Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The 2012 GOP Presidential Field: Where's The Beef?

Last week’s GOP presidential debate featured a defeated senator (Rick Santorum), a Wendell Willkie wannabe (Herman Cain), an obscure former governor (Gary Johnson), an understated former governor (Tim Pawlenty), and Ron Paul.
For me, the debate had an “Island of Misfit Toys” feel to it.  None of the candidates seemed to display the kind of gravitas or evoke the kind of excitement it takes to defeat an incumbent president at the polls – something that has happened only three times since 1932.
Watching it, I got the distinct sense I’d seen the same basic lightweights’ battle royale before.
Back in 1984, Democrats who vied to challenge Ronald Reagan included a defeated presidential nominee and senator (George McGovern), a future member of the Keating Five (Alan Cranston), a conservative (Fritz Hollings), an astronaut (John Glenn), an obscure former governor (Reuben Askew), and Gary Hart.
The Democratic field was so weak that the Democrats ultimately chose as their nominee Walter Mondale, the quintessential establishment choice. In the end, Jimmy Carter’s vice president lost to Reagan in a 49-state landslide.

The only drama that occurred in 1984 was when Gary Hart posed a momentary threat to Mondale's path to the nomination. Mondale deflated it when, deriding Hart for his lack of substance, famously asked, "Where's the beef?"

This year, as I look at the GOP candidates, I am tempted to ask the same question.
The candidate looming over the 2012 GOP field, Mitt Romney, is the nominal frontrunner primarily because of the party’s penchant for nominating the person who came in second last time, as well as his ties to the party’s establishment.  
Romney’s biggest asset is the sense of inevitability which surrounds him. This can get you nominated, but it won’t get you elected. Just ask Bob Dole, John McCain, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, and other unsuccessful, establishment-sanctioned nominees. Beating an incumbent president requires getting people excited about your candidacy.  If there is a passionate groundswell among the GOP faithful for Romney’s candidacy, I have not yet witnessed it.
Three other current/possible GOP candidates worth discussing are Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Mitch Daniels.
With respect to Gingrich, he remains one of the GOP’s intellectual leaders. But the media will pound relentlessly on the ethical problems he experienced as speaker. That and his reputation for being a George Pattonesque figure in the party – great in battle, but a liability when the war is over – will doom his candidacy.
As for Sarah Palin, she has been effectively Quayled by the national media.  Polls consistently show President Obama beating her by a wider margin than any serious presidential contender. I doubt she will get in the race given those constraints.
As for Governor Mitch Daniels, I heard him speak during a trip to Indiana, and was fairly impressed.  He has amassed a solid record as governor of Indiana, and has a folksy style which would serve him well on the campaign trail. Of all the candidates, I like him the best. But, I suspect that has something to do with my disappointment with the other candidates, and my desire to project onto him strengths which offset the others’ failings. If he runs, time will tell if he earns his emerging “last best hope” reputation.
Going back to my 1984 analogy, I think I need to make something clear: In no sense do I regard Barack Obama as a Reagan-like figure. Their differences are profound.
Reagan served two terms as governor of California, and was therefore grounded in the kind of basic skills – shaping public policy, working with a legislature, and influencing public opinion – a chief executive needs.  By contrast, Obama possessed no executive experience, and often seems as if he is winging it in the Oval Office (as the muddled manner in which he approached the Libya situation reflects).
Additionally, Reagan came to office with a well-defined belief system, as well as some clearly communicated policy objectives. Obama used vague promises of “hope” and “change” to surf the anti-Bush wave into office.  His single biggest policy objective – healthcare reform – was enacted due to the Democrats’ legislative muscle, and not because a public consensus for it existed.
That said, Obama does enjoy two of the same advantages going into the 2012 election cycle that Reagan had.
The first is incumbency. From 1968 to 2004, four out of six elected presidents were reelected.  It is difficult to beat an incumbent president under any circumstances. When the president’s opponent is uninspiring, that task becomes impossible. You can't be somebody with a nobody. Nor do candidates win when voters are not voting for them but rather only against someone else.

The second is evidence of economic momentum. There are signs that the nation’s economic recovery is finally in full swing. Ronald Reagan began 1983 with a 34 percent approval rating, and went on to win one of the biggest electoral landslides in history less than two years later. If the economy continues to grow, then Obama will also be very tough to beat, regardless of who his opponent is.
Sixteen months is a lifetime in politics, and things can certainly change. But right now I’d have to bet on Obama being reelected. That has less to do with who he is than where he is – in the White House – and who his opponents are not.


  1. great commentary. too good and too sophisticated to be a blog. (better than any newspaper)

  2. Farewell Gary Van Hoven , a fine man and dedicated volunteer to all things GOP for NW Baltimore for the last decade - plus. Was in the room last week where his name shared the honoree list with a mostly distinguished tableau of BCRCC cited GOP women - Nicolee Ambrose , Rachel Audi Helen Delich Bentley, Marjorie Holt from Anne Arundel County, Dottie Kelly, Ellen Sauerbrey , Audrey Scott f, Joyce Lyon Terhes , Diana Waterman. Lets see the cadre of volunteers who ditched and badmouthed Bob Ehrlich in 2006 and even openly in '10 take a lesson from Gary and his inner circle of dedicated friends who supported Bob through thick and thin and discover what principal and decency is really all about. He personified it and will be missed

  3. my grandmother voted for John Glenn even when he wasn't running.

  4. Great article indeed.

  5. Gary Hart should run for President Again. He would be great for this country.

    check out his blog:
    www . mattersofprinciple . com/?p=746