Sunday, March 6, 2011

As Clear As Mud

My mother used to say that to me whenever I tried to talk my way out of something I had done (and didn't want to admit to doing).

Tried would be the key word in that sentence, I suppose. I don't think I ever was able to talk my way out of anything with her.

"That's as clear as mud," she would say, and I would have to own up to the truth, whatever it was, because I could tell, from the look on her face, that she wasn't buying any of what I had been saying.

After a lifetime of observing American politics, I am rarely surprised by the behavior of elected leaders in either party, but I must confess that I am baffled by the turn things have taken in recent years.

The momentum was with the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, but they let what seemed like a truly transformational opportunity slip through their fingers, and Republicans seized the momentum in 2010, turning it into House gains of historic proportions.

Yet now, only two months after, Charlie Cook writes in his Cook Report that the 2012 GOP nomination is up for grabs.

That seems odd to me. I mean, after enjoying midterm success unlike virtually anything of which any of the prospective nominees would have dreamed two years earlier, it seems that someone should be seizing the momentum.

And perhaps he — or she — will. But no one has — yet.

"In most years, Republicans tap the person whose 'turn' it is to be the party's standard–bearer," writes Cook, "and that individual's identity is often known long before the start of the primary and caucus season."

That certainly seems true to me. The Democrats have always been more likely to nominate an insurgent candidate who caught lightning in a bottle than Republicans.

That doesn't mean the Republicans haven't had years when the race for the nomination drew many contenders. It may appear, in hindsight, that some recent Republican nominees had the prize handed to them, but it certainly hasn't always been easy for the nominee to claim it.

But its value has been undeniable. Recent history shows that the one who is nominated often wins the election:
  • In 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated seven rivals during the primaries. Most were not serious candidates, but a couple of them continued to compete even after Reagan had secured the nomination.

    Reagan, of course, went on to win that election — and a second term four years later.

  • In 1988, with Reagan prevented by law from seeking a third term, the races for both nominations drew crowded fields. Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, prevailed over Bob Dole and Jack Kemp (who would run on the same ticket eight years later) and went on to be elected in November.

  • As many as a dozen Republicans were contenders, to various degrees, for the 2000 GOP nomination, but, ultimately, it came down to a fight between Bush's son, George W. Bush, and John McCain.
In short, there may be many people who are nominally seeking the GOP nomination — but, usually, only two or three have the organization, the financial support and the winds of history propelling them forward.

This time is different, Cook says. This time, all the usual indicators seem to mean nothing.

None of the arguments for those who would normally be considered "next in line" — Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney — "is particularly convincing," he writes.

Senators are "often grossly overrepresented," Cook observes, but no sitting senators appear to be entering the race.

Governors, both sitting and former, have claimed at least one presidential nomination in all but one of the last nine elections — and the exception was the most recent one. But none of the governors who has been mentioned has generated much excitement.

During the primaries and the caucuses, more attention typically is paid to the contests on the Democratic side because the Republicans almost always unite behind one person early on. It's been 35 years since a battle for the GOP nomination was not resolved well before the last primary vote was cast.

But Cook reports that no one seems to be in the driver's seat for this nomination.

It doesn't appear to be about philosophy — "Among the potential Republican contenders, all oppose abortion and gun control, are skeptical of Big Government and favor cutting taxes and spending," Cook writes — as it is a matter of "style, tone, temperament, and, most important, emphasis."

As Cook sees it, the choice is about which path to take, not the direction — so that means the voters who participate in 2012's Republican primaries will be indicating whether they think their party's initial mission in its presumed return to power should be social, economic or foreign.

It really looks like there may be a battle brewing over the very soul of the party of Lincoln.

And, at this moment, it's as clear as mud who the winner will be.

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