GOP’s 2012 Field Begins to Take Shape

Huckabee said, “all the factors say go, but my heart says no.” He walked away, even though some early polling showed that he might have won the GOP nomination. His decision to sit out the campaign was based on what he expected to be a difficult, uphill battle against President Obama, who has already begun raising his $1 billion target to fund his re-election campaign.

 

Another consideration was all that Huckabee would have to give up if he did run. This includes his Fox News TV show, his nationally syndicated radio program, and the paid speeches he now gives around the country.

 

Huckabee joins several other popular Republicans, including Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, South Dakota Senator John Thune Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, and most recently, Donald Trump, who, after taking a close look at their 2012 prospects, have decided to opt out.

 

The decision by Huckabee to drop out leaves the GOP frontrunner status, by default, to another veteran of the run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

 

ROMNEY DEFENDS HIS MASSACHUSETTS HEALTH PLAN

 

There are even more questions about Romney’s chances to beat Obama next year than there were in 2008, but his credible showing in that nomination battle silenced many of the critics who had said that as a Mormon, Romney could never be elected president.

 

Otherwise, Romney was widely seen than seen as a seasoned, well-financed and generally attractive candidate for the general election in November, with the main question being whether he would be acceptable and be able to energize, the GOP voter base.

 

Aside from his religion, Romney’s greatest strength, his proven ability to attract enough centrist voters to win in a liberal state like Massachusetts, was also seen as a liability with increasingly conservative Republican primary voters and caucus participants.

 

During the 2008 primary campaign, Romney faced down the questions about his faith, and the sincerity of his relatively recent conversion to more conservative stands on important moral issues.

 

Now, however, Romney faces another troubling policy issue which weakens his credibility in attacking President Obama’s first term record. That is the embarrassing similarity between Obamacare and Romney’s own Massachusetts health care plan which he instituted as governor five years ago.

 

Four years ago, Romney was widely criticized during the primaries for the changes in his position on social issues. Rather than exposing himself to the same kind of criticism now, Romney made a speech last week which defended his Massachusetts health plan, while trying to differentiate it from Obamacare, which he branded a failure.

 

In his speech, Romney argued that Obamacare should be repealed because health care reform should be left up to the individual states. He called Obamacare a federal “power grab” and a “government takeover of health care.”

 

DRAWING DISTINCTIONS WITH OBAMACARE

 

Drawing distinctions between his state plan and Obamacare, Romney said that his plan did not raise or create new taxes, as Obama’s did, nor did it reduce coverage for seniors, while Obamacare cuts $500 billion from Medicare over the next decade.

 

Romney acknowledged that some have advised him to repudiate his Massachusetts plan as “a boneheaded mistake,” but he refused to do so, saying that “wouldn’t be honest. I, in fact, did what I believe was right for the people of my state,” Romney said.

 

The Romney speech was welcomed by the Obama White House, which chose to interpret it as a prominent GOP candidate’s endorsement of Obama’s basic health care approach, which it clearly is. Meanwhile the media pundits harped incessantly on the similarities between Obamacare and what they dubbed Romneycare, and how it would deny the Republicans a potentially winning issue in next year’s general election campaign, if Romney is at the top of the ticket.

 

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters the day after Romney’s speech, “we have said before that the health care reform that then Governor Romney signed into law in Massachusetts is in many ways similar to the legislation that resulted in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).”

 

Some media analysts suggested that the White House was praising Romney’s plan in order to maneuver Republicans into rejecting him as the party’s 2012 standard bearer, because, these analysts said, Obama’s re-election team sees Romney as the toughest of their potential opponents next year in the general election.

 

However, as the party’s frontrunner, Romney’s speech defending his Massachusetts health care plan angered some GOP advocates, including the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. It said that Romney had “fulfilled the White House’s fondest wishes, defending the mandate-subsidize-overregulate program he enacted as Massachusetts Governor in 2006″ while attacking Obama’s version of the same approach.

 

The editorial blasted Romney for putting himself in a position “in which Republicans attack him on policy while Democrats defend him on policy but attack him as a hypocrite.”

 

The editorial also faults Romney for missing the opportunity to emerge “as one of ObamaCare’s most potent critics,” if he had been willing to say that, “as Governor he made a good-faith effort to resolve some of health care’s long-running dysfunctions, but that it hadn’t worked out. . . Instead, he has lashed himself to the contradiction of attacking Mr. Obama’s plan while claiming his own is different.”

 

But with last week’s speech, Romney seems to have made his choice. He prefers to be ridiculed by Democrats and Republicans alike for trying to defend an intellectually indefensible position on health care, rather than face, once again, the accusation that he changes his position on critical issues too often.

 

But with Huckabee now out of the race, there is nobody currently in a position to challenge Romney’s weak frontrunner status. This does, however, present an opportunity, for a capable and determined Republican “dark horse” candidate to come forward and kindle the party’s enthusiasm, as Sara Palin did four years ago when John McCain made her his surprise choice as his running mate.

