Monday, March 8, 2010

Not. So. Fast.

Until today, frankly, I didn't know much of Carl Cannon.

Cannon is the senior Washington correspondent for According to his online bio, he has worked for Reader's Digest and National Journal. He has covered every presidential election since 1984, he worked for half a dozen newspapers before coming to Washington and he has written several books.

His credentials clearly show that he has been observing presidential politics for a long time. From what I have learned about him, he was born in San Francisco — but, despite that city's reputation for liberal politics, I can't absolutely say with any certainty what Cannon's political leanings may be. He worked for the San Diego Union. Its descendant, the San Diego Union–Tribune, is considered dependably conservative. He also worked for the Baltimore Sun, which, at least in my circles, enjoys a more moderate image.

My intention here is not to recite Cannon's resume. It is simply to establish that, unlike many of the writers one finds online or in print these days, Cannon is not a johnnie–come–lately expressing knee–jerk opinions.

But, for a man with his background, I think he's way off in his conclusions about 2012 in today's article for Politics Daily"Six Reasons Barack Obama is Still the Odds–on Favorite in 2012."

That may turn out to be the case, and, granted, things do seem to move at a much faster pace than they used to. As Cannon points out, Obama had only been in office for about six months when some conservative commentators were ready to label him a "lame duck."

While I'm not sure Obama is a sure thing when 2012 rolls around, there's plenty of time for him to get his train back on track. So let's examine the six reasons Cannon gives in support of his hypothesis that Obama will be the favorite in 2012:
  1. There is no such beast as a "generic Republican."

    That reference to "generic Republican" arises from a recent Gallup Poll that showed Obama trailing a "generic Republican" by a wide margin among independent voters.

    And Cannon's point is well taken — that, after running more and more to the right to capture Republican primary victories, the eventual nominee is likely to have established a record that is more conservative than most independents tend to be. He/she will have an identity and will no longer be a "generic" candidate.

    But that ignores the fact that Obama has been in the process of taking many positions that are more liberal than most independents tend to be. Even he acknowledged that he was a blank screen upon which voters could project whatever they wished when he ran for the presidency in 2008. After three years in the White House, his agenda — and his success rate — will be known to all.

    Lately, Obama and the Democrats have been making noises about throwing in the towel on the bipartisanship thing and pursuing objectives like health care reform on their own. Unless Obama's party suffers setbacks in this year's midterms that rival the ones handed to Bill Clinton's Democrats in 1994, that sounds like the implementation of a leftist agenda in a nation that tends to be center–right oriented.

  2. It might not be a "binary" election, anyhow.

    When he uses the word "binary," Cannon means a two–way race. And he observes that Ross Perot was a third–party candidate in 1992 and 1996, keeping Clinton from getting a clear majority of the vote either time.

    But then he and I part ways on our assessment of the impact of Perot's candidacy — and, consequently, what it could mean to Obama's re–election bid.

    In fairness to Cannon, he writes that some of Clinton's aides believed that Perot's presence on the ballot was responsible for giving Clinton the presidency in 1992. Perot's vote, he asserted, was made up of "disaffected Americans who likely would have shuffled into the voting booth, held their noses, and voted for George H.W. Bush" if Perot had not been an option.

    But the exit polls I saw suggested that Clinton would have won even if Perot had not revived his candidacy about a month before the election.

    Those exits polls showed that, if Perot had not decided to re–enter the race, 40% of his supporters would have voted for Clinton, 40% would have voted for Bush and 20% would not have participated at all, which would have made virtually no difference to the ultimate outcome.

    And that tends to support my experience — which is, essentially, that, if Candidate A is the incumbent and he/she is running against two other candidates, the votes for Candidates B and C are, to a certain degree, anti–incumbent votes. If either Candidate B or Candidate C is removed from the equation, his/her votes are more likely to gravitate to the other challenger.

    That, actually, was a scenario that was bandied about here in Texas last week, when Republicans chose their gubernatorial nominee. The incumbent, Rick Perry, was being challenged by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and a "Tea Partier," Debra Medina.

    Initially, Hutchison and her supporters (and Medina, too, I guess) believed Perry was unpopular, after a decade in office. But Hutchison turned into Texas' Martha Coakley and, by the time the primary voters went to the polls last week, the question was whether Medina could siphon off enough votes to force a run–off between Hutchison and Perry — which, Hutchison's supporters hoped, they would win with the help of Medina's votes.

