Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Because It's Never Too Early to be Wrong

We're about a month away from Barack Obama's inauguration. We're also separated by about a week from my last post, which is an entirely ridiculous length of time. With that in mind, as well as the relative lack of news in these pre-Christmas days, I figured it would be the perfect time to write about the 2012 presidential campaign.

Specifically the Republican field. (Let us assume Obama will win the Democratic nomination. That's the kind of insightful analysis you come to this blog to read) It is, at this absurdly, ridiculously early date, a wide-open competition. That's not to say it's a particularly impressive field, but it is intriguing, insofar as there are no clear-cut favorites, no incumbents or titans to suck up all the oxygen. Let's start with the man I'm most confident will enter the race.

Mitt Romney
A number of outlets have reported that Romney is already laying the groundwork for a 2012 run. Obviously there's a lot that can change between now and then, but a Romney candidacy seems like a foregone conclusion at this point.

Romney's second-biggest problem is that voters universally (and justifiably) consider him a snake. He doesn't seem to have any foundation, any bedrock principles define his life and political career. People look at him and wonder, "Is there anything he won't compromise to win an election?" His performance in the Michigan primary was notably tacky, as he excoriated John McCain making the self-evidently correct point that a lot of the manufacturing jobs that had left Detroit weren't coming back. It worked in a tactical sense, as he won Michigan, but it was a low moment, and it didn't help Romney in the longer view.

I don't think that's a mortal wound, however. Romney exudes sleaze, yes. But he also exudes a bare minimum of competence and intelligence, and he has a legitimately impressive business background. That would serve him well in a hypothetical general election showdown with Obama.

Let's be blunt here: Obama's a better candidate and politician than anyone in this field. The only chance the GOP has to beat him in 2012 is if the economy remains in a torpor or if Obama's repeatedly bungled a series of foreign crises. (And the latter might not even be enough. Bush won re-election in 2004 despite 9/11 and the disaster in Iraq) If that's the case, it's eminetly possible that voters will swallow their personal distaste for Romney and vote for the guy who knows what a derivative is.

If Romney's impressive chameleon impression is his second-biggest flaw, his biggest is that he's a better general election candidate than a primary candidate. The conservative base embraced Romney late in the process, once it became clear that McCain had the nomination within his reach, but it was an awkward, resentful hug. Romney's still going to be a Mormon in 2012, and there's little reason to think that will become more acceptable to the religious base in four years time.

Oh, and Romney kind of sucks as a politician. I'm not sure how a guy who gets elected twice to be governor of Massachusetts is so comically tone deaf, but Romney pulls it off.

Sarah Palin
I've made it abundantly clear that Governor Palin is way up there on my list of least favorite people. But strictly within the context of a Republican primary, she's a force to be reckoned with. She would electrify the base like no one else, and if she's smart enough to hire the right advisers, she might be able to turn that energy into a fund-raising and organizational machine modeled on the 2008 Obama operation. In places like Iowa, where organization and energy are key, she could be a dynamo.

The Republican intelligentsia hates her, considers her a toxin in the party's veins and would undoubtedly devote all their efforts to keep her from becoming the new standard-bearer. The party's corporate underwriters aren't going to embrace her until they absolutely have to. She wouldn't have an easy road. But it's easy to imagine her blowing out the field in Iowa, ignoring New Hampshire, rolling to victory in conservative South Carolina and positioning herself as the early frontrunner. And if there's one thing the Republican Party hates, it's a brutal, drawn-out internecine struggle for the nomination. If she pulls off what I just described, there's going to be a lot of pressure to jump on the Palin bandwagon.

If Romney's a better general election candidate than a primary candidate, Palin's facing the opposite problem. She might seem genuine, but she doesn't exude competence or intelligence. And if the conditions in 2012 are difficult enough to make the public reconsider Obama, the American people aren't going to be in any mood to trust a crisis to someone like Palin. And I don't think there's anything she can do in four years to transform her image into that of a pragmatic, competent problem solver.

Mike Huckabee
Palin and Huckabee are the only two Republicans to come out of the 2008 campaign at a higher level than the one at which they began it. For Palin, that comes with certain caveats. More people like her than did before McCain chose her and she has far more influence than she used to, but she's also built up a healthy unfavorability rating with everyone outside the Republican base.

Huckabee, by contrast, is relatively well-liked by everyone and loathed by no one. He has that unique gift for packaging fairly immoderate positions (revoking the income tax, among others) in a pleasing package. Huckabee's a comforting politician: he speaks softly, with genuine wit and humor. He talks eloquently about sensitivity and decency and reforming the Republican Party so that it centers on those concepts.

For those reasons, as well as for concerns about his fiscal discipline, he was never embraced by the religious base to which he was supposed to appeal. The big money pillars of the party didn't like him very much. Really, his biggest fans were in the travelling press corps, and that's another easy way of guaranteeing distrust from conservatives.

Still, he seems more acceptable to primary voters than Romney and more attractive to general election voters than Palin, though he'll be hurt by the long, intense media scrutiny of his positions that comes after winning the party's nomination. My favorite Republican, though that means nothing.

Bobby Jindal
Jindal's greatest appeal is that he played no part in the 2008 debacle. He's not tarred by any of the 500 hundreds little defeats the party suffered this cycle. If the party needs a fresh face, there are fewer visages fresher or more appealing than Jindal's.

Jindal's very conservative: the National Right to Life Committee gives him a 100 percent pro-life voting record for his time in Congress, and Governor Jindal does not support any exceptions to the pro-life position. All of that, as well as his deep religious faith, will appeal to the Republican base.

It might give him trouble in the general election: the country is deeply divided on the abortion question, but most Americans support some exceptions to a ban on abortions. Obama's team would undoubtedly have a bevvy of ads attacking Jindal's position, as well as an army of female surrogates who would hit the morning shows and speak at rallies.

But I go back to what I wrote earlier: if the circumstances are such in 2012 that the Republicans actually have a chance to beat Obama, ideology might be less of a concern for voters than competence. And Jindal has a number of those bullet points on his resume: an efficient evacution before Hurricane Gustav, balancing the budget of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals when he was its head, etc.

If nothing else, nominating Jindal would be a nice way for the party to prove that it's not a collection of old white guys stuck in Nixon's culture wars. (Put your hand down, Governor Palin) It would take at least a little of the moral highground from the Democrats on the diversity issue, though I suspect the Dems aren't going to let anyone forget that they nominated and elected the first African-American president in American history.

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