Monday, March 28, 2011

They Are Filling In At The Starting Gate

It’s finally here, that is, the beginning of the 2012 presidential race.

President Obama is the overwhelming favorite to be his party’s nominee again, although the volatility of the domestic economy and high risks of his foreign policy keep alive the possibility that a dissatisfied and prominent Democrat might challenge him several months hence, but that remains only a possibility.

Most of the action in the 2012 presidential race will, of course, take place in the contest for the Republican nomination. A substantial discussion about this race has already taken place in the media, but that’s all it has been, a limited conversation among a tiny number of political reporters, pundits, political consultants, pollsters and bloggers. A larger number, but still relatively small group, of party activists have also been busy in the preview stage of the race, and many have already taken sides — and jobs — with potential candidates in various states of preparations for their official announcements.

I want to stress that it is almost entirely VERY speculative discussion until we hear definitively from actual voters in primaries, caucuses, and some early straw votes. It has already been pointed out that, at this point of the 2008 campaign, Rudy Giuliani was the frontrunner, McCain trailed, and Fred Thompson had notable poll numbers. Mike Huckabee was even not being mentioned.

As it turned out, Giuliani and Thompson proved to be dreadful candidates, and went nowhere quickly. (Thompson, the seasoned actor, got in late, but kept looking at his shoes instead of his audiences during his speeches.) Huckabee was the surprise winner of the Iowa caucus, Romney did well in New Hampshire, but it was McCain going up and down until he finally secured the nomination.

Some of the main characters from 2008 are back, most notably Mitt Romney, the early 2012 frontrunner, and possibly Huckabee (who scores very well in most early polls).

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, seems likely to run, and also has high name recognition and good poll numbers, although he has not run for president before. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is almost sure to run, and is winning unexpected attention in this early stage. Current Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has seemed tentative about running, although he has done well in early forays, and has a broad base of support among fellow GOP leaders, Current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has been a formidable figure at both the national and state level, and is gathering some top consultants, but his early campaign statements have included a number of blunders. Mike Huckabee has hemmed and hawed, and now indicates that if he gets in, it will be much later this year. With a lucrative national TV show, and limited possibilities outside his base, Huckabee may be a no-show. Current Ambassador to China and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has indicated he might enter the contest, although he has not run for national office before, and in recent days (as it becomes likelier that 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin may not run), Tea Party Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann has been traveling across the county to try to stir up interest in her running for president. There will be at least 3-5 other major GOP figures who will likely announce their candidacies.

I would like to suggest that there is no true GOP frontrunner yet, and that the race at this point is truly open. This, I repeat, is because we really have no credible idea how GOP voters feel about these candidates, and we have little evidence yet, except in the case of Romney and Huckabee, of how these figures would be as presidential candidates.

Remember, Giuliani looked very strong early in the 2008 race, and was undeniably a formidable politician, but it turned out he was a lousy candidate for president. Thompson was a famous movie star, but it turned out he could not give a good political speech. Romney looked like a winner, but could not connect sufficiently with GOP voters across the country.

In 2011, Romney is back, apparently stronger than before, but still facing the challenge of achieving more direct appeal to voters. Gingrich is a unique figure in U.S. politics, has made a remarkable political comeback, and clearly dominates the debate, but if he does not stop responding to questions about his marriages, and otherwise speaking impetuously, he will have increasing problems. Haley Barbour is a wily politician and excellent governor, but he does not yet sound like a president. Mitch Daniels could be the surprise of the year, but it won’t happen if he does not soon convey a clear impression to voters that he really wants to be president. The so-called “sleeper” of the race, Tim Pawlenty is enjoying the most early success, but most Republican voters still don’t know who he is, and he has not yet been tested on the national campaign trail and in debates with his rivals.

