Woe to the Republican political consultant responsible for generating brilliant spin about the current crop of GOP presidential candidates.
In theory, they should have an easy job. Friday’s unemployment rate, showing that just 54,000 new jobs got created in May, only adds to the view that President Obama has at best a shakey hold on the nation’s economy. The GOP has what appears to be a solid target in a president who took office when the nation’s unemployment rate was at 7.6 percent, and has spent the past two and a half years watching it struggle to break out of 9 percent.
The challenge for the GOP spin masters, though, is all those pesky naysayers … on their own side!
I’m still hoping someone else gets in.
It’s hard to figure out what the party truly wants in the “perfect” nominee. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were written off early on, and surprised everyone with landslide victories. Nobody was predicting those outcomes a year and a half before the 1980 and 1992 election results rolled in.
Trying to figure out whether Obama can be defeated is a fool’s game; there are too many things that could happen between now and November 2012 to change the dynamic of next year’s presidential campaign over and over and over again.
But when you consider that the Republicans begin voting in January in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary — and that most other states are rushing to frontload the pack — it’s not that early to be assessing the current field. And by that, I’m referring to their chances of winning the nomination.
I think the current field of candidates fall into three categories: the Grown Ups, the Flame Throwers, and the Wanderers in the Wilderness. The Grown Ups are the ones who act like general election candidates from the very beginning — Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr., Tim Pawlenty. Their supporters seem confident they have the appeal to beat President Obama, but worry they might struggle during the primaries to “please the base,” meaning the kind of staunch conservatives who prefer ideological purity to pragmatism.
That’s where the Flame Throwers come in. They don’t talk much about the specifics of job creation, cutting federal spending or saving Medicare … instead they prefer denouncing demons like Godless secular humanism and socialism, or the cultural elites who spread Grey Poupon on their dinner rolls while sipping Evian and looking down on “real Americans.” These candidates — Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich — aim to please the true believers first and worry about the general election later. Their supporters are passionate about them and could care less if they’re not considered “electable” — after all, the people who oppose them tend to be socialists, degenerates and nose-pickers to begin with.
Then we have candidates like Herman Cain, the Georgia businessman making his first run for national office, hoping his fortune makes him competitive … while being almost completely ignored by the news media; or a candidate like Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, hoping to jump from badly defeated officeholder to U.S. President — a first — in a bid for the White House that’s been largely ignored by the media.
So how do I rank their chances of becoming the next nominee? Well, take a look:
MICHELE BACHMANN: Now, let me get this straight: Bachmann as a serious presidential candidate? The one who has inspired columns like “The 10 Craziest Michele Bachmann Quotes”? Well, the liberals got to cheer for Dennis Kucinch as their one true believer, not-gonna-compromise candidate in 2008, then watched him go down in flames. So I guess staunch conservatives can do the same with Bachmann. Rating: D
HERMAN CAIN: A year ago, it would have been easy to dismiss Cain’s presidentila bid as an ego-driven flight of fancy. The CEO of Godfather’s Pizza deciding he’ll go from rich business owner to president, without holding a prominent office like governor or senator first? Ross Perot tried that twice and failed to carry a single state. But … then came 2010, and you need look no further than Florida, one of the nation’s largest states, which elected a business owner, Rick Scott, as governor in his first bid for public office. Not only that, but he beat a sitting attorney general in the primary and a sitting chief financial officer in the general after spending $70 million of his own money. The verdict: being an outsider with no experience wasn’t such a bad thing last year. The fact that Scott’s approval rating is now 33 percent doesn’t really impact Cain.
