US Election 2012: Weighing and Examining
David T. Jones: US Election 2012: Weighing and Examining – a useful early-days primer for Canadians from our Wednesday Night Washington correspondent.
In 2008, the United States held an historic election. The Republican Party was burdened by a few things: the exceptional difficulty for an incumbent party to win a third term; the intimation of corruption and malaise among Republicans; the popular recognition of impending economic disaster; and a four-letter-word, Iraq, that had become a coded label for duplicity and dishonor. It is hard to find a circumstance, other than perhaps the Tories in 1993, when a party had more strikes against it heading into an election.
Thus, it was an election that was clearly the Democratic Party’s to lose. And the potential for an unprecedented outcome was self-evident: it was the first election in which a woman, Hillary Clinton, and a minority group member, Barack Obama, were the most prominent contenders for a major party presidential nomination. As we know now, the much-touted favourite lost and Senator Obama became President Obama.
The Republicans in 2008 had a different problem. They had the perfect candidate in Senator John McCain’s tough personal heroism, Rudy Giuliani’s can-do charisma, Mitt Romney’s family values, Fred Thompson’s professional speaking skills and Newt Gingrich’s febrile intellectual creativity. The problem is that without a Frankenstein’s monster brain and personality transplant, the Republican candidate did not exist.
In the end, the Republicans settled for an old war hero, Mr. McCain, but added the only real element of excitement with a political “Hail Mary” by nominating Sarah Palin for vice president. Ms. Palin, then governor of Alaska, was almost a game changer. She galvanized a disconsolate Republican base, but the result was still the annihilation of Republicans in Congress, giving Mr. Obama the political strength for controversial actions, ranging from massive economic stimulus spending to comprehensive health care. Both remain, to put it politely, controversial and contributed to Democrat defeats in the 2010 congressional elections. The president today can no longer do what he did in 2009.
Fast forward to 2012. Obviously, this is a different election. In 2008, it had been 56 years since neither an incumbent president or vice president was running for election. In the forthcoming election, however, President Obama and, almost undoubtedly, incumbent Vice President Joe Biden will benefit from another political axiom: It is very difficult to defeat an incumbent president. Indeed, until relatively recently, one had to cycle back to 1932 (Herbert Hoover) to see a sitting president defeated. Now, however, while such a phenomenon is still rare, it is no longer regarded as idiosyncratic since both Jimmy Carter (Democrat, 1980) and George H. W. Bush (Republican, 1992) were one-term presidents. Consequently, Republicans feel less weight from the dead hand of history impeding their 2012 chances.
Beyond the blatant powers of incumbency and the concurrent power to shape much of the domestic political debate, the president further benefits from the absence of competition within the Democratic Party. In 1980, Senator Edward Kennedy rallied Camelot loyalists to contend for the Democratic nomination. Believing that the Carter presidency was fatally flawed from domestic economic woes and international misjudgment (for example, the infuriating long captivity of US diplomats in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries), Mr. Kennedy won 10 of 34 primaries and fought through a consequently bitter Democratic convention, refusing to concede before a final vote.
To be sure, President Obama has critics within the Democratic Party—largely from its left wing faction unhappy that the president has not taken more vigorous action on a range of issues from closing the military prison at Guantanamo to implementing “cap and trade” environmental legislation. But these activists have no place to go, and the president occasionally tosses them a bone, such as ending “don’t ask; don’t tell,” regarding the open presence of gays in the armed forces.
And he will have all of the “mother’s milk of politics”—money—that he needs. The Democrats’ fundraising machine has perfected the technique of galvanizing small donors who, in combination, contribute tens of millions. A Supreme Court decision has eased restrictions on corporate contributions. Some analysts project the election will cost a billion dollars, and you can be sure that the Democrats will not be financially constrained.
Moreover, the president can see advantages from the potential bifurcation of the Republican Party, hung up between its highly conservative “Tea Party” wing and its more mainstream traditional element. Unless the Republicans are adroit sociopolitical managers, the Tea Party could split the GOP to devastating electoral results. There are already precedents in the 2010 congressional election when local Tea Party activists in primary elections chose senatorial candidates in Delaware and Nevada that ripped defeat from the jaws of victory. But betting that your opponent will self-destruct is hope, not policy.
Finally, the polls indicate that the electorate likes the president personally and remains proud that the United States put one-in-the-eye of those who assumed blithely that racists would never elect an African-American as president.
Nevertheless, the president is vulnerable. Internationally, the president is clearly moving to reduce even further the electoral effect of Iraq and Afghanistan. By Election Day 2012, US combat forces in both countries will be significantly reduced. However, foreign affairs are tertiary to “lunch bucket” issues. The old James Carville saw (“it’s the economy, stupid”) that so effectively felled the Bush I presidency still has a cutting edge.
