Jeff Jacoby

Yet if "nothing but good" includes winning presidential elections, Reed's history doesn't bear out his argument. Of the three epic GOP nomination clashes he mentioned, only one -- Dwight Eisenhower's victory over Robert Taft in 1952 -- ended with a Republican in the White House. Barry Goldwater lost to LBJ in 1964, and Gerald Ford was beaten by Jimmy Carter in 1976. Though Reed didn't mention Wendell Willkie's remarkable insurgency in 1940, or the blockbuster fight in 1912 between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt, they too were "muscular, competitive, hard-fought" struggles between Republicans. And they too ended with a Democrat elected president.

The idea that a drawn-out nomination battle can be good for the party is not without merit. A string of competitive primary fights prods good candidates to sharpen their messaging, improve their debate skills, and assemble a seasoned, adroit campaign team. "A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us," Romney said in his Florida victory speech. One pro-Romney website depicts the Republican frontrunner with bulging muscles, rolled sleeves, and squared jaw, above a logo reading: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!"

He has good reason to be smiling.

Still, it's hard to see how a Republican victory in November becomes more likely if Romney, Gingrich, and Rick Santorum spend the next several months bashing each other instead of Obama. Each intraparty attack supplies ammunition that Democrats will happily recycle. Taken together, they can't help but tarnish the image of the eventual GOP nominee, driving up his unfavorability among voters generally.

And yet it may be that nothing happening on the GOP side in 2012 is more important than what isn't happening on the Democratic side: Obama faces no renomination challenge. Many on the left are less than thrilled with Obama's performance. But unlike 1980, when Ted Kennedy tried to wrest the nomination away from Carter, Democrats in 2012 will nominate Obama for a second term without a fight.

That may make all the difference. In modern times, the only presidents defeated for re-election were those who went through a bruising primary season first. Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush overcame their respective in-party opponents (Reagan, Kennedy, and Patrick Buchanan). Then they they lost the White House to the other party's nominee.

An excellent case can be made that Obama's presidency should be a one-term proposition, and the Republican nominee can be counted on to make it. But the GOP may have lost its best chance to win back the White House when no Democratic candidate stepped up to make it first.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for