Tuesday, May 31, 2011

No One Said It Was Going To Be Easy

After last year’s huge congressional victories, it was assumed by many Republicans that the 2012 elections would follow suit as a matter of course. Tea Party conservatives, government reformers, tax cutters and party activists seemed to assume that the next national election, which would include a presidential election, was certain to go their way because the voters had clearly rejected in 2008 Obamacare and other policies of the first two years of the Obama administration and the Democratic congress.

I don’t want to throw cold water on conservative enthusiasm, but that’s not the way national politics work. Yes, the voters made a clear statement about the first two years of Mr. Obama’s leadership, but they made no commitment, lacking further good reasons, persuasive arguments, and strong candidates to vote that way again. No one said the follow-through election, and defeating Mr. Obama, would be easy. History indicates that, to the contrary, it is very difficult to defeat most first-term presidents without near-perfectly negative economic conditions and an obvious failure of incumbent leadership.

In fact, there should be no surprise that the president and his allies are fighting back and trying to keep control of the U.S. government next year.

The issue of Medicare reform is an excellent illustration of the task Republicans face ahead. Like Social Security, Medicare is financially unsound as now structured. In a few, and clearly foreseeable, years, it will be unable to perform its function without massive (and economically unsustainable) subsidies from the Treasury.

Because it is an entitlement program (although taxpayers contribute to its funding), most voters resist making it more expensive. Democrats, realizing this, have used any suggestion of reform of Social Security, for example, as a “third rail” in politics, and employed scare tactics against Republicans and others who tried to fix it. This tactic no longer works in the case of Social Security because voters have generally come to believe they will not receive benefits unless something now is done. They are not yet convinced, however, that Medicare is in the same dire condition. Those who want to reform Medicare are correct in their analysis of the situation, but they have so far forgotten that to make reform happen, they have to persuade voters that it is necessary. I am not suggesting that Republicans should abandon their reform agenda; in fact, I strongly support it. But it will come to naught, and even backfire on them, unless they begin a massive effort to educate the electorate why it must be done, and how they are going to do it.

Republicans have some advantages going into 2012. President Obama is clearly underperforming in office. His understanding and application of economic policy and foreign policy have been amateurish, out-of-date and unpopular. Unemployment has become chronically high, and although there have been some positive signs in the economy, a true recovery has not been made. In the 2012 races for Congress, the GOP seems poised to maintain control, even if they do not win the presidency, and because so many more Democrats are running for re-election to the senate, it seems likely the Republicans will make gains no matter how the election goes. Furthermore, with many more governorships and state legislatures in their control since 2008, the GOP is in a good position to benefit from redistricting, and in statewide campaigns. Finally, the remarkable turnout of blacks and Hispanics for candidate Obama in 2008 would seem unrepeatable four years later. In fact, the overwhelming majorities of Hispanic and Jewish voters for Obama in 2012 are almost certainly to be reduced. Republicans elected several attractive new Hispanic figures in 2008. Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies have been increasingly poorly received in the Jewish community. (The chance for Republicans to attract a greater share of the Hispanic voter, however, could be lost if certain GOP factions prevail with an unsympathetic and unrealistic immigration policy.)

These are advantages, but they do not even remotely guarantee that 2012 will go as Republicans hope it will. Democrats, as I suggested earlier, are fighting back. They are very good at demagogic ads that portray Republican ideas in the worst light (the new Democratic ad showing the GOP pushing a senior in a wheel chair over a cliff is a perfect example of this).

Usually, a political party gets at least one full term or two terms to enact its agenda and promote its policies. The Democrats stumbled in 2009, and paid for that in 2010. It is unreasonable to assume they won’t try to repair their relationship with the electorate, especially those in the political center where they must do well to return to power. Many Republican leaders who are not running for president do seem to understand the challenge facing the GOP, most notably Speaker of the House John Boehner who, so far, has done well to keep his party and his members viable for the 2012 election.

