Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A First Serious Look at the Presidential Election of 2012

The 2012 presidential election campaign will be somewhat shorter than the last one, but that may be one of the few aspects of it we might be grateful for in the next 23 months.

Media discussion of 2012, and endless polling about it is, of course, well underway, and many if not most of the candidates have already privately made their decisions about whether they will run or not. Instead of a flurry of announcements immediately following the 2010 mid-term elections, or waiting even until the early days of 2011, however, the major candidates appear to be holding back until March, April or May to declare their intentions publicly and formally organize their campaigns.

The overwhelming inclination, of course, is to try to rate the odds of the various potential contenders on the Republican side, and to assume that incumbent President Obama will be renominated. I will do neither here. To the latter assumption, I will point out what I have suggested in the months preceding the 2010 midterm elections, that is, Mr. Obama may not be chosen again by his party to lead its ticket in the next election. This would be historically quite a remarkable outcome for a first-term chief executive, but his performance so far has been notably unimpressive, and as we already saw at the end of the 2010 campaign, a number of his own party’s candidates openly criticized him and his policies, a phenomenon that continues as 2011 approaches. This would be mild compared to the mood of Democratic candidates in late 2011 and early 2012 if it appeared that the president has not righted his ship and achieved an economic turnaround. As happened in 1968, 1980 and in 1992, a first-term incumbent president in trouble will eventually be challenged for renomination.

A number of pundits, however, are assuming that within 18 months a clear economic recovery is virtually a certainty, and that in spite of present circumstances, Mr. Obama will be easily re-elected. They, of course, are assuming that this downturn, like downnturns in the past, will be normally cyclical and relatively short-lived. I would suggest, however, that historically presidents have acted in such a way as to help the natural cyclical forces put the economy back in order. Furthermore, previous recent recessions have occurred when the U.S. was the world’s clearly dominant economy and market. By exacerbating economic weakness with continued bailouts, federal deficit spending and proposed higher taxes, and particularly by undermining the huge health care sector with an unworkable program of healthcare reform legislation, I have been suggesting that President Obama and his administration are, in reality, prolonging the economic downturn and making a turnaround in employment, return of solid consumer confidence, and a general across-the-board increase in corporate earnings quite difficult if not improbable in the short-to- intermediate term (here defined at the next 18-23 months).

Yes, if by the spring of 2012, U.S. unemployment has dropped to 5-6%, if the stock market is soaring because corporate earnings are clearly up, and if we are back in a boom economy here and abroad, Barack Obama’s political fortunes will likewise recover and he would probably win re-election by a clear margin. But in order for that to happen, the economy’s natural and organic market forces need to be allowed to work. Higher taxes, larger deficits, and constant government interventions are no prescription for an economy to become healthy. I point out one more time that incumbent Democratic presidents Kennedy and Clinton in very recent times understood this, and acted with conservative principles in their economic policies. This is not, nor should it be a partisan ideological issue. It is an issue about how a modern democratic capitalist economy works.

Who the Republican nominee will be in 2012 may depend on whether Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee or not. If he is not the nominee, the whole contest is a different one. But let us, for the moment, assume that the economy, while not fully recovered, is at least arguably improved, and that, as the incumbent, Mr. Obama is able to prevail at his party’s convention in early autumn, 2012.

I said I would not handicap the potential Republican contenders, but it might be useful, even at this early moment in the campaign, to discuss the field.

Conventional wisdom has former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as the early frontrunner. Few would dispute this, but as most observers of national politics know, such a designation means little before the actual campaign takes place. More often than not, frontrunners do not make it to the finish line in presidential politics. Mr. Romney does have the advantage of being the runner-up in 2008, he has already run a full-scale campaign for the nomination, he has unlimited personal funds, he has a successful life experience to talk about, and Republicans already know who he is.

Two other major candidates from 2008 are also thought to be likely candidates for president in 2012. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee leads in many GOP polls. He won the Iowa caucus last time, and was a player throughout the campaign. Some think he may have waited too long to concede that year, but his subsequent career as a popular TV host and commentator have kept him in the public eye. Of the major four potential candidates, however, he is probably the one most likely not to choose to run, but his popularity in the polls should not be underestimated.

Former Alaska Governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is a political phenomenon often misunderstood in the media. The most polarizing major potential candidate, her rapport with the GOP base, especially its conservative populist base is powerful and growing. The one-sided treatment of her by many in the media during the 2008 campaign, and subsequently to the present time, has perhaps hurt her politically in the short-term, yet she shows a public resilience that should not be overlooked. In a knock-down and grueling GOP primary/caucus campaign, she could emerge the strongest of all. She may not run, but the signs are that she will.

Perhaps rated by many as the least likely major candidate to win the prize is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Generally agreed to be the “brains” of the GOP field, Mr. Gingrich is also generally believed to be “fatally” weighed down by his past “baggage” that includes issues involving his marriages and his term as speaker. The assessment of his mental capacities is correct, but the assessment of his “baggage” may not be. One of the few true “Lazaruses” in American politics, for the past 12 years, Mr. Gingrich has created a remarkable track record of speaking to and innovating in major public policy issues, writing popular books about American history, and in solidifying his personal life. Gingrich in 2009 was a well-known GOP figure registering low single digits in all the polls. Today he is usually in the top four, and some states, leads the field. He has carefully avoided criticizing his rivals, and it should not be overlooked that he is the most experienced strategist in the GOP field.

The next tier of candidates includes current and successful Republican governors. Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Governor Mitch Daniel of Indiana, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey have each already demonstrated considerable executive skills. Mr. Barbour has the most experience of the four, and Mr. Christie the least, but both of them are genuinely charismatic. Mr. Pawlenty, without being charismatic, is nontheless a remarkably effective communicator, and has showed much grit in his two terms in Minnesota, not raising taxes or public spending, with a hostile legislature dominated by the other party pressuring him to do both. Mr. Daniels’ record in Indiana may be the most impressive of all, although so far he has not shown a memorable public personality. (Neither did another governor named Woodrow Wilson.) Any of these four men are seriously prepared to be president, and could emerge in a hard fought nominating campaign.

The other serious Republican potential presidential candidates include Senator John Thune of North Dakota, Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylania. Mr. Giuliani, of course, is the most well-known in this group, but any of them, in the right circumstances might become major candidates, although I doubt that any of them will be finalists in this contest.

Finally, there is always the possibility of a late entrant, not named here. Yes, but considering the field listed above, this is not very likely with less than two years to go. Senator-elect Marco Rubio is sometimes mentioned, and if he performs in his new office, he would clearly be a major player in presidential contests beyond 2012. So would former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is still weighed down by the family name.

Not all of the twelve listed above will run. Of those who do, the most serious contenders will emerge by the end of 2011, and then be tested in the early primary and caucus battles of 2012. So many circumstances and conditions will determine who the finalists will be. Not the least of which will be the interaction of their personalities with the GOP voters. Perhaps, as is often the case, “charisma” will be the difference. Or the seriousness of the times may make ideas and track records more important. As I suggested at the outset, the state of the economy, the state of the world and any now unpredicted circumstances will even more likely play the largest role in the selection of the person to run for this, the most important role of all in American public life.

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