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Republican primaries: the quest for the ultimate outsider

The most bizarre thing about the American presidential election is that everyone who wants to move into the White House spends all their time trying to emphasise how they don't really belong there.

It is probably the only job in the world where prior experience is actually viewed as something of a liability.

When Mitt Romney says he left politics in the 1990s to try other things, Newt Gingrich dismisses it as "pious baloney." "You've been running consistently for years and years," Gingrich sneers. "Just level with the American people." "Running consistently" is bad for your outsider street cred.

Watching the New Hampshire debate, one is struck by the spectacle of these white men in black suits with their power ties (usually red) and too much hair gel, all tripping over each other to persuade the voters that they are "outsiders".

Ron Paul has spent 20 years in Congress. In all that time, he's only managed to get one of his bills passed. In any other job interview, that would be a minus. But Paul is touting it as a plus in the Republican party nomination circus. It shows he is an outsider in a Congress that is "out of touch" with the American people.

The Republican Party faithful tend to be in love with this fantasy of the new sheriff who rides into town and shows everyone who is boss. It dates back to their love affair with the original cowboy viz Ronald Reagan who didn't let his governorship of a state as big as California get in the way of this Hollywood-esque bio of the straight-shooting shitkicker riding into Washington DC.

But the quest for the ultimate outsider is sending the party further and further to the fringes as it seeks to find the man who will unseat Barack Obama. In the process, it's happy to ride roughshod over the man who might actually have a good chance at doing exactly that.

Jon Hunstman, the former governor of Utah, is the kind of conservative who could reach across party lines despite being solidly pro-life and anti-tax.  Mother Jones calls him "the Democrat's Republican". In a field filled with crazies like Michele Bachman, Huntsman sounds like a rational moderate, worrying that the Republican Party is becoming the "anti-science party". But he fails the litmus test for conservative purity in a party dominated "by an alliance of religious extremists and warmongers", writes James Joyner, publisher of Outside the Beltway.

Republican presidential candidates, (L-R) former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former US Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate during the NBC News Facebook Debate on 8 January 2012. Getty Images

So Huntsman has to defend himself against charges that he's some kind of a turncoat for having been Obama's ambassador to China. "I just think it's most likely that the person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China," said Romney. As Ryan Lizza blogs in the New Yorker, that decision transformed him from a "successful popular governor from the most conservative state in the country into an employee of Obama, the most despised figure among G.O.P. primary voters."

Huntsman supporters say that's exactly the sort of person America needs, "a leader who can bring both sides together." Add to that, his fluency in Mandarin. If he was running for president of a multinational, he would be a shoo-in. But although the Republicans seem to be  enamoured with the idea of the president as CEO, the primary voters aren't interested in any of the qualities that would make someone a good CEO in today's world. Except perhaps an anti-tax manifesto. They are only interested in taking down Obama. That hatred for Obama is a rallying point for the Republicans. But it's also turning into a gigantic blind spot as the party keeps veering to the right – warmonger, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-gay.

Democratic strategist and commentator Paul Begala writes in Newsweek that the Republican party faithful is so conservative now it would boo an Eisenhower off the stage. It would pillory Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency which they want to abolish.

So if you were a successful Republican with eyes on the White House — one who actually believes the scientific consensus that carbon pollution harms the planet, or that contraception prevents abortion, or that gay Americans don’t have cooties—you would figure out pretty quickly that you could not survive in today’s GOP.

The GOP faithful rhapsodise over a hardcore conservative albeit defeated senator like Rick Santorum who wants to pick fights about gays and contraception (issues most middle of the road voters care little about) and they end up settling for a plastic action figure like Mitt Romney who seems vaguely electable. That in primary parlance means someone who has been running for so long, he is beginning to look like a guy a casting director would pick to play president in a B-grade Hollywood disaster movie.

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The worrying question for Republicans, writes political columnist EJ Dionne, is that the primary, rather than strengthening the party for the coming battle against Obama, will instead "leave it more marginalised from the views of swing voters by requiring candidates to spend so much time and energy wooing voters far to the right of the mainstream."

Mitt Romney probably thinks that as the former governor of a liberal state like Massachusetts, he can tack back to centre when it comes to the actual presidential campaign. But as the party gets more and more conservative, that's going to be harder to do. His campaign will have to contend with Tea Party conservatives, something a John McCain didn't have to deal with.

And it will leave people like Outside the Beltway's James Joyner ruing about what might have been – mainly a President Huntsman.

Now, while I happen to like Huntsman and would prefer him over all the candidates running this year, he's almost certainly never going to be the Republican nominee. He’d make an excellent prime minister but he doesn’t have the campaign chops to come out on top in our presidential nominating system.

Someone should tell our Shashi Tharoor that. He's been stumping lately for the presidential system. In a long and well-argued piece in Tehelka, Tharoor has talked up every pro and rebutted every con one could think of when it comes to the presidential system.

That, Tharoor hopes, will get us real leaders who can devote their energies to governance and really claim to speak  for a majority of their citizens.

On the other hand, it could also give us a Mitt Romney. And that is a sobering thought, indeed.