Yes, the conservative economic principles espoused by most Republicans these days are the basis of the right course for the nation through this difficult time. But in order to have the right to lead the nation, this party must have the confidence, understanding and good will of a majority of voters. That’s the way it works. No one should say it is going to be easy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dismiss No Major Candidate Yet

There is a temptation by some at this early point in the presidential campaign to dismiss ex cathedra certain major candidates for the Republican nomination. In fact, there are those who have already done this about each of the three major announced contenders.

History demonstrates time and again that premature dismissals are not a rewarding undertaking before a single vote has been cast in a primary or a caucus, before any large-scale debate between all the candidates has taken place, before the Iowa Straw Poll, and yes, before all the candidates have announced.

We have already heard that, despite his leading in most polls, having virtually unlimited funds, and already well-organized nationally from his run in 2008, that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney can’t win. Why can’t he win, we are told? Because of his religion, because of state-mandated healthcare enacted when he was governor, and because he does not fit predetermined stances on some issues. Somehow, however, Mr. Romney’s campaign is thriving. Despite being so rich he could finance his own campaign without a single donation from anyone, he raised $11 million in one day recently (a record). His poll numbers either have stayed the same or are growing.

Anyone who dismisses Mitt Romney at this point is likely to be already committed to another candidate and indulging in wishful thinking.

We are now told that former Speaker Newt Gingrich absolutely can’t win. Why can’t he win, we are told? Because he is too old, because of two past divorces, because he’s “had his day” and most recently because he criticized Representative Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan. These contentions are made despite Mr. Gingrich’s cutting edge technological prowess (he was the first to announce by Twitter), his remarkable decade-long recovery from his 1998 resignation as speaker, and in spite of his current happy marriage. His choice of words in regard to Mr. Ryan were indefensible, but he has apologized. The latter incident was the most serious because he was violating The GOP eleventh commandment about not criticizing leaders in his own party. Nevertheless, the national media, including the conservative media, have piled on and proclaimed Mr. Gingrich’s campaign dead in the water. Yet even as they were doing this, and many blog commentators were echoing his political demise, Mr Gingrich was drawing large and positive crowds in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, sites of the first primaries and caucus. Perhaps sensing a premature dismissal, even The Washington Post is now calling the former speaker “The Comeback Kid.” The contretemps with Mr. Ryan has furthermore seemed to chasten Mr Gingrich about his tendency to speak carelessly in public, and his fundraising has temporarily slowed, but he has more than a million persons (and funders) on his regular mailing list, draws large friendly crowds wherever he goes, and has no intention of going away quietly.

We are told that former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty can’t win, because he has no experience outside of Minnesota, because he can’t raise sufficient campaign money, has a history of poor political organization, and because he is boring, Yet he continues to draw praise for his bold style of campaigning, including telling Iowa voters he now opposes funding for ethanol, and Florida voters it’s time to reform Social Security and Medicare. For a man who is supposed to be boring, he is being quoted in the media a great deal, continues to attract endorsements from major political figures, and continues to draw top political operatives to his campaign. Mr. Pawlenty, a virtual unknown only months ago, is now frequently touted as the major challenger to Mr. Romney. Mr. Pawlenty does not seem like a good choice for early dismissal.

I am not suggesting that any of these three men are going to win the Republican nomination for president, but I am suggesting we have not yet seen what any of them, nor any other GOP candidates, can do on the actual campaign trail when voters actually go to the polls.

I also want to point out that each of the three seem quite determined to be president. They do not hesitate to say so, nor to wilt under pressure and the ruthless glare of the presidential campaign season. Mr, Gingrich in particular has undergone a withering series of dismissive criticisms by editorial writers, political cartoonists, and political “experts,” and yet he seems to have found a second wind for the campaign ahead. I seem to remember so many telling me in the winter of 1992 that then Governor Bill Clinton, mired in scandals about his girl friends, was “finished,” and had no chance to win his party’s nomination only a few months ahead.

