The first GOP debate may have occurred almost two weeks ago, but the 2012 field made a big step towards clarity this weekend. Newt Gingrich is in, Mike Huckabee is out. The question is “which matters more?” Huckabee leaves a large group of voters without their Spring 2011 first-choice candidate. Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, brings with him the perception of policy wonk (a Washington nerd for those outside the Beltway) who started his campaign criticizing DC Republican’s current attempts to reform entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid.
The subject of 2012 is a strange one, especially as someone new to living within the District. Talk to the majority of Republicans up here and you will find a group that has already conceded 2012 to President Obama; venture back to what Sarah Palin would call “real America” and you get the sense that anyone can take down Barack. This disconnect between Republicans “in the know” and the grassroots may end up having larger consequences than anyone is considering.
It has often been pointed out that the Republican nominees tend to inherent their title. Nixon was a former VP. Gerald Ford defeated “outsider” Ronald Reagan in ’76, and then watched Reagan take the party in 1980. Reagan was followed by his Vice President who, of course, was the father of the next Republican President. John McCain ran in 2000 before 2008. Even Bob Dole, the Party’s choice in 1996, was a campaign veteran – serving as Ford’s VP candidate in ’76.
This, along with his well documented advantage in personal wealth, has placed Mitt Romney as the perceived favorite. Others say that a bad economy benefits a man with the private sector experience Romney holds. Romney certainly “looks Presidential”, whatever that may mean, and has the charisma to carry a room. His strength, I believe, is over-stated. In the end, Mitt Romney has all the factors working against him in 2008, with the added gorilla of Romneycare clawing at his back. It is true that the economy ways higher in the minds of GOP voters, but it has yet to be proven whether Romney will be able to best take advantage of that environment.
Romney still has the perception of being a John Kerry-like flip-flopper. His past views on abortion, along with a bias against Mormonism, will hurt him in Middle-America Iowa. Romney’s may have success in New Hampshire, but he failed to win the state in 2008. Romney’s campaign reminds me of Rudy Giuliani’s in 2008. Like 2012 Mitt, Rudy was viewed as the front runner throughout Spring of 2007 before failing to win a single Republican primary. Some would credit Rudy’s decision to place all his eggs in a Floridian basket as the cause of his downfall, but Giuliani campaign was reacting to reality of the earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
So if not Romney, who? Conventional wisdom would make former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as the establishment’s choice. A two time executive, Pawlenty is handsome, disciplined and, outside of support for Cap-and-Trade that he now apologizes for, has a perfectly acceptable legislative record. In other words, “TPaw” is safe. An astute friend of mine calls him “Captain Vanilliastein”, a man whose best strength is being inoffensive.
In the under-attended May 5th GOP debate, Pawlenty stood out in his inability to stand out. More than anyone else, Pawlenty reverted to white-washed political rhetoric. He seemed to field every question like a 5 minute campaign commercial rather than a chance to shed light on what he genuinely believed. While Ron Paul made headlines with his defense of liberty in a question about heroin, and Rick Santorum and Herman Cain’s passion and fire caught the attention of conventional conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the reaction to Tim Pawlenty’s performance was purely based on his perception as the “only legitimate candidate” on the stage.
But does the GOP want such a sterile candidate? 2010 saw Republican voters side with Christine O’Donnell and Rand Paul over “safer” GOP candidates. Now these candidates did not always find success, but the Tea Party movement indisputably breathed life into the party. Substance won out over political pragmatism.
The real world will also be important. Beyond the GOP’s interest in the ever expanding debt, other economic factors are worth noting. Inflation continues to rise. In June, the Federal Reserve will end its QE2 program which has it being the largest purchaser of Treasury securities. Meanwhile Japan is likely to be required to start selling their US treasuries as they pay for earthquake reconstruction and China has cooled in their interest in our bonds. PIMCO’s Bill Gross, one of the most influential voices in investment, has made his disinvestment of US bonds well known. The consequences of this will push the subject of monetary policy into the national conversation.
The results are likely voter frustration and a change in the debate. This is where two dark horses begin to look rather interesting.
Herman Cain has a chance to tap into conservative populism. He has never been elected to office, speaks with passion, has proven to be more-than-willing to go after the throat of President Obama and brings with him a plan to eliminate the IRS. He has inroads with Tea Party grassroots and a history of success in the private sector. He is the sort of candidate DC Republicans will be quick to dismiss, which is one of the reasons he is an intriguing player in 2012. Money will be an issue, but he may be more popular than Newt Gingrich in their shared home state of Georgia. A strong showing in one of the earlier states and he could be a major player.
In terms of substance, no candidate can better Congressman Ron Paul. His 2008 economic advisor, Peter Schiff, famously predicted a dire collapse in housing while many in the media laughed it off. He has just released a book outlining his philosophy on a number of political positions from Abortion to Zionism. He has been the largest opponent of the Federal Reserve in Washington and now uses his position as Chairman of the Domestic Monetary Policy Subcommittee to berate it regularly. He has an army of young, energetic followers, ready to storm social media with user-generated content. And he has proven to be a solid fundraiser with often-copied “money bombs”. If the focus of 2012 is about issues instead of perceived electability, Ron Paul is the greatest beneficiary. Perhaps, for this reason, Newt Gingrich’s presence helps Dr. Paul.
Or perhaps the GOP nominee has yet to enter the race. While Michelle Bachman is contemplating her own campaign, it is Indian Governor Mitch Daniels who most people are focusing on. Though being courted by supporters, Daniels appears to understand all too well the personal consequences of such a run. If he does throw his hat into the ring, it will certainly change the picture.
In the middle of May, only one thing is clear about the path to the RNC Convention in Tampa – nothing is clear.