Before the Tea Party hijacked the Republican Party, Republicans cared more about the ability to govern than ideological purity and showmanship. Recall conservatives’ main argument against Obama during the 2008 election, that as a mere junior senator he lacked “executive experience.” Days before the 2008 election, Sarah Palin asked how Obama could be President of the United States, having never previously governed.
“If you think about it, Barack Obama’s record, what is in his record?” [Palin] asked the crowd of over 15,000 who were gathered around the state capitol. “What has he accomplished? He spent about 300 days in the U.S. Senate before becoming a presidential candidate.”
Then Palin went off script to voice the frustrations she had shared with her husband.
“Todd and I were talking about this, has he ever wielded a veto pen?” she asked. “Has he ever had to make the tough decisions on how to govern best for the people whom he should be held accountable to?”
Of course, Obama went on to win the election, and now has far more executive experience than any of his Republican rivals.
This time around, though, it seems like Republicans are looking for a different kind of experience. On Monday, former Governor Mitt Romney recalled his extensive experience in the private sector — including at the helm of the wealthy consulting firm Bain Capital, which he co-founded — and told reporters that “understanding how the economy works by having worked in the real economy is finally essential in the White House.”
Speaking of his opponents, he said, “I respect the other people in this race, but I think the only other person who has that kind of extensive private sector experience besides me in the Republican race is Herman Cain,” the former pizza chain CEO who is a long-shot for the nomination. The remark is almost certainly a swipe at Rick Perry, the Texas governor who recently entered the race for the Republican nomination. Perry has extensive executive experience at the state level but lacks any experience in the private sector.
Romney himself has a strong record from his time leading Massachusetts, but he’s mostly underplayed this in favor of presenting himself as a businessman who can fix the economy. His signature achievement — reforming the health insurance system to provide better coverage for Massachusetts residents — has now become a liability, as Republican opponents compare it not unreasonably to Barack Obama’s approach.
Romney’s tactic may make political sense. Just look what happened to Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, when he criticized Michele Bachmann during the Fox News-sponsored Republican debate last week. Bachmann frequently takes extreme stances that endear her to the Tea Party, he argued, but has no actual legislative achievements. Echoing Palin’s criticism of Obama in 2008, he told the debate hall that “she fought for less government spending, we got a lot more. She led the effort against ObamaCare, we got ObamaCare… If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you’re killing us.” The audience fell silent before erupting in boos, shocked that Pawlenty would dare criticize Bachmann’s lack of experience.
Two days later, she won the Ames straw poll, and Pawlenty’s disappointing third-place finish forced him to drop out of the race.