A second wave of announcements by Republican hopefuls now seems imminent. Perhaps the eventual nominee will be one of them. Or perhaps the nominee will be one of the three candidates who announced early in the race, and are somehow still standing after the media and political elites (on all sides) said they could not possibly make it to Tampa in triumph.

Isn’t it interesting that a biography of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), famously declared dead more than a hundred years ago (and long before he did pass away), was recently the number one bestseller in America?

Friday, May 27, 2011

What Do All These Extreme Phenomena Mean?

Even if you have lived for a number of decades (as I have), it cannot be avoided that, in the past year or so, a remarkable number of extreme phenomena, political, economic, geological and meteorological, have been quite visible. Experts in these fields rightly point out that the unusual and extreme are always occurring. Extreme events often easily provoke alarm, and sometimes even hysteria. The “end of the world” prophets seem always with us. (The current wave of these doomsday predictions included a photo I saw from a London crowd in which signs stated the world was imminently going to end. I remember going to a London flea market more than 40 years ago when almost identical signs proclaiming “The End Is Near!” were plentiful in the crowd.)

Yet we ARE surrounded this year, and in recent days, with extraordinary weather and geological events that seem to defy normal statistics of frequency and degree. I cite the Mississippi River Valley floods which will either match or exceed the historic flooding of the same area in 1927. Most Americans do not remember or are not aware how much those floods drastically changed American history. (They changed the balance of power between the federal government and the states when conservative President Calvin Coolidge, his flood crisis czar Herbert Hoover, and the U.S. Congress ordered and enabled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take over the region, and when these floods also provoked millions of black Americans, many of them former slaves, to leave the area and emigrate to the industrial cities of the North where, over time, they dramatically altered U.S. politics and demographics.)

Today’s floods in the Mississippi River Valley are already as serious, and potentially as damaging as those of 1927, but the story almost seems like quiet background noise (except to those enduring them) to other events, including an unprecedented wave of huge tornado clusters, the third of which is still taking place, across mid-America. Yes, there are the usual number of local earthquakes, Atlantic hurricanes, Pacific typhoons, volcanoes and other natural phenomena, but we have also just finished a winter of unusual bitterness in temperature and snowfall. Throughout the Pacific Rim region a seemingly unusual number of earthquakes, underwater volcanic eruptions and consequent tsunamis have taken place, including the horrific conflation of an earthquake, tsunami and man-made nuclear reactor disaster in Japan which has profoundly altered the economy and society of one of the world’s major industrial nations. An earlier Pacific Rim earthquake had similar serious consequences in Chile. A second giant volcanic eruption in a short time has just occurred in Iceland with major physical impact on the skies over Europe (and potentially on climate over the northern hemisphere.)

In the humanity-oriented category we are witnessing an historic and unprecedented political revolution throughout the Arab nations in the Middle East, events that were not predicted. In Asia, the vastly-populated states of India and China are finally beginning to assert their immense economic power in world trade, as is the South American giant nation of Brazil. Epidemics and droughts continue to massively waste away middle and southern Africa (although these phenomena have been present for some time).

Some have suggested that so-called “global warming” is behind some of the meteorological phenomena, but this is transparently a superficial and self-serving political explanation. Others have turned to more mystical explanations, including astrology, numerology and biblical prophecy, but these usually seem to most persons as parochial and limited explanations.

There may be, in fact, no final “explanation” for these phenomena seemingly occurring all at once, other than they are some kind of signals that the earth and mankind are passing through a period of extraordinary transformation and change. The earth has existed for a few billion years, life for several million years, and “modern” civilization for about 10,000 years. The universe is much “older” than that.