I have consistently maintained that the Republican nominee for president will move into the White House on January 20, 2013. Although much is always made about the possibility of events and a suddenly-improving economy restoring President Obama’s chances to win in 2012, I think the past several months have clearly demonstrated that Mr. Obama is way over his head in the job, and that his healthcare legislation will probably remain a powerful negative for voters. Of course, if the GOP convention somehow nominates someone way off center, that could be self-defeating.

Now there will be announcements, debates, political ads, campaign strategies. The campaign is at last underway. But I’m keeping my predictive political powder dry for a while. Ron Paul will make some noise and get some media attention, but his campaign is going nowhere. If Michelle Bachmann wants to throw away her seat in Congress to run for president, it’s a free country, but she is not going to be the GOP nominee. (Perhaps she knows that, but craves the attention of a national campaign nontheless.)

Get yourselves a ticket for the show, however. It’s going to be a humdinger, a lulu, a rip-hummer, a crackajack, a lollapaloosa, a dilly, a buzzblast and who knows what else.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Obama’s “George W. Bush Moment”

President Obama took the right course in joining (even perhaps pushing behind the scenes for) the multinational effort to impose a “no-fly-zone” over Libya and to send missiles against Dictator Qaddafi’s military facilities as well as against Qaddafi’s army attacking Benghazi. Clearly, the overwhelming force of the air attacks by the French, British and American military demonstrates that the small Libyan military is no match for the United Nations sanctioned effort.

I do not know if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alone changed Mr. Obama’s hitherto opposition to U.S. participation in this coalition, but it would appear that her role was major and laudatory. No little credit should also go to the Arab League’s unprecedented plea for this action against one of its own member states. In short, the very visible and monstrous suppression of the Libyan revolt, including Dictator Qaddafi’s murder of so many of his subjects, stirred the conscience of the whole world, including the Arab world.

Of course, now that the first part of the UN’s goal has been achieved, the criticism of the effort has begun. This is what George W. Bush faced after the Iraq War ousting Saddam Hussein. Let us remember that Democrats and Republicans, our allies and many of the middle eastern Arab leaders broadly supported Mr Bush initially, and then peeled off his coalition to attack and criticize him. Mr Bush and his colleagues, ofcourse, did make mistakes, and over time these made the criticism more and more credible until he finally authorized the “surge” that ended the conflict and established the young Iraqi democratic republic.

So now Barack Obama knows even more what it’s like to be president of the United States, and make decisions about war and peace, military action and military inaction. It was easier for him to be a critic in 2007-08 when he sided with far left Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Now Mr. Kucinich want to impeach Mr. Obama.

The criticism of Mr. Obama in this matter comes from the left and the right. The pacifist left automatically opposes any military action. The conservative right wants to know what Mr Obama’s plan and goals are, remembering when liberals raised similar questions about Mr. Bush, and also having concerns that the U.S. is in another armed conflict. The latter is a legitimate concern.

Mr. Obama, who has been more visibly concerned with golf, attending Democratic fundraisers, following the national collegiate basketball tournament (apparently from the White House war room), and being a tourist to Rio de Janeiro during the critical moments of the Libyan crisis, has not shown himself to be particularly involved with the new U.S. actions, and thus feeds the doubts of those in his own party as well as the party of his opposition.

The second part of the UN goal in Libya lies ahead. That is to remove Dictator Qaddafi from power in Libya. This is much more complicated than the first, and already achieved first goal. Since it is very unlikely that U.S. troops will be sent to fight in Libya on the ground, and probably almost as unlikely that French and British (or other European troops will get into the battle), it is up to the Egyptians and other Arab nations to supply the Libyan rebel forces so that they can defeat Qaddafi themselves. This will involve also encouraging more and more Libyan soldiers to change sides. This is a very real possibility inasmuch as numerous Kaddafi-appointed diplomats and military figures have already abandoned him. (In fact, it appears that it was a regular Libyan air force pilot who gave his life to bomb the Libyan barracks, resulting in the death of Qaddafi’s son.)

Of course, members of the Arab League are now having second thoughts, and UN security council members who abstained of the resolution to stop Qaddafi are openly critical of the action. Sorry, boys, there is no going back. Play your predictable propaganda games, but that is all they are.

