Sunday, February 13, 2011

UK: View the GOP presidential field

The Telegraph

PJ: US politics is, to many around the world, a mental recreation. While most people in the US can not name the head of state in other countries, many overseas not only know the name of the President, they seem to know more than just the names of the players in American politics.

article printed in its entirety

American Way: Republicans should stop fretting about 2012
By Toby Harnden

Looking at the throng of potential 2012 presidential candidates clamouring for activist adulation at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington last week, it was easy for Republicans to feel gloomy.

There was a convincing case to be made that not one of the dozen or so possibles who spoke at the annual love parade (or the three big names who stayed away) could win the Republican nomination, never mind the presidency itself.

Mitt Romney? A flip flopper whose pandering failed in 2008 and is too corporate a figure to win in the Tea Party age. Newt Gingrich? Thrice married and carrying Clinton-era baggage, not to mention his 2008 ad with Nancy Pelosi in which they vowed to tackle climate change together.

Mitch Daniels? Short, nerdy and his call for a “truce” on social issues is viewed by many as capitulation. Tim Pawlenty? The most exciting thing he ever did was joke that his wife wouldn’t have sex with him. Haley Barbour? A well-upholstered Southern lobbyist. John Thune? Seems to be having second thoughts already.

Rick Santorum was dumped by the voters of his home state of Pennsylvania. Ron Paul can attract a cult following but no primary voters. Uberhawk John Bolton is a Bush era lightning rod and has no domestic policy credentials.

Michele Bachmann is a poor man’s Sarah Palin at a time when the former Alaska governor’s stock is diminishing. Mike Huckabee, who like Palin stayed away from CPAC, is distrusted by fiscal conservatives and in any case appears most interested in a Fox News career.

You get the picture.

While the Tea Party movement has energised the Republican grassroots, it has also raised the possibility that ideological purity could trump broader electability as it did in some key primaries before last November’s mid-terms.

Adding to the sense of near desperation among some Republicans, the 2012 election is already behind schedule. By this time in the 2000 cycle, the last time a new Republican president was elected, the party had already coalesced around George W. Bush.

To top it all, President Barack Obama, who was prematurely viewed as a political dead man walking last November, suddenly seems to have his groove back, even describing himself on Friday as “the Gipper” – appropriating the nickname of the beloved Ronald Reagan.

Amid all this tumult, the message to Republicans should be: calm down. The fact that there is not an ugly, expensive primary campaign already underway means the eventual nominee is likely to be richer and stronger.

The power of the internet and social media means that a campaign can catch fire much more quickly than in previous years. If no one in the current field of 15 or so potentials takes off – and any one of them could overcome their flaws – then there is still an opportunity for a dark horse to emerge.

In the corridors of Washington’s Wardman Marriott, where CPAC was held, there was hopeful chatter that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has taken an axe to his state budget and become a blunt-speaking YouTube sensation, or Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, might enter the fray.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has insisted he won’t run but his barnstorming CPAC speech, staunch conservatism and close resemblance to the Marlboro Man means he could be a powerful candidate.

Jon Huntsman, Obama’s ambassador to China, is a former Utah governor who is planning to run from the Left. His service in the Obama administration is likely to be a double-edged sword at best but he has impressive domestic and foreign policy credentials, movie star looks and is the son of a billionaire to boot.

The Grand Old Party has a tradition of selecting the next guy in line, the runner up from the previous contest.
That hasn’t exactly worked out well in recent years. President George Bush Snr was a one-term president who raised taxes. Bob Dole was trounced by Bill Clinton in 1996 and John McCain, another flawed candidate, was overwhelmed by Obama in 2008.

The open contest this time, and the relatively level playing field – no anointed sons or incumbent vice-presidents – will ensure that the 2012 Republican choice will be more meritocratic than usual.

Amongst conservatives, there is a palpable sense that America is facing a fiscal crisis and that Obama must be stopped at all costs if the US is not to succumb to European-style big government.

That may be an exaggerated fear but few would disagree that there will be a lot at stake in 2012. At the moment, Obama looks strong but he is eminently beatable because of high unemployment and the fact that most of the country opposes his policies, if not him.

In these circumstances, a long, deliberative process to select Obama’s challenger can only benefit Republicans and the country. Competition is good in baseball and business – and politics too.

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