The Democratic Party held its first debate of the “2008 primary season” in April of 2007. It doesn’t look like the GOP will start the 2012 primary season quite as early. In fact, as of this writing, no one has officially launched a campaign for the White House. Regardless of when the primaries start, the Republican field will be big, probably bigger than the eight Democrats who initially ran in 2007-08.
There are at least two reasons for this; both have to do with President Barack Obama’s performance.
First, the GOP is no longer reeling, no longer the endangered species it was in January 2009, no longer flatfooted and without a playbook. For about a year, it appeared that the era of Big Government and Big Spending was not only back but here to stay. That ended in March 2010, after the healthcare bill was rammed through Congress. The growing size and reach of government seemed to thrust Americans back into civic engagement. They gave the president’s party what he called a “shellacking” eight months later and gave Republicans both a chance to prove themselves and a roadmap for making Obama a one-term president—namely, spend less of our money, tax less of our wealth, intrude less in our lives.
Second, from the oil-spill debacle, to the endless spending binge, to the insatiable yearning to push government deeper and wider into our daily lives, to the various Senate and House campaigns he has sunk, Obama has lost that aura of political invincibility and inevitability that he had in the final half of 2008 and first half of 2009.
So, who can capitalize on these political realities in 2012?
To start with, there are 29 Republican governors, many of whom think they can be president, and some of whom have strong records to make that case. Mitch Daniels of Indiana is constantly cited as a possibility in the conservative media, and his tax-restraining, smart-spending style provides quite a contrast to Obama. Likewise, Chris Christie of New Jersey is taking on unions, waste and spending in a way that terrifies the Left and cheers the Right. Both could go toe-to-toe with Obama in a debate.
Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has already gone to-to-toe with Obama, in a sense, over the administration’s handling of the oil spill. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is a proven fundraiser and has lots of favors he could cash in. Rick Perry of Texas has won three times in one of America’s most populous states.
The problem with these governors is that in a primary setting, they could cancel each other out or be canceled out by other likely candidates: Daniels’ alacrity with facts and figures, innovations and ideas, would be matched by Newt Gingrich’s. Christie’s fiscal record could be checked by Daniels, and Christie’s proven ability to win over Democrats in a Democratic state could be matched by Mitt Romney.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who recently resigned from his post as ambassador to China, will likely be checkmated by his own record. Huntsman, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “has supported same-sex civil unions as well as cap-and-trade legislation,” which won’t win him many fans in the GOP primaries.
Jindal would likely be overshadowed by bigger personalities, like Barbour. Barbour’s homespun common sense will sound a lot like Mike Huckabee’s. And Perry’s populism is territory already staked out by Sarah Palin.
Regarding Palin and Romney, it seems that the two face the opposite problem in their paths to the White House.
Palin could win the Republican nomination, but it’s difficult to see how she can win a general election, given the national narrative about her that has been written in cement by the mainstream media. Fair or not, Big Media has defined her in a certain way and hence those who rely on Big Media—people who are not GOP primary voters—have defined her that way. In other words, it seems she has been “Dan Quayled” in the eyes of many voters. She did herself no favors by not completing her term as governor. As one observer noted, “The attack ad writes itself: ‘She quit on Alaska. Will she quit on us?’” Whether these criticisms and narratives are fair is a subject for another essay.
As for Romney, he could win a general election. He has a record of building consensus and solving problems. He even has the look and demeanor of a president—tall, square-jawed, proud and unapologetic of America. He won points with many conservatives in 2007, when he declared, “The best ally peace has in the world is a strong America…It is because of America’s strength that we don’t all speak German and that our kids don’t all speak Russian. And it is because of America’s strength that our grandchildren will not have to speak Farsi or Arabic or Chinese.” The problem for Romney is winning the primary. The healthcare law he shepherded through Massachusetts will be an albatross around his neck in the primaries. Again, the attack ad writes itself: “Before there was ObamaCare, there was MittCare.”
There are 47 GOP senators, all of whom think they can/should be president. That just comes with the territory in the U.S. Senate.
We won’t discuss all 47 of them here, but there are some Republican senators who could make a strong case and a strong run. Sen. Lamar Alexander has conservative credentials, an easy-going, unthreatening way about him, experience as a governor, and experience running for president. He virtually ran non-stop in the late 1990s.
Sen. Jim DeMint would be a darling of the conservative base, as would Sen. John Thune. Speaking of darlings of the conservative base, could Sen. Marco Rubio follow the Obama model and make a run without much of a record for his opponents to attack? He already has experience defeating a once-popular chief executive.
But how about the “one Republican who cuts through all the clutter,” in the words of political strategist and pollster Frank Luntz? “That’s Sen. Jon Kyl from Arizona. In all the testing we’ve done…over the tax issue, his language is the most unifying, the most supported.”
Indeed, Kyl’s approach to taxes and deficits sounds like neither Obama’s grow-the-government programs nor a greed-is-good Gordon Gecko impersonation nor an Adam Smith seminar. “The key is to put people back to work, to get growth going,” Kyl explains, noting the tax increases are not the solution. “Jobs are created by people who have money, and about 25 percent of all of the jobs in the country are created by small business…We’re never going get out of the deficit we have unless we have economic growth. That will produce wealth, the government taxes that wealth, [and] that’s good for the country and good for the government.”
Kyl is statesmen-like, conservative enough for primary voters and reasonable enough for moderates, who have fled Obama in droves and probably won’t return. Kyl could certainly carry the “spend less of our money, tax less of our wealth, intrude less in our lives” mantle.
Finally, we can’t dismiss the possibility of a primary challenger for Obama. If there is one, it will come from his base. The elder Bush had Buchanan. Carter had Kennedy. Johnson had McCarthy. I hear Keith Olbermann is looking for new career opportunities.
Alan Dowd writes on politics and public policy.
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