It is vitally important that President Obama, hitherto so sensitive to international criticism, learn from this “George W. Bush moment,” gather confidence in his own actions, and see this matter through to his own often-repeated goal, i.e. the removal of Dictator Qaddafi from power in Libya.

That is the only outcome allowable now.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pettifoggers, Blatherskites, Gasbags and Blowhards

I could not settle on just the right word to describe the subject, so I selected a number of them, hoping that, taken together, the reader gets my point exactly.

The subject is the state of political discourse, the rhetoric of elected officials, and the language of bureaucrats. It is my belief that not only are we suffering a nationwide financial deficit in running our government, we are also very much in the hole in regard to our public speech, both written and spoken. We risk our pubic discourse being overtaken by pettifoggers, blatherskites, gasbags and blowhards.

A few years ago, a very admirable movement took place in the American legal community to transform the language of contracts and other legal agreements into plain, understandable English. If only such a movement would arise in our political discourse, and in our public policy communities!

I am going to illustrate my point with only one example.

We are coming to the conclusion of the story involving the state of Wisconsin. Like most states, but perhaps more acutely than some others, the state of Wisconsin is facing a financial crisis involving the cost of its government, particularly the cost of its public employees. In the recent election, the Republican nominee for governor said he would, if he were elected, act decisively to rein in these costs and change the relationship of the state with its public employees. The Democratic nominee, supported by the unions which represent the public employees predictably disagreed. Democrats have long controlled the capitol in Madison, and the outgoing governor was a Democrat supported by the unions. Over time, the wages and benefits of most public employees have soared since, after all, the very persons they collectively bargained with were the same persons whose campaigns they had largely financed and staffed. The public negotiators, it also must be pointed out, had no equity ownership in the enterprise they represented, and thus any concessions they might offer to the unions and the employees they represent used no money out of their own pockets. (I am not suggesting that in the case of industrial and service unions with two truly adversarial sides, each of which has a material interest in negotiations, that collective bargaining is not appropriate.)

Mr. Scott Walker, the Republican nominee, went on to win the general election in Wisconsin by a wide margin. So did majorities of Republicans running for the state house and senate. So did the GOP nominee for the U.S. senate seat held by a long-time Democratic incumbent. So did a number of Republican candidates for U.S. Congress, defeating or replacing Democratic incumbents.

I think you could say that the voters of Wisconsin spoke their mind in a clear way.

To keep their promises to the voters, the new GOP officeholders prepared legislation to cut back the salaries and benefits of public employees, and to take away the collective bargaining of their unions.

A media-piercing hue and cry arose from the public employee unions and their Democratic minions in the state legislature. Employing a technicality, the entire Democratic membership of the state senate hastily, and under the cover of night, beat it out of Madison and crossed the border into neighboring Illinois where they holed up in self-righteous and self-congratulatory seclusion in a motel . Denying a quorum, they did stop temporarily the GOP-controlled senate’s ability to pass the legislation.

This soon became a sensational national story, and union members across the country rallied to their brethren’s cause. Union members and their supporters camped out in the state capitol while a fawning national media reported their every declamation and threat as if the public employees were the victims in this matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The unions had lost the last election and could only postpone the inevitable. A few days ago, the Republicans figured out a technical way to overcome the lack of a quorum caused by the runaway Democratic state senators. A bogus national poll was contrived which made it seem that the public was on the union’s side, but none of this fol-de-rol could hide the fact that the Wisconsin public employees unions and their Democratic clients were acting illegally, irresponsibly, and ultimately anti-democratically.

Finally, the “refugee” senators came home to Madison, and were greeted as heroes. Many reporters and editorial page writers from around the nation, most of whom are newspaper union members, continued to report about them sympathetically.