I’m skeptical he can do what Perot failed to accomplish, and I actually thought Donald Trump had a better chance of going from businessman to president than Cain did (it helps to have your own reality TV show) until Trump dropped out. But I wouldn’t write Cain off yet. He fires up conservative crowds and has a tidy outsider message. Being a successful business owner at a time when the economy is lagging won’t hurt. If Congress and Obama both end up being very unpopular next year, that outsider message might actually resonate. Rating: C
NEWT GINGRICH: Hasn’t held office since 1998, left under a scandal, now wants a comeback, fumbled it badly by attacking the Ryan Medicare plan. Bye bye Newt. Rating: F
JON HUNTSMAN: I believe the White House when they say they’re nervous about running against Huntsman next year. He’d likely be a great general election candidate, one with extensive foreign policy experience, a social and economic moderate who won’t scare off independents, someone who looks perfect for the “It’s Time for a Change” mantra. Oh, well, not gonna happen. Huntsman is no flame thrower, he rarely if ever attacks the president — who did, after all, appoint him ambassador to China — and probably has about a zero chance of exciting the GOP base enough to win anything more than his home state of Utah. Rating: D
TIM PAWLENTY: Pawlenty raises a fascinating question: can anyone be this dull and win his party’s presidential nomination? Have you ever seen Tim Pawlenty give an interview on Fox or CNN? He drones on about complex budgetary matters, his expression changes once every eight or nine minutes, his voice is flat and monotone, and it’s darn near impossible not to stop absorbing what the poor guy is saying after a few minutes. The former governor of Minnesota seems polite, friendly, a nice guy to have as a neighbor. But he seems destined to get lost in the crowd, particularly when the media get bored with him and moves on. Rating: C
MITT ROMNEY: The former governor of Massachusetts is the presumed front-runner, the guy who lost last time and now deserves the nomination because it’s his turn (like Nixon in 1968, Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008). He’s the businessman who says he can create jobs without those costly stimulus plans.
He seems like he’s right out of central casting for the general election. But …
He has one problem: he’s the former governor of Massachusetts, where he signed into law a universal health care plan that required all Bay State residents to buy health insurance — just like ObamaCare. Oops. Poor Romney is now running around saying it’s wrong for the federal government to impose a mandate on all 50 states, but okay for one state to impose a mandate on all its citizens. Not good. Is there any beast more deeply hated among the GOP faithful than ObamaCare? Not that I can think of. Romney needs to figure out a brilliant end run around this one. So far he hasn’t, although there’s still seven months until January. And he can keep plugging that central argument: Do you want to beat Obama or not? I can do it. Rating: B
SARAH PALIN: It would be hard to imagine a candidate who has been written off more solidly than Palin. She’s the one-term governor of Alaska who quit midway through her term, then rushed to her own reality show, who enfuriates liberals and scares “serious” Republicans with comments about “blood libel” or “death panels” … Could there ever been a more polarizing figure less likely to win over independent voters? Well, that’s the rap against Palin, and I know a lot of Republicans who dismiss her chances outright.
But I don’t. Palin has a passionate following within the GOP — strong conservatives, evangelicals, gun rights advocates and other critical wings of the party love Palin. Every liberal criticism she gets causes them to circle the wagons around her. People who are passionate about politics tend to vote in primaries. And right now, a lot of GOP voters are angry at Obama, angry at Washington, and don’t want compromise. Palin is low on specifics, but they don’t want to hear some hoity-toity think tank plan for reducing spending gradually over the next 20 years. Palin has more personality than many of her competitors, and the ability to play the victim role like a finely tuned violin whenever the liberals in the media chomp at the bit as she rolls into town. I can’t think of a single opponent who can attract as much fire in the bellies of voters as Palin. Write her off? In your dreams. Rating: A
RON PAUL: Who can forget 2008, when the Texas congressman and strong Libertarian raised tons of money through the Internet, and built up a network of excited, enthusiastic young Libertarian-minded voters who loved his message of cutting government spending, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and letting states decide controversial social issues like gay marriage and abortion? Who can forget Paul making lots of waves, then failing to win a single primary. Who can forget the lesson of 2008 that the Republican Party today is no Libertarian party, with or without the Tea Party folks along for the ride. Rating: D
RICK SANTORUM: Every election cycle, a candidate gets in that you just know isn’t going anywhere. It’s not that they’re bad candidates, or have scandals, or provoke controversy. They’re just toast from day one. In 2000, we had Dan Quayle or Orrin Hatch — nobody thought either one would defeat George W. Bush or John McCain for the GOP nomination. In 2008, no Democrat expected Joe Biden or Chris Dodd to topple either Hillary Clinton or Obama. Now, in 2012, meet Rick Santorum. Rating: F.
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