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Fowler: The Best They’ve Got

June 22, 2011

Ambassador Huntsman (left) and Governor Romney (right) are already being attacked by their rivals for the GOP nomination for their ties to the president.

President Barack Obama is not, however much Karl Rove would like you to believe it, inevitably a one term president. Nor is he assured eight years in the Oval Office as seemed clear in the months after his historic election. The series of domestic and international crises that have endlessly plagued his administration, with the financial collapse as the backdrop to an assortment of others, have ensured that the president has spent most of his time in damage control mode rather than delivering on his hope and change promises. However, as the economy continues to grow at a sluggish pace, the factor that might be most crucial in determining whether the president is served victory or defeat in 2012 is the face of his rival. Many believe that presidents are rarely defeated by their opponents and are instead done in by the unemployment rate and the price of gasoline. These are fair arguments, but having an opponent that can be plausibly sold as unpalatable to the electorate is an excellent backup plan during times of strife. While the president will go to voters with an impressive list of accomplishments but far from being immune to attacks, the identity of the Republican nominee is the biggest wildcard in the race.

The current Republican field has been compared by some dismissive pundits as similar to that of the Democrats in 2004, with Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman being the only serious candidates in a field full of sideshows, akin to how John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Howard Dean ran their campaigns. With this comparison, of course, comes the conclusion that even the credible Republican candidates will be incapable of beating Obama. Already, far stronger potential candidates like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and South Dakota Senator John Thune have removed their names from contention, signaling an unwillingness to go toe to toe with the president. However, the same criticism was made of the 1992 Democratic field, especially after New York Governor Mario Cuomo also dodged on challenging incumbent president George H. W. Bush. It was this seemingly lackluster Democratic field that laid the stage for a certain underestimated governor from Arkansas to claim the nomination and successfully exploit the poor state of the economy all the way into the White House. So, in such an unsettled field, who is the most likely to claim the nomination? Who must the Democrats be hoping is able to squeeze their way in and effectively hand Obama a second term? And who should the Republicans be looking for in their effort to unseat him? Mitt Romney, since he ended his campaign and handed the nomination to John McCain in 2008, has been the presumed frontrunner for the 2012 nomination. Counting on establishment support, a huge financial advantage, and the Republican tendency to nominate candidates who have already lost a bid for the nomination (George W. Bush being the only recent exception), Romney has clung to a narrow but consistent lead for the past two years in public opinion polls. If nothing of note happens in the Republican primary, he should be able to piece victory together. However, Romney has a glaring weakness that will undoubtedly hurt him in the primary and, possibly, the general election. While governor of Massachusetts, Romney passed into law the nation’s first universal health care bill, based on government subsidies and an individual mandate. If that sounds similar to Obama’s Affordable Care Act, it’s because the president based his legislation in part on Romney’s. Already his opponents are attempting to define his candidacy  around the issue, with Tim Pawlenty notably equating the two laws as “Obamneycare.” It should not be surprising if Romney’s relatively formidable candidacy becomes undone by that single action in much the same way Hillary Clinton’s was by her vote for the Iraq War. Still, at this point in time Romney remains the safest guess. If Romney is able to clinch the nomination the president’s team will probably breath a sigh of relief. The issue of health care reform would effectively be neutralized, removing one of Obama’s biggest liabilities with electorally critical independents from the table. Still, the former governor would be a viable general election candidate, which is why Obama’s allies have praised Romney’s bill and the example it provided in an attempt to rally conservatives against him. Clearly, if allowed to simply pick the GOP nominee, it would not be Romney.

Who then would be the Democrats’ dream pick for Obama to go up against? For a while Sarah Palin was the obvious choice, with liberals dreaming of her conservative star power carrying her towards the nomination and, eventually, a general election blowout. However, Palin seems genuinely uninterested in running, knowing her vulnerabilities and apparently comfortable in her current pursuits. This has turned attention to Rep. Michelle Bachmann, whom many Democrats see as simply Palin carbon copy only with less name-recognition. In the same vein, the idea of Obama debating in front of millions of people with Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, or Ron Paul has given liberals shivers of excitement, knowing their strong appeal to small but passionate bases would be hard pressed in translating to suburban women in Ohio or Hispanic businessmen in Florida. However, the likelihood of any of these even getting the nomination remains quite slim, as they each alienate other segments of the Republican base. The same problem afflicts former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who, despite being a far more threatening opponent in a debate, lacks any sort of base whatsoever. Therefore, if the candidate liberals are hoping for is able to both win the Republican nomination but then fail spectacularly in a general election, akin to Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, they may have to look no further than George Bush’s successor in the Texas governor’s mansion. Rick Perry, the unabashedly cowboy conservative chief executive of Texas, has begun drawing comparisons to Cuomo in the 80s and early 90s: beloved by voters in his party but evading the plunge into presidential politics. Recently Perry has begun sounding like a candidate, making appearances at national conservative events with speeches focused on attacking President Obama and moving the GOP further to the right. If he ran he’d be a top tier candidate in Iowa and the plethora of southern states that vote on Super Tuesday; beyond that his strict ideology and personal similarities to President Bush would make campaigning against President Obama in states like Colorado and Ohio incredibly difficult. Liberals have to hope they’ll be lucky enough to run against a Texas accent again.

