Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Real Domino Theory

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the "domino theory."

It was the justification that was most frequently given when someone wanted to defend American involvement in Vietnam.

The belief was that, if one nation in that part of the world fell to communism, the others would follow in rapid succession, the same as what happens when one domino falls into another domino, which falls into the next domino, which falls into the next one ...

And so on and so on.

The domino theory is no longer used to justify American military activity. But, in the present economic circumstances, the theory might be due for a comeback.

Unless something really dramatic happens between now and November 2012, I think it is obvious that economic issues will dominate the next presidential campaign.

Possibly to the exclusion of everything else.

The evidence is all around us, and it just continues to accumulate. Gas prices are up roughly 25% in the last few months alone. When gas prices go up, the cost of everything else will go up, too, because gas prices affect the cost of transportation.

(Ordinarily, I like to include links to back up my observations — but I don't really have to do that on this one, do I?)

Sure, Americans still care about the war in Afghanistan — and American military activity in Libya. Yes, they still care about education and health care and all that stuff.

But the bottom line — in more and more households, even the ones that have not been touched by unemployment — is economic. Surely the recent battle over the budget that threatened to shut down the government was proof of that.

The last time gas prices were this high in America, in the summer of 2008, you could actually feel whatever political advantage the Republicans may have had up to that point slipping away.

You can make whatever argument you like about how much responsibility George W. Bush and the Republicans bore for the gas price increase. The fact remained that the Republicans were in charge when it happened, and their policies — rightly or wrongly — got the blame, especially after the economy collapsed and jobs were lost by the hundreds of thousands every month.

(Perception is reality.)

I hope that doesn't happen again. But, if it does — and even if it doesn't — the results of a recent Gallup poll suggest to me that voters may be inclined to make a different kind of decision in 2012 than they made in 2008.

And one thing I think voters will be looking for in their president is someone who has experience — and, preferably, a record of success — in dealing with budgets.

That may be a tall order in 2012 when practically every state has had to do some budget cutting, and it may be awhile before we know if those cuts have helped or hurt. But most modern governors can legitimately claim to have presided over the budget processes in their states from start to finish.

When the economy imploded in the fall of 2008, the presidential nominees were set. They were both senators. In fact, the only candidate on either major ticket with any executive experience in budgetary matters was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

I'm not saying that she
  • was qualified to hold national office, nor am I saying

  • she was qualified to be a "heartbeat away from the presidency."
But she was the only governor in the bunch.

According to Gallup, governors and business leaders are the ones Americans trust the most these days on economic issues.

That could be good news for Mitt Romney, who happens to have both on his resume.

Well, he isn't a governor now, but he was governor of Massachusetts for four years, and he organized the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He's exploring the possibility of a run for the GOP nomination and is widely expected to be a candidate.

It might also be good news for Donald Trump, who was said to be "seriously" considering entering the race last October.

That doesn't necessarily mean either man is qualified to be president. But it is not too outlandish to imagine that an electorate that apparently thought less than four years in the U.S. Senate was adequate preparation for the presidency for Barack Obama, that a few years as governor of Texas (which, for the most part, is a figurehead position) was enough for George W. Bush, that a career mostly spent in front of movie cameras was enough for Ronald Reagan and a career mostly as a peanut farmer was enough for Jimmy Carter could be persuaded to give either man a shot.

There are other governors who have been mentioned as potential candidates, some of whom may be more likely to enter the race than others. But those findings could be encouraging for the likes of Palin, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour and others.

I'm sure there will be additional issues to consider, but here are some of Gallup's findings that jump out at me:
  • Nearly 60% of respondents said they had a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of confidence in their state governors on economic issues.

  • Two–fifths of respondents said they had "only a little" confidence in their governors or "almost none." That seems like a high unfavorable — until you look at the unfavorables for the others. Then it doesn't look so bad.

  • Business leaders got high marks from 54% of respondents and low marks from 43%.

  • Obama broke even, 50–50, mirroring his approval ratings.
The rest came in under 50% in the "great deal" and "fair amount" of confidence rating — and a majority of respondents gave them high unfavorables. That isn't a very promising combination for other potential candidates, especially those from Congress.

Americans tend to put a lot of faith in governors. Four of the five men who were elected president between 1976 and 2004 had been governors, and nearly half of the men who were president in the 20th century had been governor.

The American experience with governors has been pretty good. They're familiar with the demands of an executive job, and they understand the need for leadership and compromise skills.

The big drawback for governors tends to be that they don't usually have much experience with foreign or military matters, but, as I say, it doesn't appear (right now) that foreign policy will play much of a role in 2012.

Of course, that could change if another Egypt or Libya pops up. With 19 months remaining before the voters go to the polls, anything could happen to change the dynamics of the race.

But, whatever else may be introduced into the mix, it seems all but certain to me that the economy will be the #1 concern for most voters. And Obama will be judged on how things look compared to when he was elected.

Pretty slogans worked in the last election. It's going to take more than that to persuade the voters this time.

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