In 2008, the nation’s voters, especially after the mortgage banking crisis, turned away from the Republicans, their presidential nominee John McCain, and what were then felt to be the shortcomings of outgoing President George W. Bush.
It was a classic election in which voters were voting more against something than for something. There was also a notable factor in the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, because he was the first black nominee for president, and many Democrats, independents, and even Republicans, found the possibility of electing a black man as president of the United States to be attractive. (I might add that this was a legitimate factor; John Kennedy was the first Catholic president; Geraldine Ferraro the first woman vice presidential nominee, Joe Lieberman the first Jewish vice presidential nominee. Each of their nominations marked a maturing of the American voter who a century before had only considered white male Protestants for the nation’s highest office.)
But while this was abstractly an advance and maturing of the electorate, it did not necessarily represent the nation’s best interests to put in the White House a person of virtually no public administrative experience, minimal legislative experience, little international background, and no visible broad base of expertise to handle the undeniably toughest executive position in the free world.
At that time, I warned in print that the nation was about to put an amateur in its top job during a time of acute economic and international crises. I was far from alone in this warning. Mr. Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, belatedly recognizing her “inevitable’ nomination was threatened by Mr. Obama’s political challenge, made focus on his experience as she tried to recover. Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton (and clearly the most experienced Democratic politician in the country) explicitly warned that Mr. Obama was likely ill-prepared to occupy the Oval Office.
But Mr. Obama prevailed, and both Clintons, as the pragmatists they are, joined up into his effort to govern.
More than two years after his residency began, it is embarrassingly clear that Mr. Obama was VERY ill-prepared to be president. The economic crisis we still face, with its chronic unemployment is excruciatingly difficult to resolve. The international crises, some already in place when Mr. Obama took office, have only grown more numerous and more troublesome.
In the off-year election just held, Mr. Obama and his party took exceptional defeats in all areas. They lost control of the U.S. house, barely maintained control of the U.S. senate (but now lack the majority they previously had which enabled them to pass their agenda of legislation), lost many state governorships and state legislatures.
But none of this means that Mr. Obama will inevitably lose his re-election in 2012. Having been given a scholarship for on-the-job training for his job, Mr. Obama is no longer as inexperienced as he once was. He will have now the opportunity to demonstrate that he has learned something, and if he does so (especially if the economy improves dramatically and unemployment falls significantly), he might win a second term.
Either way, 2012 will be primarily an assessment of the nation’s voters of Mr. Obama’s performance, and the performance of his party.
The Republican nominee, whoever he or she will be, must defer to this reality, even as their campaign must present persuasive alternatives to and credible criticisms of the Obama term in the White House.
There is a lot of discussion now in various circles of the Republican Party about who they will nominate, even as the first major candidate has not yet formally announced. Most of this discussion has been about personalities, and circumstances which are not necessarily germane to whether a candidate will be a good and effective president or not. Thus, “Mr. Tim Pawlenty is too unknown. Mr. Mitch Daniels is too short and unexciting. Mr. Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Mr. Newt Gingrich was divorced. Mrs. Sarah Palin speaks with a funny accent and manner. Mr. Mike Huckabee is too religious.” I will assert here that none of these conditions tell us anything of value about whether a candidate will be a good president.
I know. I know. “Voters often make up their minds based on these matters,” we are always told by “sage” political observers. Perhaps, and perhaps they will in 2012, but I suggest that if they do, Republicans will significantly harm their opportunity to retake the White House. Even if they do win, they will not have necessarily found the right person to undertake the transformation of the economy and foreign policy they wish to happen.
So what are the questions we want to ask of the contenders for the GOP nomination? My list would include a combination of questions about experience and demonstration of problem-solving capability. Yes, I would also, if I were a Republican voter, want to know if the contender held truly conservative views about the economy, and how they perceived the threat to our country by political, military and economic forces from around the world.
That is why a number of genuinely credible politicians who have indicated their interest in running for president are not genuinely credible, or not yet credible, to hold the nation’s highest office. That is why, although I am an admirer of Mrs. Palin, and I do NOT put down her media success, her intelligence, nor her political base, the Tea Party, an authentic grass roots movement, I do not feel she is ready yet to be president in 2012.
The GOP does have the good fortune this year to have a number of “qualified” (in distinction from “credible”) candidates who can in varying degrees positively answer the important questions voters should ask.
These include Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee. The latter four have been governors. Mr. Romney has successful private sector experience. Mr. Gingrich has extraordinary background as a military historian and strategist, and is expert on virtually all problematic economic issues. Mr. Daniels and Mr. Gingrich also understand the culture of Washington, DC (and thus how to get a program through legislation). Mr. Pawlenty has successfully faced down a hostile legislature. Mr. Romney has a history of remarkable problem-solving, as does Mr. Daniels. Mr. Gingrich is a genuine political visionary.
I also know that voters must like the person they vote for. Mr. Huckabee seems to be the most likable personality, but any of the others could, in the course of the campaign, win the hearts of Republican and independent voters.
There is no perfect candidate this year. There, rarely, if ever is. The voters, however, have the their choice in 2012 in their own hands. If they insist on allowing the religious faith of a candidate, his or her stand on one specific social issue, past marital circumstances, or personal characteristics beyond their control, to determine their vote, and thus deny themselves and the country the best person to be president, they will only have themselves to blame.
This is not a statement of political idealism. It’s a statement of hard, cold political realism. That’s how much is at stake in this perilous time when almost anything can happen in the world.