My reading of history is that human change accumulates over time, breaking out and becoming visible when certain thresholds are reached. Most of human history is made of the former, but there are many precedents of the latter. The phenomenon of “nations” first appeared about 3500 years ago, most modern religions merged about 1500-2000 years ago, the industrial revolution happened about 350 years ago, and the digital revolution began only about 50 years ago. Each of them not only witnessed their specific consequent phenomena, but were also accompanied, in most cases, by conflations of natural phenomena (e.g. the flood of Noah, Vesuvius, the Black Plague, Krakatoa, the meteor in Siberia, etc.) as if the natural world were somehow bestowing an implacable and mysterious testimony to what we mere humans had wrought.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pawlenty Out Of The Gate

Whereas the veteran national figure Newt Gingrich has had a close-to-disastrous formal beginning to his race for president, neophyte national politician Tim Pawlenty has come out of the gate with an intriguing (and so far positively received) counter-intuitive approach in his first few days as an official candidate.

There are certain strategic orthodoxies, usually not violated, about running for your party’s nomination for president in primary and caucus states, to wit, do not offend local special interests and upset local party base voters expectations.

Claiming he will be the candidate who “tells the truth,” former Governor Pawlenty has told Iowa Republicans he will phase out ethanol subsidies; and Florida Republicans that he will reform Social Security by extending the mandatory eligibility age as well as cut off cost of living allowances to rich retirees. This is not what Iowa farmers and Florida senior citizens usually hear from candidates who seek their votes. Pawlenty is betting that economic conditions are bad enough that most voters know that certain entitlements, including some of their own, will have to go. Of course, at the same time, Pawlenty is telling these same voters that he will not raise taxes and will cut public spending. That is what conservative voters do want to hear in 2011, and Mr. Pawlenty cites his record in Minnesota as evidence he will do this from the White House office.

As a constant contrarian, I have long held the opinion that a politician who can compellingly tell voters what they don’t want to hear, and yet win their allegiance could do much better than expected.

On the other hand, we are quite a distance from the first voting in the nomination contest. For that reason, Mr. Pawlenty has far to go to overcome Mitt Romney’s initial lead and considerable political resources. Speaking of Mr. Romney, he too has had mostly smooth sailing so far. This tells us that he did learn from his 2008 experience when he failed to do well in Iowa and South Carolina. Instead of avoiding these two states, Mr. Romney’s campaign decided to contest them, even before Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Daniels withdrew. Mr. Romney’s strategy needs to be, and apparently is, to win as many delegates as early as possible, thus preventing anyone from overtaking him. This is a lesson Hillary Clinton ignored, including conceding the caucus states to Mr. Obama, and when she after woke up after Mr. Obama had won a large number of delegates, it was too late to recover. With all the money he needs to spend on organization and advertising, Mr. Romeny can maximize his chances from the beginning, provided also that he learns strategically from his mistakes and shortcomings in 2008. From his first foray into South Carolina, it would seem he may well do so.

Aiding (unintentionally) Mr. Romney’s strategy is the candidacy of Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann who was born in Iowa. With Mr. Huckabee out of the race, she is making a major effort to woo the numerous evangelical and Tea Party GOP voters in Iowa. If she outpolls Mr. Pawlenty in their neighboring state, it will be difficult for him to create the momentum he would need to overtake any early Romney lead, if that develops.

Mr. Gingrich may have been paying too much attention to his political enemies and to his own party’s political elites when they constantly spoke of his “baggage” of divorces and controversies from his days as speaker of the House. I would suggest that neither his alleged “baggage” (nor Mr Romney’s Mormon faith, for that matter) is the impediment the “experts” and the media say it is. Mr. Gingrich, regardless if he agrees with that or not, nevertheless acts as if he does by making so much of his recent emphasis on his new marriage and faith. These are positive matters, but making them so visible makes the former speaker look defensive. Before he goes much further, Mr. Gingrich might find it useful to sit down and reassess how his campaign organization and what he says publicly might better advance his ideas and his true political strengths. Almost everyone agrees he is the best idea man in the GOP. But it’s another matter to persuade voters that he is the best person to execute and administer those ideas. Mr. Gingrich has. over recent years, assembled an excellent staff for his many organizations. He has been doing the same for his campaign staff so far. But, as far as I know, few successful candidates for president are their own campaign managers. (Tuesday night’s upset election of a Democrat in a traditional New York state congressional special election is a demonstration that Mr. Gingrich’s reservations about Medicare reform may have more merit than originally judged. Nevertheless, his mistake was not his political intuition about the risk of Medicare reform, but the way he spoke about his fellow Republicans who were advancing it.)