But the legislation was passed, and Governor Walker signed it into law. A number of other state legislatures in the country began to take up similar laws. Yet, having acted illegally to prevent the passage of the legislation which the Republican legislators told voters they would do if they were elected, having thwarted the democratic process in Wisconsin, and having lost everywhere they turned, the Democrats now initiated recall elections of Republican senators! Their crime? Doing their duty. Fulfilling their campaign promises. Following the law.

As if they were trying to re-make the movie “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, the union’s discourse of this dispute saw every concept being turned into its opposite. Those who were following the law, and doing their duty, were cast as the victimizers, and those who ignored the election results, broke the rules, and failed in their duties, cast themselves as the victims.

Fortunately, the public saw through this nonsense, and the majority in the legislature accomplished what they set out to do. Common sense, the rules, the state constitution were observed, and the right outcome achieved.

Union members and their union organizations can now freely prepare for the next elections, and thus try to overturn this legislation. If they can rally and gain majority voter support, they can properly achieve their goals two years from now. Acting as a threatening, bullying mob did not work. In fact, it set them back. Union support had been declining, and now it has lost much good will among many independent voters who were appalled by thuggish tactics.

As for the Democratic state senators, they are exactly the opposite of heroes. They took an oath to follow the state constitution when sworn in, and they now have broken their oath.

The true losers in this matter were the union rank and file. In New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie also confronted the public employees unions, the unions similarly yelled and screamed about the governor’s actions. Mr. Christie went directly to them and said, “Don’t blame me for the actions I have taken. Blame the union leaders and your own elected officials who told you that you could have all these benefits without consequences on the state budget.”

That is clarity of discourse. The days of careless government are now over. Salaries, pensions, and health care benefits must be reasonable, justifiable, and paid for. This is clarity of action.

Monday, March 14, 2011

An Exceptional Solution To Two Catastrophes

The world has endured what seems to be more than its share of catastrophes in the past few years, both man-made and from Nature.

There is a provisional mood of alarm among the peoples of our little planet, including those we label “rich” and “poor,” “powerful” and “powerless.” Almost everyone feels it; it is disturbing and intuitive. Optimism and hope seem at a low ebb. The daily news, now instantly transmitted by computers using e-mail, Twitter, Face Book and their almost-instantly created succeeding phenomena, gets worse and worse by the hour. What the hell is going on?

At this very moment, two catastrophes are occurring on opposite ends of the earth. One is man-made, the civil war in Libya in which a pitiless dictator is slaughtering his own population to retain power; and the other is in Japan, where Nature has served up an unspeakable earthquake and tsunami that has devastated one of the most important industrial nations on earth.

For almost one hundred years, one nation has had the resources, capability and moral/ethical desire to provide relief on the scale of the greatest world catastrophes. In war and peace, the United States of America, the world’s first modern democracy/republic, and the longest-lasting, has reliably, and often heroically, stepped up to help its neighbors and even its adversaries. Without the United States, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, holocausts in Europe and Africa, countless earthquakes, hurricanes and cyclones, volcanic eruptions, floods and other major disasters, might have been much worse. Much, much worse.

We were always there, and when we came to help, we we were welcomed. In an all-too familiar pattern, when the crisis was over, or resolved, gratitude often became criticism and resentment. Perhaps that goes with the territory. But when the next crisis came, we were there again, putting up the blood of our soldiers, the storehouses of our food harvests, the medical and scientific technologies of our scientists, the toil and sweat of our aid workers, physicians and nurses.

Now we face two crises. In Libya, the people have clearly revolted against a cruel and murderous dictator after 40 years, but his army of paid mercenaries and his elite troops are proving difficult to defeat, and the idealism of the Libyan youth is no match for Kaddafi’s soul-less murder and cruelty. If the Arab, European and U.S. states do not intervene, Kaddafi will triumph and then exact unspeakable revenge on his own people.

But the Middle East has been a cauldron of violence and tyranny for half a century, and when the United States intervened, first in Kuwait, and then in Iraq (after it was attacked by Islamic terrorists), it received worldwide condemnation for the latter, even among many of our allies. But we succeeded in ousting another murderous tyrant, although we made mistakes in the process, and the usual criticism became acute. In that aftermath, the Obama administration has been faced with the dilemma of what to do in Libya.