The degree to which the US economy continues to stumble—with no prospect of near-term exit from the quagmire—is an enormous liability. Problems include: continued unemployment over 9 per cent; job creation close to the same level as Canada’s (despite a population almost 10 times the size); projections of an astronomical federal deficit far into the out years; and a first quarter GDP at 1.9 per cent annual increase that actually declined from the last quarter of 2010. If President Obama enjoyed the economic statistics that Prime Minister Stephen Harper could tout for the May 2 election, the Republicans could run the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln and they would still lose.
Consequently, the polls indicate the president’s vulnerability. For over a year, his strong detractors have significantly outnumbered his strong supporters—admittedly a figure that is more an indicator of intensity than final balloting. But in recent polls, the president is also several points behind a “generic Republican” candidate for president.
Unfortunately, for the Republicans, they have to run a real person and he or she will have specific weaknesses as well as strengths. Their perfect candidate would have: the passion of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann; the steadfast governing experience of Tim Pawlenty; the family values of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman; Newt Gingrich’s febrile intellectual creativity; the feisty individualism of libertarian Ron Paul; the personal funding of Donald Trump; and the capitalist brio of Herman Cain.
The construct would also benefit from political DNA contributions by a number of Republicans who have declared they would not run: Mitch Daniels, governor, Indiana; Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas; Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana; Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi; John Thune, South Dakota senator; Mike Pence, Indiana congressman; Jim DeMint, South Carolina senator; George Pataki, former governor of New York; Michael Bloomberg, New York City mayor; and John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations.
Then there are several wannabes who proclaim that they are running, but remain best known to their families: Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator, and Charles Elson “Buddy” Roemer III, former governor of Louisiana.
Additionally, there are several that have proclaimed disinterest in running, but around whom there is at least some attention: Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, who presents a personal appearance akin to Toronto mayor Rob Ford; Rick Perry, governor of Texas—perhaps one too many governors from Texas; and Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, shall we say “Bush-wacked” by invidious name recognition despite otherwise strong credentials.
One can see that the Republicans have followed a let-every-flower-bloom approach while relentlessly weeding and pruning those blossoms that actually emerge. The revolving door appearance of “leaders” among the Republicans illustrates their problems. The instant a newcomer attracts media scrutiny, the less attractive he or she appears. Following are some assessments of those still blooming and some of those who have been uprooted. First, the two holdovers from the 2008 campaign:
As was the case in 2008, the former Massachusetts governor has demonstrated clear administrative skills by running a complex state while Democrats controlled the legislature. A highly successful businessman, he has a substantial personal fortune and currently is well ahead of competitors in fund raising. He no longer is the only Republican candidate who has not traded in his spouse at least once, as was the case in 2008 (now Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Cain, Mr. Huntsman, Ms. Palin, and Ms. Bachman have married only once). Nevertheless, his five sons are picture-postcard perfect.
However, to be elected in liberal Massachusetts as a Republican, he took compromise stances on gay marriage and gun control and sponsored a state health care plan that looks suspiciously, for conservative Republicans, like “Obamacare”—which Romney denounces.
Over the years, he has switched these positions, leaving Republicans wondering whether he lied previously to the Massachusetts electorate or whether he is lying now. In the intervening four years, Romney has improved his audiovisual skills; he now looks and acts less like the little man on the wedding cake, although he’s still not the winner of any “want to have a beer with” awards.
Moreover, his status as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—the Mormon church—opens him to questions that probe the nature of these beliefs and which may fall beyond the comfort level of the standard Judeo-Christian US electorate.
His personal efforts, intellectual creativity, and political dynamism returned Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives in 1994, where they had not been for 40 years. However, he is more likely to be remembered for shutting down the US government in a budget battle with President Clinton apparently driven by a snit over not exiting Air Force One by the front door of the plane.
Nor does his tactic of requesting a divorce from his first wife when she was recovering in a hospital inspire “family values” conservatives. Or his cheating on his second wife with his soon-to-be third wife.
Surprisingly, his campaign this year was marked by organizational amateurism, severe fundraising problems, bomb-throwing criticism of a widely endorsed Republican alternative to Mr. Obama’s federal budget, and an inappropriately-timed vacation cruise. Consequently, his key staff resigned virtually en masse, and his efforts to throw a “restart” switch lack power.