Former Governor and Ambassador Jon Huntsman is apparently soon to enter the race. He is a blank slate, and at this point, it is difficult to assess his chances. But the field of candidates, as I have been pointing out recently, is unexpectedly small, and thus there are some genuine opportunities for a late entrant. Former Governor Jeb Bush and current Governor Chris Christie have enough stature right now to realign singlehandedly the nomination contest if they got in, but the word from both is that they will not. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a great mayor, and remains an enormously articulate figure, but his 2008 campaign was a political disaster, and there is no reason to think 2012 might not be the same for him. Texas Governor Rick Perry so far refuses publicly to indicate any interest, although he would be the only southerner in the race. Of all the minor announced candidates, businessman Herman Cain has so far aroused the most interest, but it is difficult to see how might advance to the first tier.

Thus we return to Mr. Pawlenty as the candidate so far with the most potential to upend political expectations for the GOP nomination. In each cycle, there are those who bring innovations to the race (as he has now done). Some succeed, such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and some do not, such as Howard Dean, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes, so innovation alone is not sufficient to win the right to preside in the Oval Office for four or eight years, Yet, as I have pointed out before, a heavy dose of luck combined with innovation and skill, often makes the difference.

A great deal is going to happen before those first votes will be cast early next year.

Monday, May 23, 2011

An Unexpected Turn For 2012

Presidential campaign cycles almost always bring surprises, and the 2012 cycle already has a major one. I had thought for months that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would not run this time (although he was doing very well in the early polls). But I was surprised at Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ decision yesterday also to take a pass on 2012. Both Huckabee and Daniels had strong followers; Huckabee’s had been developed since the 2008 campaign and later through his popular TV show; Daniels’ was less measurable, but had arisen from his excellent resume in government and his strong reform record as governor. Both of them clearly were interested, but each of them, when they reached deep into their motivational being, found that the fires were not sufficiently burning to bring them into the grueling experience of running today for president of the United States.

Because Huckabee had left many clues to his final decision over time, most 2012 scenarios were constructed without him in the race. In Daniels’ case, however, although he came into consideration only relatively recently. it seemed likely that he would enter the field of candidates. That field now stands surprisingly small considering the potential for defeating incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama’s re-election effort.

In fact, the field is now shockingly small, when adding up the most serious contenders, and only when including unannounced former Utah Governor (and U.S. ambassador to China) Jon Huntsman, does it total four (Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty). There are other candidates, of course, (including former Senator Rick Santorum, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Congressman Ron Paul, and businessman Herman Cain), but the race is most likely to quickly settle into a contest between the strongest hopefuls.

I had thought that former Alaska Governor (and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee) Sarah Palin would not run, but now I’m not so sure. If she does not, then Mrs. Bachmann, hitherto likely to be a minor candidate, could emerge as a stronger contender, especially if Tea Party voters coalesced nationwide behind her.

Does former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who had taken himself out of a run in 2012, become under new pressure to reconsider? Does nationally popular and charismatic New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also receive pressure to run?

Even though he had not run for national office before, and was untested as a presidential candidate, Governor Daniels had seen unexpectedly strong interest in his candidacy recently emerge. Part of this was because the Republican field has turned out to be so small, and there was a growing feeling that a candidate of his experience and temperment was necessary for a better nomination race.

Daniels’ decision might also bring other potentially major candidates into the 2012 contest, but for the time being, we have to evaluate the primary and caucus system with the candidates we know are running, or are very likely to run.

So who is helped? And who is hurt?