As my readers know, I have been a very strong and relentless critic of President Obama and both his domestic and foreign policies. But I may surprise some when I say that his so-called “hesitation” about intervening in the Libyan crisis is NOT bad or wrong policy. I think he and his advisers have taken account of the U.S. record in recent years, and the world’s response, as well as our nation’s vulnerabilities at this time and our overriding national interests, and moved with understandable and, yes, laudable caution. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe the world community MUST intervene against Kaddafi, and IMMEDIATELY, but it’s time for others, long the beneficiary of American compassion, to step up to the plate themselves. (And while I am not criticizing President Obama for his hesitation so far, he must now, and quickly, successfully bring in Arab and European nations to help the Libyan people throw off Kaddafi and his regime. If he does not, hundreds of thousands of innocent Libyans will be murdered. If he does not, his “hesitation” will have been indeed a failure of historic consequence.)

This situation is the long-brewing consequence of the world taking our help, and then turning on us. Europe gladly took our protection for 50 years against the threats of the Soviet Union. It took our money and our troops, but many European countries failed to support us, even criticized us, for our actions in the Middle East. Only Great Britain and the smaller European states consistently sided with us when we most needed it.

We have no true “interests” in Africa, but we have provided aid in various ways throughout that continent’s continual disasters of drought, AIDS, civil war and mini-holocausts. After defeating bestial fascist regimes in Germany and Japan in 1945, we immediately began massive assistance to their populations. To their credit and ours, both those nations arose from defeat and the ravages of war to become important industrial powers, capitalist democracies, and our friends. There have been inevitable disagreements, tensions and problems in our
relationships with Germany and Japan, but unlike some of our allies, they have not turned against us. There IS a right way of international conduct, based on respect and compassion.

Now our friend and ally Japan, a vibrant industrial free nation, has endured a shattering natural disaster, the full dimensions of which are yet unknown. Massive aid from around the world will be critically necessary. The U.S. will not provide all of that aid, but we are the one nation on earth who can provide much of it. When an earlier tsunami occurred in the Pacific, with horrendous loss of life, we were there. When an earthquake in Haiti almost destroyed that already-suffering nation, we were there. We are almost always there.

We are not above criticism. We make mistakes. Individual Americans can be thoughtless and arrogant. But we are the best back-up the world now has. Our hearts are in the right place. In that sense, we are now (although not necessarily will be always) the planet’s EXCEPTIONAL nation. Liberals who are made uneasy by that designation, and conservatives who reject it, should get over their self-made neurotic qualms. It’s simply a fact.

But it may not always be a fact. What will the world do if the U.S. falters, and there is no one to defend freedom, no one to help the oppressed, no one to care for the victims of natural disaster?

Some believe that China and India will succeed the U.S. as the world’s greatest powers because of their vast populations, and their recent joining of the capitalist community. Perhaps that will be so. But will they defend the persecuted, feed the poor, and care for the victims of natural disaster? I hope so, and I hope they will stand up now to demonstrate their growing responsibilities in the world.

With freedom, affluence and power comes these responsibilities. Life is a provisional experience. Those with power can lose it. Every major religion in the world believes in human compassion. In these current hours of particular disaster, human suffering, rising totalitarianism and state-run violence, we must recover our hope and our common humanity. Let there be no doubt, greater challenges and natural catastrophes await us beyond the present time, to be faced by our children and their children. If they are to have any chance of dealing with those now-unknown threats, we today must face and deal with ours.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

History Fools Us Again

The turn of events in the Middle East only demonstrates one more time how difficult it is to predict history before it happens.

