In 2012, Will Republicans Turn From Id to Ego?


The Republican Party is enjoying its "id" moment right now. In the schema of Sigmund Freud, the id is that part of your psychology that spontaneously reacts and craves emotional and physical fulfillment. Voters want candidates who make them feel good, who make them feel special, who convince them that simply the conscious act of identifying as a conservative is political and powerful. The Tea Party is an identity movement. Sarah Palin's new conservative feminism is very much an identity movement. Cheering for Sarah Palin makes you feel good about yourself and makes you hate the enemy all that much more. Aww, she says the right things. She's authentic. She's so real. She connects with Southern conservatives. So satisfying.

The trouble is that enough Republican primary voters will be looking for something more. They already are, as many of them accept the "lamestream" media critique that Palin doesn't have the experience to be president. In endorsing Terry Branstad for governor in Iowa, Palin is said to have made the obvious pick. She'll want the sitting governor on her side if she wins. 

But Iowa is a peculiar state. Its voters are used to direct engagement with politicians who speak to them candidly about issues and answer their tough, unvarnished questions. Branstad's endorsement (or non-endorsement of anyone else) might be worth less than it appears, because the volunteer base of his opponent, Bob Vander Plaats, is much more adept at organizing for the Republican straw poll-type vote that is its caucus. 

And they expect something more from their candidates than intoxicating Republican chauvinism, too. Projecting ahead, if Palin and Mike Huckabee both run, they'll be competing for the same share of the primary electorate, and Huckabee will have an organizational edge. Palin will have to expand the field, just like Barack Obama did for Democrats. Hauteur will not accomplish this. 

In a furious effort to catch up, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Iowa has been changing his tone (and his tune), trying to become more of an exciting, id-catching candidate that he really is. Pawlenty is probably the most aggressive candidate in Iowa right now, opening a PAC there and regularly courting activists on the telephone. It will be interesting to see if he can strike a balance between his governor persona and his butcher (red meat) persona.

Two candidates, Mitch Daniels and Mitt Romney, won't play the game at all. Whatever Romney's difficulties in dealing with his Massachusetts health care plan will be, he seems intent on running as the candidate of pragmatic solutions in 2012. Daniels, with his call for a truce on divisive social issues, wants the same thing. Clearly, Romney and Daniels don't fit the profile of what today's average Republican primary voter is looking for, but they probably will: I anticipate that the overwhelming concern of 2012 primary voters will be a desire to, well, beat Barack Obama.  

And I also predict that voters will think strategically about their options. Even Republicans who identify with Sarah Palin must know -- or they will know -- that, as of right now, Palin, projected forward in 2012, cannot beat Barack Obama. They know that the most acceptable conservative candidate probably can. They're seeing the 2012 election shape up as a referendum on, yes, four years of Democratic rule, but also as a referendum on competence and action. 

Palin has time to change her strategy, if indeed she intends to run, but whatever she's oozing now, it is not competence and mastery. (Endorsing Carly Fiorina and Brandstad aren't signals of competence. They're strategic endorsements, nothing more.)  

Eventually, the ego will triumph over the id. It almost always does. And you can bet that Democrats are hoping to death that it doesn't. 
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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