besides, think of the enthusiasm mingled with relief that will accompany the nomination of a new candidate, one who ideally will reignite the passions of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party while retaining support of party moderates.

An unlikely scenario?  Undoubtedly so if Republicans continue to sit on their hands and hope for the best, while fearing the worst.  All the more reason to take matters into their own hands, beginning tomorrow in Michigan and continuing through the end of the nominating process.

Operation Hilarity, your time has come!

Addendum (10:45 p.m.): Public Policy Polling is hyping their latest Michigan poll on tweeter by suggesting Santorum may pull this out by virtue of support from Democrats!  The Master Plan Is Unveiled!

4 comments

  1. This really interesting to see the “operation” happening, the cross tabs of the latest polls seem to show that indeed with the democrats really showing their support for Santorum. However, isn’t it somewhat unlikely that they will actually head out to vote today?

    I understand that in Michigan the democrats can vote in this primary, but how many more states down the line will have a similar situation? Also speaking of the brokered convention, could you see Gov Christie really running after praising Romney on CNN and elsewhere? Would’t the fact that a new candidate supporting one of the current ones themselves unelectable and a huge barrier to get over in the general election?

    PS. I really enjoy your blog and also the live blogging of debates, you and the economist liveblogging are great fun

  2. Professor Dickinson,

    Do you think someone who initially turned down the opportunity to run would be perceived as a strong candidate? I understand the conservative support for someone like Daniels or Christie. However, by repeatedly turning down calls for them to run prior to the convention, I feel that their commitment to running a strong campaign and their overall desire to be President would be called into question. It seems like a better brokered-convention nominee would be someone who was relatively outside the list of “dream candidates” for the GOP and thus never made very public statements about their desire not to run. The problem for Republicans is that I can’t think of someone who falls into that criteria but also still has the conservative backing to win at the convention. What are your thoughts?

    Owen

  3. Owen,
    First, keep in mind that my operating assumption behind the brokered convention is that none of the current candidates has enough delegates to clinch the nomination outright. So, they’ve had their chance, thus invalidating any prior commitments from endorsers. Everyone is now a free agent. Second, these people who declined to run did so expecting one of these others to clinch the deal. They did not, so all bets are off. Third, at this point who can say no when the party calls? You can say you aren’t doing this out of ambition – you are doling this for the good of the party! In any case, there are plenty of potential candidates: think Colin Powell, Condi Rice, or Curt Schilling!

  4. Jack,

    In a close election, you don’t need many Democrats to turn out to make a difference, assuming they all vote for Santorum. There was about 7% Democrat turnout in 2008 in the Republican party. If they can get it a bit higher, it might be enough to put Santorum over the top. There are still several states down the road that have open primaries (my own state of Vermont is one) – I’ll try to get the final numbers for you. As for electability, see my previous comment to Owen’s question.

    Glad you are enjoying the blog – hope you can participate tonight in the live blog!

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