There was overwhelming conventional wisdom in the West, and in the Middle East Arab establishment as well, that the “Arab Street” was reliably anti-American and anti-Israel, and not the least inclined (nor able) to overthrow various totalitarian regimes that had been put in place decades ago. Particularly “safe” were the affluent Emirates, Morocco (where the king was respected), and the one-man rule of Libya,, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. If any dictatorships were in danger, they were the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, both friendly to the U.S.

While there is unrest in Jordan, and potential insurrection in Saudi Arabia, these are not the current flashpoints of upheaval in the Middle East today.

It is uncertain what the timetable will be for Mr. Kaddafi’s departure, but there can be little doubt that his cruel regime will end soon.

Only the police state of Syria remains to fit the conventional wisdom of the recent past.

A new conventional wisdom emerged quickly after the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. That was that the revolts sparked by the Arab youth in the’ region would soon be replaced by extremist Islamicist leaders and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. So far this is not happening, as the Arab masses seem to be insisting on the creation of democratic structures, and the introduction of new civil rights, particularly for women, in those states where dictatorships have been replaced. Of course, it is very early, and the transformation of the Middle East, almost certainly, will be a long and painful process. Totalitarian forces, anywhere in the world, do not ever play “fair,” nor are they ever transparent in their goals and intentions. Historically, they have, since the Hitler regime in Nazi Germany, been willing to use democratic elections to gain power before employing violent police power to crush democracy.

This could happen now, but several observers have made a salient point in discussing how the current situation came to pass, i.e., the impetus for the uprisings came from the youth, a youth aware through internet and social technology of how the rest of the world, particularly in the West and the democratic East, were living, enjoying the fruits of democratic capitalism. Even in non-democratic but newly-quasi capitalist China, affluence was breaking out. Apparently, this Arab youth was also not buying the shell-game that the tiny state of Israel was the cause of their problems and justified suffocating police states across the Arab world.

I am not saying that the Arab youth are necessarily less anti-Israel than before, nor are they less sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but removing the current pathological preoccupation with Israel may, in time, provide some room for true negotiation between Israel and the new democratic Arab states. Maybe.

I suspect that history will show that the creation of a democratic state in Iraq had more impact on the current revolt of the Arab masses than most observers are willing to concede now. This is because the rabid “George W. Bush hatred” of most of the Western media and establishment still persists, and to credit the “change of political chemistry” in Iraq with contributing to a region-wide democratic outbreak would mean that these critics might have to admit they were wrong about Mr. Bush.(Remember how long it took for Ronald Reagan to overcome his “cowboy movie star image” and be rightly credited for his giant role in the Cold War?)

Such a realization might even be more traumatic than the concession by these same critics that their conventional wisdoms about the Middle East were wrong.

History, as does Nature, has a persistent way of making all of us realize how complicated the world and its planet really are.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Can Pawlenty Pull It Off? (And Other Speculations)

In this curious moment of the 2012 presidential contest, when not a single major Republican candidate has yet announced his or her definite intention to run, there is nontheless a lot of campaign activity going on. Deprived of declared candidates, but thinking there is pressure for them write extensively about something which does not exist, i.e., a formal race for the GOP nomination, many in the media are turning out reams of gossipy analysis, speculation, and pseudo-news which, I don’t want to shock those colleagues, few if anyone is really interested in knowing about.

At the same time, more than a dozen potential candidates, including the half dozen or so who might eventually become finalists, are busily writing books, giving speeches, hiring consultants and campaign workers, and raising money, all of which IS worth reporting about, and even speculating about.

I have been saying for several weeks that the large initial field (10-14 well-known GOP hopefuls) will become a much smaller number after the Iowa Straw Poll in August. That list of finalists will probably include Mitt Romney, New Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty (and perhaps one more person). Mr, Huckabee may yet decide not to run, as might Mr. Daniels. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Sarah Palin will be a candidate in 2012. While I am a big fan of Haley Barbour, and think he is one of the superlative political minds in his party (as well as a superb governor), I think his recent inappropriate statements about the KKK in his state dispositively prevent him from being a top tier candidate from here on. Sorry, Haley.