    But Perry won outright, which doesn't necessarily prove that he will prevail in November. It does, however, indicate the existence of a relationship between the expectations of the electorate and an incumbent's performance. Obama's record will be measured against his promises in 2012, and there are still a couple of years for him to work on fulfilling those promises.

  3. He's already got the job.

    True. So did George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, all of whom were denied a four–year term by the voters. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton won second terms in spite of midterm setbacks — largely because they were able to compromise and, consequently, position themselves better.

    Can Obama do the same? I don't know. He's talked a lot about bipartisanship, but this scenario would require him to do most, if not all, of the heavy lifting.

  4. The midterm elections can be cathartic.

    Yes, they can. And, as Cannon points out, they also can be liberating. If Democrats lose control of either house of Congress, there will be lessons from history for both parties to ponder.

    For that matter, it is true, as Cannon says, that Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton overcame losing control of Congress. But neither did much to help their parties retain it.

    Cannon offers a caveat for Republicans if they do flip the House or the Senate — make sure that the blood you smell in the water isn't your own. And that's good advice. But let's wait and see how the midterm elections go first.

    My guess is that the Republican cause will be enhanced more if the party fails to capture either house of Congress but makes significant dents in the Democrats' majorities.

  5. Youth will be served.

    Cannon seems to believe 2008 was the fruition of the liberal's fond fantasy that the expanded youth vote would be the salvation of progressivism in the United States.

    But that demographic has seldom participated at anything close to the level that was imagined when the 26th Amendment, giving the vote to Americans between the ages of 18 and 21, was approved.

    Young voters do seem to have played an important role in Obama's election in 2008. And many of them do seem to hold him high regard today. But their failure to participate in significant numbers in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey last fall and the special election in Massachusetts in January did not confirm that they have embraced their roles as regular voters.

    Perhaps Obama's presence on the 2012 ballot will encourage them to come to the polls. But that isn't a contributing factor that I would want to depend on.

    While it is true, as Cannon says, that "[a]lthough unemployment has hit the young disproportionately, they have a sunny view of their own futures," many who voted for him did not do so because of the economy or health care. They voted for him expecting the wars to be ended (which may still happen, but, for now, they have been escalated). They gave him their support because they wanted Guantanamo Bay to be closed, but it remains open more than a year after Obama took office. They voted for him expecting him, whether justifiably or not, to support causes like the growing movements to legalize gay marriage or marijuana (whether for medicinal or recreational purposes).

    If Obama does indeed seek a second term, he will no longer be a blank screen to anyone. He will have a record, and much will be made whenever his words do not match that record. I'm not convinced that record will play as well with young voters in 2012 as Cannon is — especially if the Republicans nominate a charismatic candidate whose age is comparable to Obama's but who offers different solutions to nagging national problems.

  6. Bad news is driving the public dissatisfaction.

    It always does. And Cannon seems eager to fall back on the excuse that the economy went bad during a Republican presidency, that Obama inherited the problems that have plagued him. But, in a culture in which ownership of problems is quickly transferred in the public's mind, Obama and the Democrats have just about used up the blame excuse. Unless it is used sparingly in the next two years, it will have no value anymore when 2012 gets here.
All of Cannon's assumptions are based on the presumed continuation of the always tenuous alliance between conservative evangelical Christians and traditional fiscal policy Republicans that permitted the party to succeed for the better part of three decades.

Now, following two consecutive setbacks, Republicans appear poised to bounce back in the 2010 midterms. But to regain their competitive edge nationally, it may be time for the party forge a new partnership, one that will attract supporters in the 21st century. If the Ronald Reagan–Jerry Falwell coalition is crumbling, it may be time for someone with a new vision to step forward.

If that happens — if Republicans decide, through their primaries and caucuses, to nominate a candidate who embodies the 21st century image they wish to project — how will that affect Obama? In order to reinvent the world, Republicans may find it is necessary for them to reinvent themselves first. Who can say that, opportunists that they are, they won't do exactly that?

Times are changing, and unpleasant choices must be made. My feeling is that, the way things are going, both parties will have to offer plausible solutions to serious problems that can no longer be ignored.

There is an important historical trend to keep in mind a couple of years from now as well. Obama's two immediate predecessors both served two full terms. If, as expected, Obama seeks a second term, he will be trying to do something that has been extremely rare in the American experience.

America has only re–elected three consecutive presidents once in its history — about two centuries ago, when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe each served eight years.

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