Going into late 2011 the Republican party is in a quandary. The economy is slow to recover, and that means they should be licking their chops at the chance to take out President Obama. Yet he remains reasonably popular in the polls and due to his fundraising capacity and the advantages of the incumbency, he will not be easy to beat. As I noted last month, it’s really too early to do much more than guess at what the situation will be like in November 2012. Yet Republicans need to start thinking about who would be best positioned to defeat President Obama. The question is trickier than it might appear.
First, the public doesn’t want crazy. President Obama was elected in part because he exuded quiet confidence and pragmatism. Attempts to call him a radical or an ideologue failed because it was clear to anyone who listened to him that he was at base a concensus building pragmatist. His penchant for caution and intellectual reflection has caused him to seem aloof and “professorial,” a turn off for some, but at least the Republicans can’t run in 2012 by painting Obama as an extremist. Indeed, Obama’s had more trouble with his base — a chunk of the “disapproval” ratings he gets come from disgruntled liberals who have seen him as being too willing to cut deals with the Republicans. They think he’s been snookered by the GOP and fear he’s so willing to get a deal he’s not standing up for principle.
But just as Obama appeared more stable and cautious than John McCain whose knee jerk response to the economic crisis (suspend the campaign! Cancel the debate! Oh, never mind!) and the surprise and impulsive pick of Sarah Palin helped sink his campaign, a Republican challenger has to appear safe.
Many Republicans don’t fit this mold, and would probably be easily defeated by Obama. Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Herbert Cain, and Rick Santorium are not credible Presidential candidates. If they ride the tea party wave to the GOP nomination, Obama probably will coast to victory. I mention probably here because of the so-called Reagan effect. President Carter’s people believed Ronald Reagan was similarly damaged goods in 1980 and they turned out to be wrong. That gives supporters of Bachmann hope — ‘they thought Reagan was an extremist too!” So far, though, this tier of candidates does not appear to have the kind of appeal Reagan had.
And Reagan had appeal. I recall watching his speeches in the 1976 Presidential campaign (where he lost the GOP nomination to Gerald Ford) and as a teen ager being extremely impressed. He came off as reasonable, kind, principled and likable. That ability, perhaps coming from his personality or his acting skills, was a gift few politicians have. He was the “great communicator,” a candidate perfectly suited for television and mass appeal. So I strongly doubt any of the fringe candidates would have a chance.
Ron Paul has to be put in that category too, though unlike the others he’s got some appeal and would make the kind of ideological argument that could create a fascinating campaign. Paul is not especially well liked by the Republican elite, and the hawks can never forgive him his anti-war stances (even if he’s been proven correct in many of his claims). Still, his libertarianism leaves him open for some pretty easy broadsides so the well funded Obama campaign could probably demolish him.
Mitt Romney is a lot like a Republican Walter Mondale. The perfect candidate, the commensurate politician, but a bit boring and too much an insider. If the economy is bouncing back by early 2012 (still quite possible — though it could be just a short term bounce, but that’s all Obama would need) an Obama-Romney match up could be a bit like Reagan-Mondale. Just as the Democrats thought for sure Reagan was extremely vulnerable a year before the election (Reagan’s approvals were at 38%, well below Obama’s now), they learned otherwise. That could happen. On the other hand, Romney is a very credible candidate to independents, and while many Republicans distrust him (he had “Romney care,” and is a Mormon), they’d dutifully go to the polls for him against Obama. Bottom line: he could beat Obama, but probably not if there is the perception of an economic recovery.
Tim Pawlenty could beat Obama if he got the GOP nomination. The reason is the GOP nomination fight. Right now he’s under performing, appears stiff and boring, and if anything a light weight. If he can overcome that and win the GOP nomination, uniting moderates and the tea party brigade, it will be proof he has political skills and resiliency. I do not think he’s going to do this, but if he can pull of an unlikely win in the nomination fight that in and of itself would prove his political skills. He lacks the “crazy” factor, appears cautious, and could beat Obama.
Jon Huntsman still seems to me the one most likely to defeat Obama, though as with Pawlenty, getting the nomination will be difficult. The right wing uses his service to Obama as Ambassador to China as a way to attack him; in a general election that will be a plus. He can say he’s rising above politics and is willing to talk with the other side (that’s what the public wants), and foreign policy experience with China? That’s a clear plus!
He also is the only one that has demonstrated the capacity to rise above the crowd with true charisma. Given Obama’s advantages of the incumbency (and likely money), charisma matters. Huntsman has real hurdles, but just as the far right found it impossible to stop McCain in 2008, once the real primary season starts, the GOP may not vote lock step with the tea partiers.
Rick Perry of Texas and Rudy Guilianni of New York are two possible candidates that each are viable, though both have real baggage. I see them much like I see Pawlenty, if they can manage to join the race and get nominated, they’ll have a shot of knocking off the President. But the hype around Perry reminds me of the hype around Fred Thompson in 2008 — he looks enticing from the outside, but once in the race he’ll have baggage to contend with and have to prove himself.
So as of July 18, 2011 the race still appears to be Obama’s to lose, especially if the economy improves. If the economy doesn’t improve, Obama is still likely to prevail against most GOP hopefuls due to the fact the party’s mainstream is considerably different than that of the country. However, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman would be strong challengers to Obama, especially if the economy remains slack. Huntsman seems to me the strongest. The next level includes Paul, Perry and Guilliani. Any of them might pose a viable challenge to Obama, but I’m skeptical.
Things will change dramatically over the next year and a half, and I’ll update my take on the race over time. Anyone handicapping 2008 in July 2007 would have written McCain off and had Hillary the clear favorite. Anything can happen.