Romney's Libya gaffe reminded me of Lincoln's famous line about keeping your mouth shut and being thought of as a fool instead of opening it and removing all doubt. It was increasingly apparent before today that Romney was not of presidential timber. His less than excellent foreign adventure in July, his choice of running mate, and a RNC whose highlight was an 82 y.o. actor talking to a chair raised many questions about his fitness for high office. The "etch a sketch" comment and a campaign that clearly followed that philosophy raised even more questions. Trying to turn the assassination of an American ambassador into a political line of attack answered those questions decisively. The man is not remotely fit to assume such an awesome responsibility, and his chosen successor should a tragedy befall him in office isn't ready, either.
The problem is, Romney has ample company in that regard. The 2008 GOP nominee was painfully ignorant on economic policy. He chose a running mate who was even more ignorant on economic, foreign, or most any other type of policy issue. That nominee rashly suspended his campaign and tried to cancel a debate as the Wall Street meltdown unfolded. He used a Beach Boys lyric to joke about bombing Iran. It was a very good thing for the country that he went down to a decisive defeat.
The GOP nominee in the 2 prior elections made John McCain look like a statesman by comparison. At the time he first ran in 2000, that nominee tacitly admitted that he pretty well wasted the first 40 years of his life. Questions existed about his spotty military record. His business record was primarily distinguished by his losing $ for friends of his father's foolish enough to invest in his ventures. His gubenatorial record was primarily distinguished by the number of executions that he approved. His running mate essentially chose himself to join the ticket. Obviously, things went from bad to worse once they took office, but numerous trouble signs were there beforehand.
It has been, in short, 16 years since the GOP last had a nominee who had the background and the temperament of a potential president. While Bob Dole had more than his share of flaws as a senator and as a candidate, there was never reason to fear the very idea of him taking office. Jack Kemp had just as many flaws, but his personal character and/or basic judgement were not visibly lacking.
As a volunteer in his 1980 campaign, I still recall seeing Ted Kennedy's qualifications for high office repeatedly challenged. Obviously, presidential candidates normally don't have a cloud constantly hanging over them like he did. No one, however, could question his grasp of policy issues, his understanding of how things get accomplished in DC, or his leadership skills. An arguably indefensible personal tragedy effectively ended his presidential ambitions.
It became obvious to me years ago that, like the knife fight scene from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," there are no rules in politics, most notably in presidential politics. Personal issues ended Gary Hart's 1988 campaign, but similar issues barely slowed down Bill Clinton 4 years later. What is or is not a disqualifying factor often relies on the circumstances of a given campaign. Reagan was deemed to be too far to the right by many in his own party in 1976, but he was not too far to the right to win easily in 1980.
What is or is not a disqualifying factor often is largely subjective. It's fair to say, however, that, in the last 4 elections, the GOP has freely chosen a nominee whose multiple disqualifications should have been obvious to anyone who was paying attention. In the current election, having a field that was the equivalent of the bar scene in "Star Wars" made such a nominee inevitable.
I'm not sure what is to be done about a party that selects such nominees as a matter of routine. I can say that trying to practice "bipartisanship" w/ such a party is a fools' errand. As long as the party consciously chooses craziness, ruthlessly burying them as deeply as possible becomes the sole viable option.