Monday, May 30, 2011

The Circus Is In Town

"Everyone is makin' love
Or else expecting rain."

Bob Dylan
"Desolation Row"

The Republican presidential field for 2012 is taking shape, like it or not. I'm already hearing the mutterings from Republicans who don't like any of their choices.

In the nascent days of the campaign — when no one had actually entered the race yet — a premium was being placed on maturity and experience, someone who had dealt with budgets and had to forge compromises, a governor, perhaps.

Barack Obama, the argument went, is in over his head. He didn't have enough experience — or he didn't have the right kind of experience. Anyone could see he isn't up to the job. The unemployment rate is nearly twice what it was when he took office. The price of a gallon of gas has already doubled.

The key to victory in 2012, went the thinking in Republican circles, is to nominate someone who has demonstrated that he/she is, in the words of George W. Bush, a uniter, not a divider. (Bush himself was never a uniter, but, ironically, his own words may point the way to post–Dubya success.)

Republicans will vote for their nominee. They always do, but they can't win it alone. They need to persuade enough independents — many of whom have been disenchanted with Obama for quite a while but probably still would vote for him over someone who is seen as an extremist — to vote Republican as well.

There will be a few supporters from the other party — there always are — but that is a bonus. If either party starts winning over the other party's members in even modest numbers, that is a signal that things are not going well for the other party.

The battle for the presidency will be decided by the independents.

So the search was on for a "grown–up" — and some noises were heard from some of the petulant children in the GOP's wannabe section who prefer a more extreme style — if not necessarily more extreme politics (although the two are not mutually exclusive).

As those who have been mentioned previously in conversations about the 2012 nomination have been making up their minds about whether to make the run, the field that is emerging does, in fact, lean toward what many folks originally said they wanted.

But now there appears to be a concern that the prospects lack pizzazz. The Republican field is competent enough, say some critics — but boring, too boring for the 21st century.
  • Boring is in, says Howie Carr in the Boston Herald, and that should favor a guy like Mitt Romney, who was a Republican governor in Massachusetts.

    Romney is a "grown–up." Whatever else he is — or isn't — depends on your point of view, as it does with anyone else, but, when all is said and done, he is still a grown–up.

    On that, I think, most of us can agree.

  • "But with eight months to go before the Republican primaries," writes Elaine Kamarck in the Washington Post, "will voters be content with this group of boring guys or go looking for someone more exciting? What, exactly, does being a grown–up mean? And, more important, do grown–ups win?"

    For Republicans who have been living for a chance to "make Obama a one–term president," that is certainly a valid question — especially if you read "grown–up" as meaning stodgy, immovable, old school.

    People have grown accustomed to a new kind of intimacy with their politicians in recent years, and it is only going to get bigger in the future. Savvy political consultants have been making texting and tweeting integral parts of their strategy to personally bond with voters, digitally sidestepping the media. That seems a little too clever — by half — but who knows?

    It tends to be the young who are the first to embrace new technology, and politicians who find ways to tap into and mobilize the young voters will have the inside track for electoral success in the future.

    So the challenge is to present a package that combines appeal to the young with reassurance for older voters that the candidate actually knows what he is doing.

  • Being able to defeat Obama shouldn't be a problem for this group, writes Shelby Steele for the Wall Street Journal.

    He has a record to defend, but his persona, cultivated in 2008 and sharpened in office, outshines his performance. Voters are blinded by the "myth," Steele suggests.

    "There have really always been two Barack Obamas," Steele writes, "the mortal man and the cultural icon. If the actual man is distinctly ordinary, even a little flat and humorless, the cultural icon is quite extraordinary. The problem for Republicans is that they must run against both the man and the myth. In 2008, few knew the man and Republicans were walloped by the myth. Today the man is much clearer, and yet the myth remains compelling."
Steele makes a point of which many Republicans are justifiably fearful — criticism of Obama, even honest disagreement, is dismissed as racism.

And no one wants to be labeled racist.

That is no different, in my mind, from the Republican smokescreen after 9/11 that contended that anyone who disagreed with the president in his conduct of the war on terror was unpatriotic.

Such arguments do not address legitimate concerns. They appeal to emotion, not reason.

The next presidential election must be fought on the grounds of reason, not emotion. There have been many very important issues in recent decades that should have been discussed at length during presidential campaigns — but, instead, got swept under the rug in favor of such diversionary issues as gay marriage, flag burning and swift boating.

That cannot be allowed to happen again.

Steele touches on another important point. Obama does have a record to defend. That is the nature of an incumbent election, and Obama must defend that record. That is what presidents who seek re–election must do. The fact that Obama has never had to do this for any office beyond Illinois state senate is irrelevant.

He must do it now even though his opponent is the generic Republican to whom Gallup polls have shown the president losing ground.

Roland Martin of CNN insists that we won't know the real GOP field until after Labor Day — and he may be right.

I know he would be right if this was 1984. Republican Ronald Reagan waited to declare his intention to run for re–election until early that year — even though some of the biggest names in Democratic politics were lining up to seek their party's nomination.

But, contrary to what Martin contends ("the old model of announcing early is over") things are more accelerated today. Obama's re–election campaign has already been under way for a couple of months — and not only are we months away from the first primary but Obama doesn't even have a challenger in his own party.

That might change, but, for now, it must be assumed that Obama will have no opposition (other than the general Republican field) for more than a year. Nevertheless, his campaign has begun.

It makes sense to me that the serious contenders in the Republican race will be known before Labor Day, even though Martin writes that "[w]ith social media and the ability to raise funds online, it's not that critical to announce early. In fact, the earlier you announce, the more time the media and your opponents have to define and/or attack you."

That's true to a point — but the early announcers also get first crack at the big–money donors. That individual contributor stuff made good copy in 2008 — but a lot more people are out of work (and therefore have less disposable income) now.

Like it or not, Republicans, these are the choices from whom your 2012 nominee is likely to come.

If you aren't pleased with the choices, just remember the campaign that was waged 20 years ago. In 1991, most people thought President George H.W. Bush was invulnerable — in large part because of his whirlwind success in the Gulf War — and, one by one, the big names in the Democratic Party opted out of the race.

In the end, the Democrats nominated some bumpkin named Bill Clinton — who went on to become the Democrats' only two–term president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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