 

2012 RACE STILL “WIDE OPEN”

 

Respected pollster Scott Rasmussen said that the race for the GOP nomination is still “wide open. For the moment, Romney is a vulnerable frontrunner and many Republican voters are looking elsewhere.” Rasmussen added that the level of party support for the current presidential candidates, including Romney, is so thin that a new GOP candidate, perhaps a state governor, could still enter the race any time until the end of this year and turn it around.

 

Rasmussen also subscribes to the belief that, all else being equal, the health of the economy by the fall of 2012 could be the determining factor in the race. If the recovery picks up steam, he believes that Obama will likely win a second term. If the economy stumbles, the Republicans will beat him easily. But if the US economy presents a mixed picture, as it does now, the 2012 presidential race is likely to be close. Rasmussen also said that right now, the economy is Obama’s single biggest political vulnerability, because only 34% of the American people say today they believe he is handling it correctly.

 

A PARTY IN SEARCH OF A DARK HORSE

 

Today, Romney must be judged as the GOP front runner, but there are still many party loyalists who do not trust his social conservative credentials, or who remain uncomfortable with his Mormon faith. Some, like the editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal believe that Romney’s refusal to disavow his Massachusetts health plan has put him in an untenable position. They believe that in the end, he will either have to admit that his Massachusetts plan was a mistake, because of its shared essential features with Obamacare, or give up hope of winning the nomination.

 

Other party leaders are willing for now to suspend these doubts and worries, and focus instead, on Romney’s strong points as a potential party standard bearer. His extensive business experience is a plus among fiscal conservatives, and his proven ability to appeal to centrist voters holds out the hope of victory in November, 2012, to those Republicans willing to do almost anything, at this point, to deny Obama a second term.

 

Meanwhile, just about everyone in the party is still searching the political horizon for the appearance of an acceptable dark horse alternative.

 

The latest to throw their hats into the ring, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul, can be counted upon to enliven the candidate debates over the next year.

 

GINGRICH’S COMEBACK BID

 

Gingrich has a long and checkered history in national politics. As a brilliant political tactician, he ended decades of Democrat domination of the House, engineering the GOP’s brilliant 1994 midterm electoral victory.

 

The successful campaign was based upon Gingrich’s 10-point “Contract for America,” which enumerated the legislative items they promised the House would vote upon during the first 100 days of the session if the Republicans were to gain control.

 

But as Speaker, Gingrich was outmaneuvered by President Bill Clinton, and just four years later, he had become so demonized by the Democrats and their media allies that he felt compelled to step down as Speaker and resign his House seat for the good of the party, after the disappointing results of the 1998 midterm election.

 

Since then, Gingrich has been trying to rebuild his political image as perhaps the GOP’s most inventive strategist. At the same time, he has admitted to making serious mistakes in his personal life, and sought forgiveness for his past sins from social conservatives and the religious right.

 

KEEPING OBAMA HONEST

 

Gingrich is certainly the thinking man’s presidential candidate, with an intellectually sharp, issue oriented view of the campaign. As long as he remains in the race, Gingrich can be counted upon to pounce on any attempt by Obama to fudge or cloud the true issues, and to point out any inconsistencies in the president’s campaign.

 

In an address to the Georgia state Republican Party convention, Gingrich predicted that Obama’s “radical, left-wing values” would drive the nation to ruin if he were to win a second term.

 

Always adept at turning the provocative phrase, Gingrich in his convention speech called Obama “the most successful food stamp president in modern American history. But what we need,” he said, “is a pay check president, not a food stamp president.”

 

That was relatively mild, compared to his statement last year that Obama’s approach to American foreign policy may be best understood as “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”

 

He also said that the proposal to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City was akin to placing a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum. That is another example of one of Gingrich’s provocative statements which was both notable and clearly right on the issue.

 

In an interview with the Associated Press on Friday, Gingrich claimed that he has matured and mellowed since his days as House Speaker.

 

FIXING THE TAX SYSTEM

 

Gingrich favors lowering the current 35% corporate tax rate to 12.5%, while eliminating the patchwork of tax credits and loopholes which GE has taken advantage of. Gingrich would also reduce the estate and capital gains taxes for individuals. If tax rates are reduced, and the loopholes are eliminated, Gingrich expects federal tax receipts to increase because there will be more incentive to invest, generating more jobs and fewer opportunities and reasons for companies to exploit clever ways to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

 

In his first campaign speech as a candidate, Gingrich claimed credit for balancing the federal budget and paying down the debt during his tenure as Speaker of the House. He promises that, if elected president, he would do so again.

 

Gingrich is also strong in his analysis of foreign policy issues. After discovering that Osama bin Laden had been hiding in a Pakistani city for years, while the US had been pouring billions of dollars in aid into the country, Gingrich says that it is time for the US to reexamine its relationship with Pakistan. “I was trying to figure out what the word ally meant,” Gingrich said. “I know what the word sucker meant. How stupid do you think we are?”

 

Whether Gingrich wins the nomination or not, these are the kinds of comments which will light up any candidate debate, and put the president and his policies on the spot.

