If the Republicans' current pickle — Who's the most credible candidate to run against President Barack Obama in the fall? — seems familiar, it's probably because Louisianians have seen something much like it before. After Sen. David Vitter's "very serious sin" scandal in 2007, Democrats had more than three years to mount a challenge to a man who seemed eminently beatable. That didn't happen. The Dems ran U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, against Vitter with no clear strategy or message. Vitter was re-elected in 2010 with 57 percent of the vote.
A similar scenario seems to be playing out nationally this year between the GOP and Obama, who appeared vulnerable less than two years ago. But two things happened along the way: The national economy began turning around, and the slate of GOP candidates has failed thus far to either energize or unite the party.
Remember when the Tea Party was supposed to reflect a new breed of voters, people whose sole concern was the federal deficit and the economy? Riding that sentiment, the GOP crushed the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, capturing 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and six in the U.S. Senate. But something changed on the political landscape since then. The GOP field has been winnowed to four candidates: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. While each has a core of committed voters, none has inspired enough voters to clinch the nomination. Except for Paul, each has taken a turn at the top of the polls, then been pulled down again like a crawfish in a pot.
Gov. Bobby Jindal didn't run, but flopped as a handicapper by coming out early for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who proved to be an incredible lightweight. But Jindal seems to recognize his party's problem now. In an interview with Politico on Feb. 23, hours before last week's Republican debate in Arizona, Jindal said, "We can still be a party that's for border security and one that at the same time says, 'Hey, we're not an anti-immigrant party.' We don't need to change our ideology. We need to be more articulate in voicing the aspirational spirit of America." The governor added, "The party has to offer compelling alternatives. Voters may dislike [Obama] on spending, the economy and 'Obamacare,' but they still think he's a nice person. Demonizing the president is not gonna win the election."
That reality seems to have escaped the GOP frontrunners. At the debate that night, Gingrich said Obama "voted in favor of legalizing infanticide," while Romney said the nation had never seen "the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama." Earlier in the week, Santorum called Obama "a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian values of America." Really? That sort of bloody red meat might play to the right wing, but Jindal was on point when he said it would be a turnoff to the general electorate.
Even more of a turnoff is the GOP's sudden focus on birth control, which stemmed from a new federal policy requiring health insurance plans provided by employers to cover contraception. (The rule specifically exempted churches, though not religiously affiliated employers such as hospitals.) Santorum found himself scrambling for explanations when a video, shot last October, showed him declaring contraception "not OK, because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." He also declared his personal opposition to prenatal testing — vital to the health of pregnant women — telling supporters he was against it "because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions."
The GOP could be playing with fire even discussing birth control as a political issue. Even in heavily Catholic and conservative states like Louisiana, it's a nonstarter. In a CNN poll conducted Feb. 10-13, 81 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement "Using artificial means of birth control is wrong" — as did 77 percent of Catholics. A Pew Research Center poll that week found 85 percent of respondents indicated contraception was either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all. Worse for the GOP: An Associated Press poll taken Feb. 16-20 found Obama beating any of the four candidates in a hypothetical matchup — by eight to 10 points.
Anything can happen between now and November, of course. For now, it appears the GOP had three-and-a-half years to find what Jindal called "compelling alternatives." So far it hasn't — and voters are still looking.