The smaller the field, I believe, the better are the chances of the current frontrunner Mitt Romney. His advantages in name-recognition, fundraising and campaign experience are likely, with only a few opponents, to provide him with a larger number of delegates earlier than he might have expected if the field were larger. There will now be a greater urgency for Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Pawlenty, and possibly, Mr. Hunstman to demonstrate their appeal among GOP voters. With Mrs. Bachmann a major player in her home state caucus in Iowa, the first formal voting in the nation, Mr. Pawlenty must find a way to avoid coming in behind her in that tally. Mr. Gingrich’s gaffes and mistakes in the pre-campaign period now become magnified, as he must also demonstrate strength in Iowa (where he has appeared frequently in the past year) and in New Hampshire. Former Speaker Gingrich has been a busy man, writing books, giving speeches and running major public policy organizations, but it’s time for him to focus on running for president and restarting his campaign on a more positive note if he is to be a major contender. Mr. Huntsman is a political blank slate at this point, but he will have to create interest in his candidacy more quickly now.

Amazingly, there is no major Republican candidate now from the South which is the core (along with the West) of GOP and conservative strength in the all-important electoral college. Who will now win the critical early South Carolina primary?

The decisions of Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Daniels, and of the other major Republican figures who have chosen not to run this year, reflects in part how punishing a presidential campaign in the Unites States has become.

Certain traditional elements now will come more into play than before. Who wants the presidency most? Who has the most physical and psychological resilience and endurance to go through the exhausting and brutal process? Who can raise enough money to compete in all or most of the state primaries and caucuses? Who is self-disciplined enough to avoid careless mistakes and statements?

I think most of us who comment and analyze presidential politics anticipated a relatively larger field of serious GOP candidates. There were plenty of them out there. President Obama’s political vulnerabilty has seemed to grow, and not shrink, the economy remains in trouble, Obamacare is still very unpopular, and the Democrats are on the defensive in many public policy issue questions.

What will be the next surprise?

What will happen now?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Re: What’s At Stake In 2012

The Prairie Editor’s instincts were correct, after all, as expressed in his current post on barrycasselman.com, that is, that Mike Huckbee would NOT be a candidate in 2012 for president. Some classic hype in the past 24 hours, however, signaled that he might have changed his mind, and I sent each of you a notice that I might have to rewrite my current assessment of the candidates.

After attracting what I am sure was a huge audience to his TV show, and playing everyone along for most of the hour, Huckabee said he would not be a candidate. We have to remember that in his deepest being, Mike Huckabee is an entertainer. It’s his right, of course, and there was no harm done except to the nervous systems of certain announced GOP candidates for president who had much to lose if Huckabee suddenly changed course and got in the race. Most of all, Huckabee’s decision restores the suspense about the Iowa Caucus, and preserves the opportunity for several candidates, including Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney to perform there better than expected, and thus begin to propel themselves to the nomination.

Huckabee, who unexpectedly won Iowa in 2008, would have been the story coming out of Iowa, and his current strong numbers in many northern state polls might have provided him with more success outside the South than he had last cycle, thus upsetting plans of Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Gingrich each of whom would be most likely competing for his base of voters. Mr. Romney, too, benefits because he might do better in Iowa than expected, and combined with his expected win in New Hampshire, could provide him with critical momentum early in the game. Some will disagree with this, but Mr. Huckabee for all his preacher’s charm and strength in the polls, if he ran, was most likely destined to be a spoiler, and not ultimately his party’s nominee.

Nontheless, credit is due to him, on reaching deep down into himself, to resist the many sirens of ego gratification and vanity that someone in his position is always tempted with. Since 2008, he has shown new political skills, and it is possible in 2016 or 2020 that he might be a better fit for his party at that time. Meanwhile, the contest goes on, without Mr. Huckabee and presumably without Sarah Palin, the two main figures from 2008 (along with Mr. Romney who now maintains himself as a quasi-frontrunner). Attention next shifts to Indiana where the incumbent governor Mitch Daniels has yet to announce if he is in he race or out. If he’s in, he may be a force to be reckoned with.

Friday, May 13, 2011

What’s At Stake In 2012

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.