Although many pundits and GOP campaign experts think Mitt Romney, the early provisional front-runner, can’t actually win the race (because of “Romney-care” and his Mormonism), I think his recent speeches and appearances indicate he remains quite formidable. He has not yet solved his “cold fish” reputation problem, but he has the will, organization, cash and previous experience to outlast his rivals in a possible bitter battle.

Similarly, many pundits and GOP experts write off the chances that Newt Gingrich might actually win the nomination. The media recently made something-out-of- nothing in Mr. Gingrich’s preparation to announce his exploratory committee, and created an unnecessary nightmare for the Gingrich staff who. like the staff of all candidates this year, must walk an over-regulated fine line for candidate announcements. Mr. Gingrich, easily the most knowledgeable and well-prepared GOP candidate for president, must find a way, however, to overcome all the media hype he can’t win. Having known the former speaker for 26 years, I doubt he will allow conventional wisdom to prevent him from running a formidable and possibly surprising run. We shall see.

Mitch Daniels is the biggest question mark of the campaign so far. Undeniably a first-rate and effective governor, and a man with a excellent resume and broad experience, he has been reported to be a dull speaker and unexciting figure. But his appearance at CPAC this year, of all places, was notable and favorable. Some of the most respected leaders in his party have already virtually endorsed him. He is, by all accounts, a man of uncommon ability. He could, as the twists and turns of the campaign yet to unfold take place, be the one to take the prize.

And then there is Tim Pawlenty.

I have known and covered his political career in Minnesota since 1990. He was, even in 1990, an obvious political “comer.” He was elected to the state legislature, and eventually became state house majority leader. He won a surprise GOP endorsement for governor, and then won the governorship twice with less than a majority of votes cast. His first term was not extraordinary. But then, during his second term, he seemed to find his cause and identity at a time when those causes and identities were the ones the state and nation came to need and want. From a truly reliable source, I have been told that a recent speech he gave to a conference in Georgia was an absolute barnburner. Many, many things stand in his way, but as I have been saying, “It’s a long, long way to Tampa.”

I don’t know if Mike Huckabee will run. He easily has the most charm of the whole field, and a very good resume, including his time as governor of Arkansas. He seems to me a regional candidate, something not disproven by his efforts after his upset win in Iowa in 2008, but subsequent years of his own national show on television may have taken him past that. His poll numbers to date have been consistently quite high. And yet…….

The debates between all of the above who decide to run, as I recently suggested, will sort much of this out. So will events, including the domestic economy and the always explosive international environment. But may I suggest: Watch for which of the above candidates, or any last-minute sensation who might appear, gets the right “breaks” at critical early moments. In every case in the recent past, these are best indicators. Just ask Carter (1976), Reagan (1980), H.W. Bush (1988), Clinton (1992), G.W. Bush (2000) and Obama (2008).

I have been writing about presidential politics for ten cycles now. Some cycles offered few surprises. But if I have learned anything about these early parts of a presidential campaign like this one, it is that anything can happen.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Difference in 2012 May Be In The Debates

The horses are lining up at the starting gate for the big race of 2012. Of course, every pundit, every observer; yes, virtually every voter is trying to handicap this race. We have a good idea who will be running for the Republican nomination, and we know with almost certainty (at this point in time) who will be the Democratic nominee.

But who will be the GOP nominee against Barack Obama?

As in every presidential election cycle, certain factors weigh more than others in this contest, and from cycle to cycle their relative importance changes.

Some of these factors are recent. Certainly, cable TV, the internet and other new technologies had great impact in the past, as usually one candidate exploited the new technology better than his or her opponents. Mass direct mailings used to be a powerful tool to reach voters, and to some extent still are, but today many new communication forms are available. This includes not only employing various refined tools of the internet, but also so-called robo-calling in which large numbers of voters are reached through automatic and recorded and sometimes interactive telephone. In 2004, Howard Dean’s campaign, although he did not did not win the nomination, nevertheless very successfully raise large sums of campaign funds via the internet, something Barack Obama also did in 2008.

