Rich Lowry surveys the congealing gravy that is the field of GOP presidential contenders and asks, “Is this it?” Each for-sure candidate is flawed in some way, some more severely than others, and the most plausible-seeming possibilities have chosen to take a pass.
It might help, at this point, if Republicans thought a little more deterministically—more like Democrats, if you will—and realize that success on the presidential level is, to some extent that can’t be precisely measured, a hostage to fortune. Events often are in the saddle. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP contenders.]
Was Ronald Reagan a supremely gifted politician?
Of course he was.
But his timing, in 1980, when interest rates and inflation were running at double digits, was impeccable. He ran against an incumbent who the public did not adore, and who had just presided over a disastrous response to the Iran hostage crisis.
And he was re-elected on a disarmingly simple theme: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Most Americans said yes—and Reagan kept his job. [Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?]
Simple. Add water, and stir.
George H.W. Bush was not a terrific candidate, by any means. But regard for Reagan remained high, and Bush was given a “third term.” (Democrats will here remind me that the advent of take-no-prisoners, Lee Atwater-style campaigning also had something to do with the outcome of that campaign, and I won’t deny it.)
Yet, in 1992, a recession knocked out that same candidate, even despite the seeming triumph of the first Gulf war. And the subsequent recovery—which began under Bush—made Bill Clinton tough to beat.
Other factors more emotional than economic, of course, profoundly impact presidential races: fear for life and limb in 2004, being no small example.
But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assert that, after the financial crash of October 2008, any one of the top-tier Democratic candidates would have defeated any one of the top-tier Republicans. [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]
The point is this: No matter who it turns out to be, the GOP nominee in 2012 is going to enjoy certain inbuilt advantages. Recovery is not occurring fast enough; no more stimulus, fiscal or monetary, is forthcoming; the world still seems like it’s at a rolling boil, and President Obama’s persona in these matters is far from commanding.
Critically, unemployment, even under the most optimistic scenarios, is going to remain above 7 percent. This is not an impossible hurdle for an incumbent president to overcome. Indeed, the last one to pull it off was, ahem, Ronald Reagan.
But who’s going to argue, 18 months from now, that it’s “morning in America”?
It will take a talented politician to seize, not squander, these inbuilt advantages—but the fact is, they are there to be seized.
Put simply, re-election is not going to be a chip shot for a president who lugs as much baggage, fairly or not, as Barack Obama—not to mention one who stinks at golf.