Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s surprise announcement that he would not compete for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination added confusion to what is already a complicated and mysterious presidential race. “Why,” one might ask, “are some of the party’s best potential candidates not running?”
For months, we read that Barbour had been hiring staff, booking fundraisers, and maintaining a schedule befitting a serious presidential contender. We may not know exactly what led to Barbour’s eleventh hour decision not to run until Game Change, Volume II comes out. That, of course, was the blockbuster book Mark Halperin and John Heilemann wrote about the last presidential campaign. Competing explanations include Barbour’s declaration that he might not be up to a “10 year” commitment, his wife’s reported coolness to a national candidacy, or the belief in party circles that the GOP could not defeat the first African-American president in history with a Mississippian. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
Immediate beneficiaries of Barbour’s withdrawal are two yet unannounced, but anticipated, presidential contenders: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. A well-regarded former Republican National Committee chairman (how many can recall any of the others?), a successful governor, and a super-lobbyist, Barbour had mastered social networking long before Facebook was invented. The line of media consultants, state political operatives, and elected officials with political organizations to lend him could have circled Washington's Union Station many times.
Those who declined, for whatever reason, to sign on with Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich are now up for grabs. The most natural fit for the barely Barbour alumni is Daniels. Also widely proclaimed as a competent governor in a party that does well with governors heading their tickets (witness Reagan and Bush II), Daniels gets along well with Barbour, with whom he once worked in the Reagan White House. It is not inconceivable that Barbour will re-emerge on the national scene, either as Daniels’s campaign manager, or even as his running mate. He would also be a natural contender as the next Republican White House chief of staff under anyone.
Often dubbed the “anti-charisma candidate,” Daniels could be the party’s perfect antidote for peripatetic and “charisma-ed out” Obama. It would be Mr. Slow and Steady against Mr. Flash in the Pan. Then again, Obama has something that Daniels has yet to demonstrate. Barbour might call it “fire in the belly.” Say what they will about the president, Obama asked for the job. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP candidates.]
Huntsman might, too, and soon. The soon-to-be former ambassador is marking his re-entry to the mainland with three commencement speeches. One was scheduled a long time ago at the University of Pennsylvania. The other two, recent additions, are in the strategically important states of New Hampshire (Southern University of New Hampshire) and South Carolina (University of South Carolina). Any time the freshly minted presidential entry spends with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley would quadruple that which John McCain's vetting team did with Sarah Palin. (So, there might yet be a “Haley” on the GOP ticket yet.) Should Daniels not make the race, Huntsman could benefit the most from the decisions of others to stay out. The two most plausible presidents the Republicans could field, Florida's Jeb Bush and Gen. David Petraeus, show no inclination to run.
With none of the announced or all-but-announced candidates showing signs of taking off, pressure may mount on two relatively junior players on the GOP bench, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan. Able rookies, both have records of achievement in public service at least equal to that Obama presented in 2008. Come January 20, 2013, Rubio would have spent a decade in the Florida House of Representatives, including one year as its speaker, and two years in the U.S. Senate, compared to Obama’s eight in the Illinois Senate, in the minority party, and four in the U.S. Senate. Ryan would have served six terms in the House and several as a senior Senate staffer. He worked at the elbow of two of the brightest lights in the GOP constellation of the last quarter century, former congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, the Republicans' vice presidential candidate in 1996, and former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett.
With the possible exception of Gingrich, Rubio is clearly the most articulate Republican to come on the scene since Reagan. He also matches the Gipper in the optimism he exudes and the belief in American exceptionalism he advances. Rubio is most often mentioned as a possible 2016 contender or a potential vice presidential nominee. Should he take the leap now, he could well generate the enthusiasm and likely financial backing to go all the way. Also like Reagan, he has the potential to bring millions of new recruits into the Republican fold, in this case, Hispanics. [See who donates the most money to Rubio.]
Ryan ascended to chairmanship of the House Budget Committee, fresh from a year of publicity he received courtesy of Obama, who singled him out for criticism at a retreat he attended with GOP legislators, and through the book he authored with two colleagues, Young Guns. He begs off a presidential run, insisting that he has all he can handle trying to enact his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” his plan to reduce the deficit and restructure Medicare. This, he may have backwards. As his colleague Rep. Ron Paul well demonstrates, one need not wait until one has enacted one’s ideas in order to run for president. Sometimes one runs for president to build an audience for one’s ideas.
Contrary to popular belief, the GOP has sufficient talent within its ranks to wage a successful campaign to recapture the presidency next year. That so many of its most talented opted out suggests that a conspiracy might be at work. Perhaps Donald Trump can get to the bottom of it.