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Picking Bachmann or Perry is risky for GOP

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • John Avlon: The GOP is sorting out after Iowa poll, with Bachmann, Perry leading field
  • He says Bachmann plays to conservative populism with extreme rhetoric, religion
  • Independents, key to general election, not religious, not sold on ideological purity, he says
  • Avlon: Rigid conformity to right-wing dogma isn't good for governing, winning elections

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- A day can be a long time in politics, and that was certainly true this past Saturday.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll in Ames, followed by libertarian Congressman Ron Paul. Tim Pawlenty's third-place finish pushed the two-term Minnesota governor out of the presidential race the next morning. Perhaps the biggest news was the big-foot move by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to declare his candidacy 1,200 miles away in South Carolina.

But what matters more than this one-day snapshot of the 2012 horse race are the dynamics determining the shape of the field.

That Bachmann can eclipse a candidate like Pawlenty in a swing state like Iowa points to a major problem in the Republican Party right now.

The factional fault lines are rumbling; dividers are crowding out uniters. The result? The middle-class vision of the GOP as "the Party of Sam's Club" gets overrun by conservative-populist enthusiasms, stoked when Bachmann warns that President Obama would be a "dictator" to raise the debt ceiling. Or when she calls him "anti-American" or accuses him of "economic Marxism" or delivers applause lines like this: "when tyranny is enforced upon the people, as Barack Obama is doing, the people suffer and mourn."

Activist factions can disproportionately dominate a straw poll, caucus or even a closed partisan primary, but they are not remotely representative of the general electorate.

Even Perry's blockbuster entry highlights this problem. He is a charismatic check-the-box candidate -- a social conservative and a fiscal conservative, a pro-business Southern governor beloved by both evangelicals and the tea party. But as Republican consultant Mike Murphy said on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, "I don't know a senior, experienced, real consultant in the party who's actually done races who doesn't think that Perry is a super-serious candidate for the nomination and a weak candidate in the general election."

With the economy faltering and the president's poll numbers falling, there is a sense of overconfidence creeping into some conservative circles. The thinking seems to be that they can throw almost any base-pleasing, pledge-signing, ideological purist up and still win the presidency. But to win the White House, you need independent voters -- and they are not only the largest but the least religious segment of the electorate.

Moreover, elections in America are won by the candidate who connects with moderates and the middle class. The combination of overheated right-wing ideology and theology alienates these Main Street voters.

In the extremely unlikely event that Bachmann wins the GOP nomination, the result would be a landslide that would make Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964 look small. Moreover, her nomination might provoke a split in the Republican Party, pushing the center-right out of the party altogether.

There is no question that the far right dominates the face of the Republican Party more than any time in recent history. Four years ago at this time, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee were the GOP front-runners. It was a balanced Republican field between center-right and right. By point of comparison, Romney 3.0 is now the establishment candidate; he was running as a social conservative alternative to McCain last time around. Bachmann makes Sarah Palin look like an eminently qualified statesman. George W. Bush looks like Abraham Lincoln compared with this crowd.

The rise of the factions is also starting to influence policy debates by imposing what one prominent conservative columnist described as a "philosophical straitjacket."

After the Thursday exchange, where all candidates on stage affirmed that they would reject a 10-to-1 spending cut to tax-hike deal to reduce the deficit, Peter Wehner wrote in a typically thoughtful column for Commentary: "If we have reached a point where Republicans running for president cannot envision (or at least admit to) any scenario in which they would raise taxes, even if as a result they could roll back the modern welfare state, then it's time to consider loosening the philosophical straightjacket they are in. It's not healthy for the GOP, or the nation, or even conservatism."

The primary process should inspire healthy political debates, not push candidates into extreme forms of conformity that are counterproductive to both winning elections and governing effectively. The decisive shift of the GOP to the right comes with a price. And memories of the triumphant, tea party-driven 2010 election ignore the most important point looking forward: Mid-term elections have much smaller turnouts than those in presidential years.

Party polarization produces candidates who are unrepresentative of the general electorate, and committed ideologues pridefully ignore the practical problems this creates. As the columnist Jack Newfield once wrote, "ignoring electability is the fingerprint of fanaticism."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.