Will primary gaffes hurt the GOP brand?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In the wake of high-profile gaffes and scandals on the campaign trail, many political observers are finding themselves scratching their heads in disbelief, saying: This GOP field is a total embarrasment!

Over at Newsweek, former Clinton campaign operative and “Crossfire” co-host Paul Begala wonders: “How did we devolve to the point where a leading Republican candidate for the presidency can’t count to three?”

He’s not alone. A lot of observers are making this point. But while writers — who are obliged to consistently produce copy — tend to be rather myopic, it’s important to put things in proper context.

What we are witnessing — warts and all — is pretty standard fare (though our modern new media landscape tends to magnify mistakes).

The Democrats, for example, flirted with a variety of flawed candidates in recent cycles, only to settle on fairly serious nominees (who became better candidates by virtue of the process). They didn’t end up nominating Howard Dean (whose “I have a scream” gaffe was an embarrassment), nor did they nominate (for president, at least) the gaffe machine Joe Biden — or for that matter — fringe liberal candidates like Al Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich. Things tend to sort themselves out.

The truth is that watching a primary nomination fight is like watching sausage being made; it’s ugly, but it usually turns out pretty good.

Conservatives should be especially comfortable with this concept. Economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction,” for example, argues that competition creates innovations which can wipe out existing companies, industries, etc. This is painful, of course — but in the long run — incredibly positive.

And such is the case in primary politics. Most of the candidates will go out of business. And that will be good.

Economist Tim Harford’s book, “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure might also put this in perspective. (Listen to my recent podcast with him — if you’re interested.) Harford’s thesis is essentially this: Central planning doesn’t work. We can’t predict what’s going to happen. And so, let a thousand flowers bloom. And most of them will fail. But variation is the key. Trial and error is essential. And ultimately, the cream will rise to the top.

Again, it’s easy to see the political analogy. Primary campaigns are messy, but necessary. The worst possible alternative would be to allow the “smart” people to pick the candidates. Consider this: What if a bunch of Republican leaders had gotten together at the RNC headquarters back in July and just decided to make Rick Perry the GOP nominee?

They might have looked at his record as the longest-serving governor in America — his handsome face and Texas swagger — and his record of job creation — and simply concluded that he was the best man for the job. They might have then decided it would be best to spare him from a grueling primary campaign. (After all, they might have concluded — Why air our laundry in public? Why tire him out? Why not focus all our energy on defeating Obama? — These are all plausible arguments.)

You can see where I’m going with this. If Rick Perry doesn’t end up winning the nomination this year, the GOP will have been saved from nominating a flawed candidate. And even if he does manage to wrest the nomination away from Mitt Romney, Perry and his team will be much stronger for having had to overcome early stumbles. Central planning doesn’t work.

Failure and stumbles on the trail aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

Sen. Marco Rubio explained this concept very well on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday when he said Republican primary candidates are

running through the process. So they’re being analyzed on a daily basis. They’re being asked questions, and people can judge based on the answers they give — or fail to give — whether they’re qualified.

You know, I think one of the things that benefited President Obama, to be quite frank, is that he had a primary that lasted though all 50 states. So by the time he got the the General Election, he was ready to go. I mean, he was tested by Hillary Clinton in ways that no one has been tested before in a primary. And I think it made him a stronger candidate in the General Election.

And you hope the same will happen in this Republican primary. That folks — as part of this process — will grow. That they’ll be forced to think about and learn about issues that perhaps they hadn’t thought about before they got in the race. And that’s part of the process of electing a president…

The bottom line is that what Republicans are going through is entirely healthy and positive. So enough with the hand-wringing, okay?

Matt K. Lewis