Why the GOP (and Democrats) Should Be Thankful for Mitt Romney

Obama, Romney, and the GOP all have something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

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Thanksgiving came early to the Schlesinger household this year. It came in the form of a cunning, crying, cooing little boy named Alex, who joined us earlier this month. The new mother, father, and older brother are all feeling thankful. So you will bear with me if I spring the annual giving thanks column a week early this year.

We can start with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who should wake up every morning giving thanks for the quality of the opponents he has drawn in the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Years from now this race will be remembered as consisting of Mitt and the seven dwarfs.

Romney has faced a procession of shooting stars (emphasis decidedly not on "stars"), from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to inspirational speaker Herman Cain. Not only have these three (and the even less impressive supporting cast rounding out the field) proven incapable of presenting a serious challenge to Romney, but they have proven to be useful foils, helping him present himself in the best light.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Take Perry, the most credibly hyped of the not-Mitts: His fumbling, somnambulant debate performances ("Oops.") helped sink him, but by questioning the constitutionality of Social Security and speaking humanely about illegal immigrants, he let Romney simultaneously solidify his conservative bona fides (by being tough on immigration) and his centrist cred (by defending Social Security, even though he favors privatizing it).

When Perry's moment passed, he was replaced as Romney's chief rival by the half-baked (even before his campaign was consumed by his dazzlingly inept response to charges of sexual harassment) Herman Cain. The former pizza magnate's foreign policy incoherence ("Okay, Libya.") makes Romney look like a savvy elder statesman.

Indeed, the field's greatest collective accomplishment in their never-ending debates has been to make Romney look maximally presidential. As the not-Romneys have risen and imploded, he has contentedly skirted by on the edge of the spotlight, becoming more inevitable. Especially with the GOP's front-loaded primary calendar, every day the not-Romney conservatives fail to coalesce is one day he draws closer to the nomination.

[Read Robert Schlesinger, Mort Zuckerman, and other U.S. News columnists in U.S. News Weekly, now available on the iPad.]

In fact, Republicans should fall down on their knees and give thanks that a plausible candidate has emerged among their presidential contenders—not that they are, but more on that in a moment.

The party is facing an incumbent whose approval ratings have remained under 50 percent while unemployment remains apparently intractably stuck in the kind of territory ordinarily toxic to incumbents. Under these circumstances, the party out of power needs to take a political Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

While robotic and transparently inauthentic, Romney is the kind of inoffensive candidate suited for such an election. He may not electrify but he also won't scare, a quality the ineptitude of the GOP field has allowed him to cultivate. Note his patronizing line of attack that President Obama is nice enough but in over his head. Also note a recent Quinnipiac poll that found Romney to be easily the GOP contender most likable to Democrats.

[See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

For a party that has touted long and loud the lessons of 2010, the GOP has forgotten a critical one: People can be scared into re-electing an unpopular incumbent. See Sharron Angle's 2010 defeat at the hands of Harry Reid, whose approval ratings dipped into the 30s and never climbed above the mid-40s.

But the GOP has a fatal flaw that prevents it from embracing its strongest candidate. As New York magazine's Jonathan Chait has written, "Conservatives want to win above all, but it's not the only thing they want. They want to win a philosophically oriented campaign. They want to believe that Americans are voting for their party because they agree with it, not just because the other party was in office during an economic free fall." They want to win the argument, not just the office.