Former governor of Minnesota, “T-Paw” epitomizes a nice, dull, white man—in an era when this is not necessarily a positive. He has no negatives, but that doesn’t add up to a positive when charisma and stylistic fireworks are what attract the media attention that candidates short on funds desperately need. The thought of a Romney-Pawlenty ticket prompts “dull and duller” judgment—unfair as that is to both, but also a judgment of current political reality.
Huntsman announced he is running for president and promptly engendered media attention in June. Also a former governor of Utah with family wealth on the endow-major-structures-at-universities level, he has adopted Republican mantras and moved away from earlier support for cap-and-trade energy and environment rules. Additionally, he has the disqualifying credential of having been US ambassador to China and praising Obama while ambassador. However, speaking two Chinese dialects would be a useful skill as secretary of state for a Republican administration.
Former CEO of Godfather Pizza, Mr. Cain has been quick with a quip and a pithy critic of President Obama, in a way that only an African American can attempt. Totally unknown prior to entering the presidential race, he has no electoral experience. He best illustrates the changes in the US sociopolitical culture. Although African Americans still overwhelmingly support Democrats and President Obama, Republicans are clearly willing to reach out to ethnic and racial groups that previously would not have been interested in the GOP, or vice versa.
Both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are regarded as key elements of the “Tea Party” wing of the Republican party—individuals focused on both reducing the size and scope of government, reducing the federal deficit and debt, lowering taxes, and strict adherence to the Constitution. The Tea Party remains essentially inchoate with minimal official structure; although individual members tend toward social conservatism and reduced activism in foreign affairs, international relations are distinctly secondary to domestic politics
Although not an announced candidate for the presidency, Ms. Palin continues to prompt intense speculation regarding her ultimate intentions. In 2008, at the Republican national convention, instead of the deer-in-the-headlights presentation that most expected for her VP acceptance address, she was skilled, articulate, and witty. As a campaigner, she far out shown Mr. McCain and galvanized the Republican base, by illustrating that a woman can be an effective mother as well as able to shoot and field dress a moose.
Subsequently, as governor of Alaska, she could have paralleled Ronald Reagan’s tactic: Demonstrate political control of a fractious state legislature while seeking extensive tutoring in the many areas in which she was substantively weak. Instead, she resigned as governor to take a role of TV personality, fundraiser, and political cheerleader, but definitely remains a “Mama Grizzly” with whom other Republicans will not seek a fight.
Probably the Republicans’ prayer is that she stays on the sidelines as a passionate cheerleader for Republicans, while content to mint a personal fortune with books, appearances, videos, and roles as a TV commentator. However, if she enters the primaries, her appeal to party conservatives could make her a major factor in the race, perhaps splitting the party. As the Republican nominee, she would have no chance of winning.
A three time Congressional representative from Minnesota, she appears more nuanced, and is better educated, than Ms. Palin. Creator of the congressional Tea Party Caucus, currently including approximately 60 representatives and four senators, she is a climate change skeptic, supports teaching of “intelligent design” in the schools as an alternative to evolution, opposed the various “bailout” federal fiscal measures advanced by Democrats, and campaigned against President Obama’s health care bill. She will throw red meat to supporters, charging the President with “anti-American views” and running a “gangster government. ” Obviously, a Tea Party favourite, she appears to be a kinder, gentler alternative to Ms. Palin.
As a lifetime manure kicking libertarian, Paul is now a Texas congressman in his mid-70s. He serves as the benchmark for how far right a politician can go and still be elected.
For money and PR ability, “the Donald” was unparalleled. Mr. Trump, however, never appeared to be a serious candidate, but rather exploiting free advertising for his TV reality show, The Apprentice, and his hotels and casinos. Still, he enjoyed a candidate-of-the-moment surge of popularity with vigorous denunciation of President Obama. In particular, he gave the “birthers” further cachet by insisting that the president release the “long form” of his Hawaii birth certificate. Those seeking this information were convinced that he was not born in the United States, and was thus not qualified as a “natural born” citizen to be president.
However, anyone with familiarity regarding US citizenship law knows that Obama could have been born on the dark side of the moon and still be a US citizen as his mother was a US citizen qualified to transmit citizenship. By essentially forcing Obama to address what had become a distraction (and raising the question even among supporters why he was refusing to release the information), Mr. Trump provided a public service by prompting the release of an anodyne document. Birthers continue to fulminate, but with even less effect.
In effect, for 2012 the Republicans are facing problems comparable to those that plagued them in 2008 as they plagued the Democrats in 2004. Today, it is the Republicans who are sorting through the collection of “odds and sods” in hope of a winner.
For the Republicans, the best technical chance they might have would be to endorse Mitt Romney, the current front-runner, and co-opt Tea Party activists by putting Michele Bachmann on the ticket as vice president.