Don’t believe it. The lack of a clear frontrunner is unusual in Republican politics, but that’s only because the eventual nominee has been pretty clear from the start of the race in just about every contest since 1956. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP contenders.]
Compare the credentials and accomplishments of today’s Republican field to the candidates the Democrats put forward, not just in 1988 and 2004—when they lost—but in 1992 and 2008 when they won. The GOP has more heavy hitters now with better credentials and more real accomplishments in the public policy arena then the party of FDR, Truman, and JFK did in any of those races.
In part, this is because the Republican field is composed mostly of Washington outsiders—including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was never really accepted by the inside-the-beltway Republican establishment. The current crop of GOP “movers and shakers” are talking down the field. So, too, are the people who cover the race, Washington insiders all, with all the attendant prejudices that implies. But there’s more to the unending speculation that other candidates may enter the race than that. What’s actually going on is a sophisticated form of voter suppression. [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]
The inside-the-beltway crowd loves Barack Obama—for reasons that escape the average voter. The economy remains a mess. His initiatives in the foreign policy arena, to the extent there have been any initiatives in the foreign policy arena, have been less than spectacular. His signature achievement, the massive overhaul of the nation’s healthcare financing system, remains very unpopular with the voters.
In short, there is a lack of compelling reasons to reward him with another term in office—and this is where the talking down of the GOP field comes in. It is an effort to make Obama look better by comparison, which is really the only way he can win in November 2012.
It’s happened before. Back in 1996, despite the fact that the GOP won control of the Congress for the first time in several generations just two years before, much of the campaign coverage focused on the fact that the Republican nominee, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, just couldn’t win. He didn’t, but the race was a lot closer than the polls and the pundits let on. Bill Clinton did win re-election, but with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. [Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?]
The strategy, then as now, is to explain, for whatever reasons, that the incumbent president is uber-popular and the Republicans just can’t win, in order to depress enthusiasm among the GOP’s base in the hopes of keeping turnout down. As an added benefit, such talk also helps keep change-minded independents from voting once they come to believe their vote won’t matter.
The current GOP field, while lacking the star power of former President Ronald Reagan, is still substantive. Most any of them would make a good president. It’s worth remembering that, back in 1980, Reagan had his faults, too, as some conservatives were more than happy to point out. He had raised taxes while governor of California and signed one of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws at a time, pre-Roe v. Wade, when it mattered. But, since nothing succeeds like success, all that has been largely forgotten.
The continuing commentary suggesting that there is no one currently in the race who could beat Obama reflects wishful thinking on the part of those who want to keep him in the White House. The voters who desire a different outcome would do well to focus on the obvious strengths of the candidates currently in the race and to leave the discussion of their weaknesses to the folks who host the network Sunday shows—who have probably decided already how they are going to vote anyway.