Intraparty changes, incumbent power explain GOP's weak presidential field

Obama's strength, lack of a consensus challenger hurt GOP field

May 31, 2011|By Thomas F. Schaller

The Donald is out. Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels said nope, maybe next time, and no thanks. Does anyone want to be the 2012 Republican nominee for president?

A few do. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — he of the original health insurance mandate and conveniently blurry memory of his role in the same — will definitely be in. In fact, in some senses Mr. Romney, who is expected to announce this week, never stopped running since his failed 2008 bid ended. Fellow former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is also a go.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has begun to make his case, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former pizza executive and previously unheard-of Herman Cain are all expected to make theirs. That seems like a lot of "formers" aspiring to be the next president, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, the nation awaits the decisions of 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, both of whom would shake up what's an all-male field thus far. If the latter two ultimately decline — and if whispers about cajoling big-state potentates, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or current governors Chris Christie of New Jersey or Rick Perry of Texas into the primary, turn out only to be whispers — it will be a rather thin 2012 GOP field.

The simple and most compelling reason for the small, lackluster field may be that every now and then each party fields a decidedly weak group of presidential aspirants. Even the most successful sports franchises (think the Yankees, Celtics, and Canadiens) suffer periods of decline. But there may be more systematic explanations for a 2012 GOP slate that, according to polls, has thus far left significant shares of conservatives unenthusiastic, while compelling various Republican insiders to fret about the caliber of contenders available.

The first explanation is most obvious: There's an incumbent in the White House running for re-election, and history shows that it's easier to win the White House when the seat is being vacated rather than defended. It doesn't help that said incumbent, who raised and spent nearly $800 million during the primary and general elections in 2008, may well be the first candidate in American history to raise and spend $1 billion during an election. Or that he just caught and killed Public Enemy No. 1. The smart play for ambitious and, especially, young Republican pols is to noisily flirt with the idea of running next year — but wait until the following cycle to actually do so.

The balance of institutional and electoral power between the parties may also be contributing to what some deem a comparatively weak GOP field for 2012. The GOP used to be an executive branch-dominant party during the period stretching from Dwight Eisenhower's two terms to the three terms consecutively won by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But in the last two decades, the GOP has become a more Congress-centered and even House-centered party (e.g., notice the attention paid to Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin), while the Democrats since the early 1990s have strengthened their presidential wing.

This interparty dynamic is compounded by intraparty changes within the GOP, where many of the ideas and most of the passion are occurring on the state level right now. Note the energy that new Republican governors like Mr. Christie or Scott Walker of Wisconsin are generating, while the campaigns and potential campaigns of congressional veterans like Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Santorum appear to be stuck in the mud and muddle of old political fights.

Even if Republicans struggle to unify behind and generate excitement for their 2012 presidential ticket, the next 18 months may not be a total loss. The presidential campaign still provides an opportunity for the party to trial-balloon new ideas on health insurance or entitlement reform, test new messages or even new boundaries — including whether a Mormon or female candidate can win a major-party presidential primary.

And who knows? President Barack Obama's approval numbers are rising, but he's not invincible. If the unemployment rate doesn't fall further and the president makes some political missteps, the 2012 race could be surprisingly tight.

In such a scenario, the Republicans need to select a ticket that offers Americans a reasonably acceptable alternative. That may not sound sexy, but sometimes lackluster is just what the country wants.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday in The Sun. His email is schaller67@gmail.com.

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