Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to skip a run for the presidency next year appears, on its face, to be a huge psychological boost to the Democrats. Barbour, while carrying some political baggage that could complicate a run for the White House, is nonetheless a smart politician—an attribute, it could be argued, which led him to sit this one out. Further, Barbour’s decision comes as so many potential GOP candidates in a crowded field are waiting to get in the race.
But the Republicans’ recalcitrance should not make Democrats too confident. At this stage in 1991, after all, no Democrat was willing to take on the then popular President George H.W. Bush—and Obama’s approval ratings now are nowhere near what Bush’s were then. Just because the media and the unelected professional political class want campaigns to begin the day after the votes from the last election are counted doesn’t mean candidates should play along. Campaigns, of course, are indeed more expensive than they were 20 years ago, but the Internet has also given contenders the ability to raise a great deal of money very quickly, taking the time pressure off a bit. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP candidates.]
The Republicans’ problem right now is not that would-be contenders are waiting too long to get in the race. It’s that the appeal of its leading candidates now is one based in negativity, instead of a positive vision for the future. True, Bill Clinton benefited greatly from Bush’s drop in popularity, but he would not have been able to win with the sole argument that he wasn’t Bush. Clinton represented youth and change, and pledged universal healthcare coverage—the latter of which ended up failing spectacularly during his term, but nonetheless constituted a promise of something positive. [Vote now: Is Trump serious about running for president?]
Yet, so much of what we hear now from some of the GOP possible candidates is aimed at motivating the Obama haters. The ridiculous birther conspiracy will indeed rev up the loony bin in the Republican garage, but that’s not enough to win a general election for the presidency. The ongoing campaign against the healthcare overhaul law—which has barely gone into effect—may serve to drum up turnout among the anti-Obama crowd. But it also taints one of the Republican field’s most serious and solid potential contenders, Mitt Romney, one of the architects of the Massachusetts healthcare plan. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another serious sort, could be derailed early in next-door Iowa if the birther wing of the GOP favors Minnesotan Michele Bachmann. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is another serious person, perhaps too serious for the hater wing of his party. [Vote now: Is Trump's bitherism just a stunt?]
Appealing to the wacko wing of either party is a reliable strategy to secure a small segment of the vote—a majority within that one party, at best. But it’s not enough to win a general presidential election, particularly with the growing numbers of independent voters. Republicans still have time to offer something positive—and that’s when Democrats should worry.