The amount of nominees placed in the “Liberal Dreaming” category itself explains the problem Republicans will have in 2012. But what of the candidates who, if able to gain the nomination, would prove an actual challenge to the president? For instance, Mayor Rudy Giuliani has mused about running again after his disastrous 2008 campaign. He faces the same problem of seeming too moderate, especially on social issues, but if he could somehow convince enough conservatives that viability is more important than purity he could prove competitive with Obama in centrist battleground states. On the other hand, Minnesota Governor Pawlenty has emphasized his conservative credentials since he began the race but has maintained an air of credibility, a key asset in a field where few candidates can claim re-election to anything larger than a House seat. However, despite some claims that Pawlenty’s lack of charisma may be a strength when compared to President Obama’s star power, he simply does not generate enough interest to think that he would be able to bring down the first black president. A solid choice for Vice President he may be, but it’s hard to see him winning the nomination on his own. All of these flawed candidates seem to leave a door open for one to occupy the inspiring, Reaganesque brand of conservatism. This candidate seems to have stepped forward in former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. On paper and in person, he is without a doubt the Democrats’ greatest nightmare. A hugely successful and popular governor from the reddest state in the nation, Huntsman combines an incredibly fiscally conservative record with socially tolerant stances on gay rights and immigration. He is both down the line pro-life as well as environmentally conscious, entering Utah into a regional cap and trade plan during his tenure as governor. Young and charismatic, with a huge family bank account and a pledge to refrain from tearing down his opponents in either a primary or a general election campaign, Huntsman could be a very strong candidate, appealing to the same critical voters that Bachmann and Perry would turn off and Romney and Pawlenty would leave indifferent. The president’s saving grace? It seems unlikely that the Tea Party conservatives that have come to dominate the party will vote for a man who not only has similar political positions to the president they loathe on gay, environmental, and immigration issues, but has actually worked directly for him. Indeed, in a brilliant political move two years ago, President Obama offered Huntsman the job of Ambassador to China, a position the governor was uniquely suited for after spending years in the country and becoming fluent in Mandarin as a Mormon missionary. While many thought this would end his 2012 prospects, it has nevertheless hindered his chances in a Republican primary, something Obama has already used, like Romney’s health care bill, to great effect.

The Republican nominee in 2016 is one to be feared greatly by liberals, stacked with scores of conservatives from every background and state imaginable. Beyond Chris Christie, new names like Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada and, especially, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida should prove far more appealing to voters than the choices Republicans have in 2012. The field remains so fluid that the moniker of frontrunner is a nominal advantage at best; at this point in 2007 the inevitable race between Clinton and Giuliani was being analyzed ad nauseum. Barack Obama may be struggling but he remains formidable. And at this point, it seems like the only one who could take his job could use him as a reference.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 3:45 pm

    Considering the Club For Growth just came out and slammed Jon Huntsman only a few hours ago, it seems to me that the internal feud between the GOP and its moderates has no signs of abating. I’ll be watching with much interest. — the URL, if anyone was interested.

  2. June 22, 2011 5:50 pm

    I just wish Gary Johnson was given more of an opportunity to speak on the issues. He was turned out from the debates a la Elizabeth May. With him and Ron Paul at the center stage, we could have seen more of a focus on fiscal responsibility since the two are, in my view, the most credible voices in the GOP.

  3. Beth permalink
    June 23, 2011 8:42 am

    Great article, very polished and thoughtful. We were just talking in my office yesterday about how Huntsman is sort of a breath of fresh air, but that both he and Romney might be hurt by their religion–not entirely sure that people will vote for a Mormon president, especially in light of what has been going on with the FLS. Just pray Gingrich doesn’t get it–he doesn’t stand a chance of winning, but I don’t think we need to see his face and hear his voice during the long campaign1

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