What will be the dispositive factors of the 2012 campaign? Money, of course, will continue to be quite critical. After winning Iowa in 2008, Mike Huckabee did not ever have the financial resources to build on that success in later primaries and caucuses. Media coverage in 2008 was so one-sided that it was increasingly difficult for McCain-Palin to get their message across successfully. By that cycle, conservative radio talk hosts, Fox News and a plethora of conservative columnists had begun to match the liberal bias of the Old Media, but there were misgivings about Senator McCain in some conservative circles, and his communications lacked the impact of the young and unknown senator from Illinois who had upset Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and subsequently outspent the GOP ticket by a huge sum. There are some estimates for Mr. Obama’s campaign to raise and spend a billion dollars in the 2012 cycle.

The U.S. media has been changing very rapidly in recent years, and in the 2012 cycle, conservative and liberal media are more evenly matched than in recent memory. Second-term elections of presidents are historically races about how voters feel about them and their policies. Mr. Obama continues to have problems in the polls, although his numbers are higher than for many recent first-term presidents who were ultimately re-elected. The problem for the president seems to be that, although he maintains a certain consistent personal popularity, his policies are much more unpopular. This is aggravated by the nation’s continuing economic problems, particularly chronic unemployment. The Obama administration’s sole major legislative accomplishment, healthcare reform, moreover is so unpopular that provided much of the catalyst for the Democratic party’s huge losses in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Thus, the Republicans probably don’t need to have an astonishingly charismatic nominee. What they do need is a nominee who can credibly convey he or she knows how to solve our domestic and foreign policy problems, can identify what they are,.and will not require on-the-job training as Mr. Obama did in 2009-10.

This leads me to conclude that while money, name recognition, a good resume and excellent organization will once again be very important, the series of debates, mostly the ones that are televised or taped, will have greater impact in this cycle than any in recent memory. It will not only be ”appearances” that will count, as they did in the first televised debate in 1960 when John F. Kennedy looked much better than Richard Nixon. (It’s important to remember that most voters who heard the debate on radio instead of TV thought that Nixon had won the debate). This time I think voters will be looking for an executive and leader who will transmit his or her knowledge of the problems the nation faces, and convey a clear sense they know what to do when in office. If the Republicans put up an amateur, they will lose. It is interesting to remember that in his pivotal race to win a third term, President Franklin Roosevelt was thought to be vulnerable in 1940. The GOP, however, nominated an unknown businessman who had lots of charm, but could not compare in reliability to FDR as war clouds began to cross the skies from Europe.

Of course, the campaign organization of each GOP hopeful will be trying to convey their candidate’s “bona fides,” but the nature of the media today means that the real tests will be in the face-to-face, one-on-one debate combats that will begin soon in Iowa, and will quickly spread out across the nation and over the airwaves.

I am not just speaking of “debating” skill. I am speaking of the whole impression a candidate will give. As Ronald Reagan and Kennedy both demonstrated, a sense of humor is invaluable. Both of their opponents, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon were humorless communicators. Knowledge of their subject will be also vital. With a relentless media on both sides looking on, frequent mistakes of facts and representation will become mortal wounds to a candidacy. (Vice presidential candidates were perhaps excepted from this rule, in 2008. Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, each in their own way, kept making mistakes.)

Although I do agree that domestic economical issues will be primary again in 2012, the instability in the world, the the transformation of the U.S. role in the world, will require a successful GOP nominee to demonstrate a depth of knowledge, understanding and skill in foreign affairs as perhaps more than in recent previous presidential elections.

Finally, I’m not sure that “flamboyance” or “charisma” will be as important in these upcoming debates as depth of knowledge and understanding, and the skill a candidate has in communicating their will and self-confidence to take his or her rightful place in the world arena and among the other leaders in the world. That arena contains friends and foes, and those who are merely resentful of us, but all of them will still be looking once more for American initiative and leadership.