While balance and diversity are symptoms of any democracy, the current political climate has created polarization rather than diversification. This phenomenon is most clearly highlighted by the current crop of potential GOP presidential candidates. As the various contenders seeking to claim the presidential nod in 2012 begin to emerge, none of the would-be candidates seem capable of winning a general election.
Candidates running for their party's presidential nomination have historically fallen into three groups.
First, there are the politicians whose moderate platforms allow them to claim an advantage in an election – think Hillary Clinton, who fought Obama for the Democrat nomination in the 2008 election cycle. Further down the spectrum are the candidates whose "radical" ideas are party-friendly but inhibit their general appeal. Think Mike Huckabee or Howard Dean. The third group encompasses those on the fringe of the party who have no shot at winning the primary and are running for political reasons, idealistic ambition or because they are Mike Gravel.
The potential Republican nominees from this year's field fall into the latter two groups, and the first group is all but vacant.
The fringe candidates are out in force; one of the more notable candidates is Jimmy McMillan, who abandoned the "Rent Is 2 Damn High" party in order to campaign for the Republican ticket. The second group is well represented with candidates like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Newt Gingrich who can garner factional support in the party but will lose in a general election. Donald Trump fits somewhere between these two groups depending on how delusional you think he is and how much of an impediment you think that is to gaining the Republican nomination.
There is a conspicuous lack of moderate candidates; Mitt Romney alone claims party-crossing appeal. In most years, Romney would have to be considered a favorite for the nomination but in this ultra-polarized cycle, he has little chance of winning the nomination. The "Romney-Care" he instituted as governor of Massachusetts and his past support for abortion and gay rights will undermine his campaign unless he moves father right and starts echoing those on the party margins.
Here we find the dilemma: In order for any of the Republican candidates to stand out within the party, they must take positions that further polarize their platform and radicalize their candidacy.
Consider Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was considered the premier moderate in Washington during the George W. Bush presidency. Going into the 2008 election cycle, McCain was considered a candidate who could charm both liberals and conservatives. But as the primary process increasingly polarized and McCain's campaign began looking like a failure, he changed his positions on climate change, social issues and generally pandered to the edges of the party. It worked in the primary and won him the nomination, but this new right-wing candidate was no longer able to win over the middle of the country.
In the past, parties putting up "radical" candidates have accepted heavy defeats. This was the case with Barry Goldwater in 1964, George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984.
No Republican is well-positioned to win both the primary and general elections, which means one of two things. It could mean that the GOP will not mount a serious challenge to Obama in 2012, instead waiting for 2016 to legitimately win the presidency. It could also mean that electoral norms are changing and that the "radical" candidates of each party are now the ones that can win elections.
If politics work as they have in the past, Obama should win handily. But if America has changed in these last four years, a radical Republican might prove a much more serious threat to the Obama White House than history could ever have anticipated.