Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Some Early Intuitions About 2012

I’m not making any predictions at this early date for the Republican contest for the 2012 presidential nomination, nor for the final contest itself, but I have some intuitions about these events, and I’ll share a few of them with you.

In spite of heavy precedents, I suspect that the GOP nominee may not be any of the current frontrunners, including Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee and Mrs. Palin. All three of them have high name recognition, organizations in place, and good early poll numbers, but only Mrs. Palin is strongly associated with the powerful new issues and conservative groups that have emerged in the Republican party, and continue to be energized. Mrs. Palin, however, is the least likely (at this moment) to run for president, having alienated many outside her own base.

Let me state here that the recent internal revolt in the conservative party is now nearly complete. The so-called “moderate” GOP wing which emerged in the 1960’s is almost totally local, limited to the Northeast, West Coast, a few parts of the Midwest and fewer parts of the South. In these places a few liberal Republicans hold on, thanks to local voters who continue to disdain Democrats, but who want a more socially progressive program, and some continued forms of the welfare state. Prominent U.S. senators in this group include Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Departing by retirement or defeat in 2008 were Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania (who formally changed his party affiliation in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to win re-election), Kit Bond of Missouri and George Voinovich of Ohio. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska barely survived 2010 after being challenged from the right.

The old image of the Republican Party as the party of big businesses and the plutocrats who run them has been replaced with the reality that the GOP is now a blue collar and small business party. Look at the donor lists. The millionaires and billionaires, the establishment social groups and religions are now mostly liberal and support the Democrats.

Both parties have over the past two decades become more rigid on opposite sides of the social issues of abortion, marriage, gays in the military, immigration and education. Conservative or “Blue Dog” Democrats, once relatively plentiful across the nation, have themselves become a rare breed, with fewer and fewer holding office in the Congress. In the past 48 hours, two such Democrats, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Joe Lieberman (technically now an Independent, but he votes to organize with the Democrats) have announced very early they will not run in 2012. In 2010, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas was defeated for re-election; Evan Bayh retired rather than run. In 2012, the two Senators Nelson (one from Florida, the other from Nebraska), both moderates, face likely defeat.

The marginalization of moderates in both parties has intensified since Barack Obama has become president with control of both houses of Congress. The voters themselves overall remain in the political center, but with the passage of Obamacare and the proposal of more radical legislation, and importantly, with the continued economic downturn and accompanying high unemployment, voters increasingly could not find effective representation for their views through their own elected officials, and thus the election of 2010 took such a dramatic turn. (The explanation that the party in power traditionally loses seats in a mid-term election fails to make the case for the severe turnover in 2010.) Ironically but
understandably, moderates or “Blue Dog” Democrats took it on the political chin this year, having failed to stem the radical administration/congressional leadership agenda.

They were replaced with conservative Republicans who, if anything, have a clear mandate to begin to repeal Obamacare, and to thwart the Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda. With a GOP-controlled U.S. house, and a cloture-proof U.S. senate, President Obama and his colleague now have to find new strategies to pass or advance their liberal program. By calling for “bipartisanship,” “compromise,” calmer rhetoric, and empty gimmicks such as both Democrats and Republicans sitting together at the state of the Union address, Democrats are attempting to find some leverage, but conservatives would be self-defeating to fall for these “appearances.” Similarly, many Democrats are suggesting that the Republicans now “must govern” after their 2010 victories. This is absurd on its face inasmuch as the liberals continue to hold the White House and control the U.S. senate. But Republicans need to now present an alternative national vision.

With control of the U.S. house, Speaker John Boehner and his GOP colleagues need to now fulfill their campaign pledges to the voters who gave them their majority.

The implications for the presidential race, I suggest, are equally critical. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have excellent credentials, good track records, and in the case of Mr Huckabee, no little charm and communication skills. But neither of them were really part of the conservative insurrection of 2010, and Mr. Romney has the additional disadvantage of being known, when he was governor of Massachusetts. as the originator of a statewide healthcare reform which has some resemblances to Obamacare. In fact, there are signficant differences between Romneycare and Obamacare, and it is unfair to Mr. Romney to suggest otherwise, and yet he has not forcefully made the case about this for himself. Eminently qualified to be president, Mr. Romney also was the also-ran in 2008, and suffers from an image of being part of the GOP past. Mr. Huckabee, now with his own national TV show, and also a major candidate in 2008, suffers from his associations with the social conservative movement at a time when the real momentum is with the economic conservative movement.

I am not saying that Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee, and Mrs. Palin cannot be nominated, but for reasons cited and others, I don’t think they will likely emerge from the primary/caucus system ahead. Certainly, virtually all Republicans know who they are, and that may be a critical part of their electoral problem.

I am, however, taking a new look at the other candidates who, with the exception of Newt Gingrich, are generally unknown to conservative voters. Gingrich himself, it has been argued, is too well-known by Republicans to be nominated, and that may be true, but someone like Mr. Gingrich, with his extraordinary domination of most conservative issues, can easily be underestimated because of his so-called “baggage” in a presidential election year which this far out, seems quite possibly to see more economic and foreign policy crises.

Mr. Mitch Daniels and Mr. Tim Pawlenty, unknown to national voters, but with very solid records as recent governors behind them, might be able to take up the mantle of the voters’ needs and concerns next year. American voters have shown some partiality in recent decades to successful governors.

The whole field presents a complicated picture in January, 2011. Unlike 2007, no GOP hopeful is rushing into the contest. House Republicans could flub their opportunity, and take the wind out of the GOP momentum. The economy could recover, and unemployment could fall noticeably. Mr. Obama could finally have some foreign policy successes. So much could happen, and without knowing what it will be, much in fact will happen. Iowa, which usually is not as important as New Hampshire, could jump start one candidate. South Carolina could once again be a turning point. Prospects in such key states as Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin could make traditional electoral strategies moribund.

Precedents are important and useful, but a presidential election such as this one upcoming in 2012 could defy the old precedents, and produce some new ones.

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