The formal beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign is at hand, and we probably know the complete field of candidates from which the nominees will come. On the other hand, do we know, behind and beyond the candidates, what is really at stake in this presidential election?
There is a seemingly perpetual argument among political scientists whether the man (or, in the future, the woman) has more to do with the substance of history, or whether it is the circumstances in which a president presides, has the greater influence.
Common sense instructs us that it is probably a mixture of both, and that the degree of impact depends on the specific historic time, but I have for some time suspected that the growth of the roles of celebrity and the media give an overemphasis to the impact of a personality. A case in point of this argument is the recent turn in foreign policy of the Obama administration. Mr. Obama won his nomination, in part, to his distinctive opposition to the Iraq War, and to espousing policies at 180 degrees opposite from those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Indeed, the opening days and months of the Obama administration seemed to be a methodical dismantling of the Bush perspective on U.S. foreign policy. Less than three years into his first term, however, Mr. Obama seems to have embraced the substance (if not the names) of Bush policies in diplomacy, in fighting terrorism, relationships with other nations, and many other areas, Guantanamo to drones.
Clearly, the public positions of Presidents Bush and Obama had as great a contrast in voice and on paper as any two presidents in recent years, and yet we see the power of circumstances and U.S, vital interests drawing their respective positions closer and closer together over time. (On the other hand, the style, ability and energy and focus of the two men remain in stark contrast.)
I mention this ambiguity as we enter the presidential campaign in earnest because it is in direct conflict with much of the public debate now underway, and with the media descriptions and analyses of this debate. So much of this is preoccupied with personal foibles, outlandish rhetoric and extraneous issues.
It also isolates in some clarity what the contest for each party’s nomination is really about. Of course, the Democratic nomination, 16 months out, seems to be securely in Mr. Obama’s hands, as it usually is for a first-term president, but there remains in this cycle the possibility that economic conditions might provoke a challenge to Mr. Obama from within his own party, particularly from its increasingly restive left wing.
Four our purposes here, however, the real discussion is about the contest for the Republican nomination. In recent days, some of that discussion is whether or not there is a GOP frontrunner, i.e., whether or not Mitt Romney is a bona fide frontrunner. No less than the man I consider the new “dean” of our national press corps (succeeding the late David Broder), Michael Barone, argues persuasively that there is no frontrunner, neither Mr. Romney nor anyone else. I often agree with Mr. Barone who is my friend and one of the colleagues I admire most, but this time I am not certain I do. If the final field is to include Mr. Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and a few other lesser known figures, then I think Mr. Romney is genuinely what we mean by a candidate in front. (Being a frontrunner does not, of course, mean that a candidate is going to win.) In this field, he is the only one who has recently (or ever) run a major campaign for president. That campaign, moreover, was less than three years ago, and much of its structure and personnel remain in place. Mr. Romney is worth so much money he need not ever worry about running out of it (a serious problem if it appears), he is well-known across the country, and is now a seasoned campaigner and public speaker. I would agree that his frontrunner status would be less clear if Mike Huckabee would enter the race, and he may, but as of now it would appear he will not.
Mr. Romney has an impressive resume, does well in most polling, and most voters know who he is. Newt Gingrich, of course, is better known, is almost universally acknowledged the intellectual heavyweight in the field, has an impressive resume himself, is perhaps the best prepared person to run for president in decades, but he has not run for president previously. What we don’t know about Mr. Gingrich is whether the high regard for his abilities is to be transformed into an acceptance of him as president of the United States. Although not personally wealthy as is Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich has demonstrated remarkable fundraising capabilities in the private sector. One question about his candidacy is whether or not he is “too” well-known, that is, whether he can make the transfer from his already historical role as a major speaker of the U.S. house to the presidency. What some who allege he cannot, however, is forget that his public policy organizations, created over the past decade, involve millions of voters at the grass roots level in all fifty states. Traveling extensively in behalf of numerous public policy causes during that period has created allies in and out of elective office across the country. Perhaps the oldest major candidate, Mr. Gingrich was, not accidentally, the first to run for president by formally announcing on Twitter, a statement about his contemporary media savvy. Finally, Mr. Gingrich is the most formidable candidate in a public debate, and there will now be a long series of them Republican voters will watch. It will influence who they decide to support. Mr. Gingrich’s “baggage” (his divorces) are often talked about in the media and by his opponents, but it is unclear how religious and conservative voters, also noting his happy new marriage and his recent religious conversion will judge this.
Two successful Republican governors, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (recently retired after two terms) and Mitch Daniels of Indiana will likely also be formidable figures in the 2012 GOP contest. When currently dominant conservative ideas such as no new taxes, smaller government and reduced government spending were only slogans, Mr. Pawlenty was skillfully putting them into practice in an hostile environment (liberal Minnesota), and outmaneuvering Democrats who controlled both houses of the state legislature. Mr. Pawlenty’s new autobiography also reveals a deep-seeded religious consciousness (like Mr. Gingrich, he converted to a new faith) that will not hurt him with the large base of religious voters in his party base. Although not a “charismatic” speaker, Mr. Pawlenty is exceptionally gifted at articulating complex public policy questions into easy-to-understand ways that could especially appeal to voters in primary and caucus states. Finally, although he has not in the past demonstrated political organization skills, he has done well in recruiting experienced operatives for his presidential campaign, and in drawing major GOP contributors to fund his operations.
Not yet announced, Mitch Daniels could emerge as a finalist for the nomination, and even win it. He apparently will have the strong support of current GOP favorite Governors Chris Christie, Haley Barbour and Scott Walker. His resume is impressive in both legislative and executive experience. He has private sector background. Not known for being a colorful figure, his recent speaking appearances have nontheless been impressive. Reportedly, he will have considerable fundraising capabilities.
Having said all the above about the four currently major candidates, I think it is fair to say that each of them is capable of performing well in the Oval Office. There would likely be several aspects of presidential style that might distinguish them from each other, but each of them seems fully able to bring about what is really at stake in 2012-2013, a conservative transformation of the U.S. government so that the grievous economic and foreign policy crises now faced can begin to be fixed and resolved.
As the nomination contest proceeds, the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of the above and the other candidates will be revealed. Someone else in the GOP field could also emerge (Jon Huntsman?). I don’t want to sound too cynical, but candidates come and go, presidents come and go, elections come and go. The needs of a country, its interests and its resources, on the other hand, do not come and go. They evolve and change, and they require attention, nourishment and resolution.
That’s what is at stake when we assemble either in person or via television to witness the swearing-in of the president on January 20, 2013.