There Were Four in the Bed and the Little One Said, “Roll Over, Roll Over” — 23 May 2011

Politics is a very strange game.  It is a weird mixture of happenstance and purpose, coincidence and opportunity.  Case in point: the field of Republican presidential aspirants.

One might think that the GOP might have carried the energy of the 2010 elections into a groundswell of support for a clear leader.  After all, President Obama has energized conservatives by being far more polarizing than had been advertised.  And on most objective measures, he should be vulnerable – his approval ratings have been languishing, his signature legislative achievement, Obamacare, is still broadly disliked eighteen months after its passage, and most importantly, the economy remains stalled with unemployment at 9.0%.

But the Republicans, who traditionally have given the nod to the guy who came close last time, find themselves not only without a clear front-runner but with a field of contenders that leaves many conservatives unenthusiastic, to put it mildly.

The Republicans need to nominate a strong conservative to get the foot-soldiers motivated; they also need to nominate a candidate that is not so red-meat that he (or she) scares off moderates.  It is part of this country’s fascinating political dynamic that both parties need their base to execute a successful campaign, with donations and canvassing efforts, but they aren’t numerous enough for victory.  The balancing act of appealing to the wing and the centrists at the same time can make for great political theater.  Barack Obama was great at this in the 2008 campaign.

I was disappointed and not a little surprised that Mitch Daniels decided not to run.  He had the credentials, with solid conservative achievements in budget-balancing, reform of public employes’ unions, education reform and health care reform.  His experience as W’s first budget director gives him critical White House experience.  And at the same time, his mild manner would make him appealing to the middle who want reassurance perhaps more than anything.  He would have been a terrific candidate.  My guess is that his uneven marriage was the deal-breaker: I don’t think his wife wanted the scrutiny, the exposure, the judgments on The View.

Other quality candidates have bowed out as well, for their own reasons, most notably Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour.  Others, such as Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Rick Perry have been adamant that they are not jumping in.  Able and accomplished, all of them.  Virtually any one could have been the one to get the troops excited.  So let’s review who remains.

Newt Gingrich is a serious thinker, and probably one of the smartest people in the front ranks of today’s politics.  His candidacy is flawed, however, probably fatally.  It’s not just that he shot himself in the foot right out of the gates with his unnecessarily sweeping denunciation of Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan (“right-wing social engineering” is sure to become a Democratic slogan).  The whole episode illustrates what is wrong with Newt: he tosses grenades about for rhetorical effect without anticipating their reaction, and not infrequently ends up walking back, rephrasing, repositioning, or otherwise squirming.  This is fine in a thought-provoking advocate, or a talking head on Fox News.  It is not what we want in a President.

Mitt Romney has a major blemish in an otherwise very impressive array of accomplishments, and that is Romneycare.  To many Americans, particularly many conservatives, it looks too much like the despised Obamacare.  And Romney’s defense of the former while attacking the latter requires a subtlety of logic that escapes many Republicans.  It is a great irony that perhaps the GOP’s strongest candidate has a blunt sword when it comes to Obama’s greatest policy weakness.

Romney may win the nomination in spite of this, although I must say I was not a huge fan of his in 2008.  His changing positions on abortion – pro-choice while running in Massachusetts, pro-life when running for the national GOP slot – reminded me of Groucho Marx’s famous saying: “Those are my principles.  And if you don’t like them, well, I have others.”

Tim Pawlenty, who declared today, has conservative achievements similar to Daniels.  He also is a convert from Catholicism to Baptist, which is likely to endear him to the evangelical wing of the party.  He also comes from a working class background, which will doubtless help him with the “Sam’s Club” conservatives.  He has a real chance, and his official entry on the heels of Daniels’ withdrawal will probably make him a favorite of many of the party regulars.  He has a policy flaw comparable to Romney, although not as striking – he once was in favor of a cap-and-trade approach to controlling greenhouse gases.  That will very likely haunt him in the primaries.

The knock on T-Paw, as he is called, is that he lacks the telegenic charisma that some feel is necessary for today’s Presidential politics.  I am not so sure.  I think he will become more known and more liked as the campaign carries on.  Besides, the most charismatic politician of the last decade is sitting in the White House, and I would bet many voters would happily opt for a little less of that kind of flash.

Lack of charisma is not the problem for Herman Cain.  Little is known of him, and I hope he makes a splash.  African-American, the son of a domestic and a chauffeur, he served in the military, won a degree in systems analysis, and then went on to repeated success in business, running divisions of Burger King and Godfather’s Pizza for Pillsbury and then taking Godfather’s private.  He has served as President of the St Louis Fed, and has advised senior national politicians such as Jack Kemp.  He is now a nationally syndicated talk show host.  He has basically succeeded at everything he has tried.

But I don’t think he will succeed at this bid for the Presidency.  He is too new, too lean.  He lacks organization, money, and most importantly, he lacks positions – I watched an interview of him yesterday and my impression was that he is not prepared.  A very interesting, highly articulate character, he can bring crowds to their feet and can certainly change Republicans’ success among minority voters.  But he can’t win this nomination.

So where does that leave us?  Short of a surprise late entry – people talk of Jeb Bush, for instance – the field is set.  I doubt that Sarah Palin will make the jump, although Michelle Bachman very well might.  But she is a long-shot for the nomination as well.

My instinct says it’s likely to be Romney, and I think he will have a tough time beating Obama unless he finds an unambiguous way to separate himself from Obamacare.  My preference will be Pawlenty, and I will be watching keenly to see how his campaign progresses.

The election is still eighteen months away, and that is several eternities in politics.  It’s probably even a fool’s errand even to try to handicap the race at this point.  That’s what makes it so fun, so frustrating, and ultimately so addicting.  Stay tuned.

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