 

CRITICISM OF RYAN’S MEDICARE PLAN

 

Gingrich has already gotten himself into trouble with his fellow Republican conservatives with an unguarded policy comment he made just days after formally announcing his candidacy. On Sunday, he criticized House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal in his federal budget plan to restructure Medicare in ten years into a fixed-cost, defined contribution program, rather than its current defined benefits structure which has led to the sharp increase in Medicare costs. Gingrich said that Ryan’s proposed change was too radical. “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.”

 

The comment drew fire from conservative talk show host and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, who said that Gingrich’s attack on Ryan’s plan, at the same time that it has come under fire from the Democrats, was “an unforgivable mistake.” Bennett also said that by making the comment, Gingrich has already “taken himself out of consideration” for the 2012 presidential nomination. Bennett added that Gingrich’s harsh characterization of the plan as “right wing social engineering gave the Ryan plan’s Democrat opponents more ammunition. Bennett also said Gingrich’s criticism contradicted the general words of praise which Gingrich offered for the Ryan plan when it first came out, even though Gingrich added a caveat at the time that one could “quibble over details.”

 

Responding to the criticism from Bennett, Gingrich admitted that he should not have responded to the interviewer’s question the way he did. He claims that what he meant to say was that Ryan’s Medicare reform proposal needed to be explained to the American people in order to gain their support for it. “I don’t believe either side should impose on the American people something the American people haven’t thought through. My point was we need to have the discussion and listen to people’s concerns and make sure that by the time you pass it you have a majority who agrees with it.”

 

Gingrich reiterated that he is “committed to getting a Medicare reform bill. I have said over and over again that Ryan is a great and bright guy and has shown remarkable courage in doing this.”

 

However, as is always the case in such Washington controversies, far more people will hear about Gingrich’s initial critical statement about Ryan’s proposal than his later explanation.

 

GINGRICH AS A LOOSE CANNON

 

Reading between the lines of Bennett’s comments, his problem seems to be that Gingrich is still too prone to making provocative comments that can be too easily used by his Democrat opponents to the detriment of Republican positions. In this case, Gingrich damaged the party’s budget balancing proposal, which is at the heart of the debate in Washington over the central issue of how to bring federal spending under control and the budget into balance.

 

No Republican in his right mind would try to impose a policy straight jacket on Gingrich. His intellect and his grasp of the issues is simply too valuable to party leaders to even try to do that. But party leaders think they have a right to expect him to disagree, if he must, in a way that doesn’t undermine major party political initiatives, as he appears to have done to Ryan.

 

Bennett says that Ryan told him that he felt “blindsided” by Gingrich’s comment. It is a pity that Ryan and Gingrich, two of the party’s brightest policy experts, are not on the same page on such crucial issues. If Gingrich and Ryan could cooperate more closely in formulating party policy, it will be easier for the Republican presidential candidate, whoever he might be, to successfully challenge Obama’s re-election bid next year.

 

RON PAUL’S CANDIDACY OVERTAKEN BY THE TEA PARTY

 

Congressman Paul’s repeat bid for the nomination could be seen as a victim of his own political success. In 2008, Paul was the first national GOP candidate to recognize and exploit the appeal of what later came to be known as the Tea Party movement. Throughout the 2008 primary campaign, Paul consistently outperformed better known candidates with his grass roots appeal which became the forerunner of the now familiar Tea Party platform.

 

The surprising popularity of his 2008 campaign was an early hint of the power of the Tea Party movement which was to erupt just months after Obama took office, and dominate the 2010 midterm election.

 

Today, Ron Paul’s political prospects have been overshadowed by the Tea Party movement. The movement backed Paul’s son, Rand, in a successful bid to win a Kentucky US Senate seat in November.

 

The Republicans who supported Ron Paul four years ago will quickly transfer their support to any of the Tea Party figures who are now considering making a run. These include 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

 

PALIN AND BACHMANN COURT THE TEA PARTY VOTE

 

Palin has a proven, powerful appeal to conservative voters, but she has been demonized by the Democrats and the liberal media since she burst upon the scene as John McCain’s surprise choice as a 2008 running mate. After resigning as the governor of Alaska, Palin became an influential party kingmaker before the 2010 midterm election. She has now found a highly visible and profitable niche, as a Fox News commentator and popular public speaker. In addition, her support for insurgent Tea Party candidates around the country, some of whom proved to be more successful than others, angered members of the GOP old guard, who have already tried to sabotage her potential candidacy with a media whispering campaign.

 

Palin may have more of an impact on the outcome of the campaign if she does not run now, and positions herself for a possible presidential run in 2016, or, if Obama is not re-elected, in 2020.

 

Bachmann also is young enough to wait for 2016 if she decides that the chances against success are too long for a run now. By that time, she would likely be facing a lot of competition from the crop of Tea Party freshmen who were sent to Washington by the voters last November.

 

SANTORUM AND PAWLENTY

 

Aside from a handful of “minor” Republican figures who have entered the race, but remain largely unknown, there are two other declared candidates who do enjoy some national name recognition. They are former Pennsylvania conservative senator Rick Santorum, and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

 

Santorum was, for a while, one of the up and coming conservative stars of the GOP. But he had the misfortune of running in a state whose voters have trended more toward the Democrats in recent national elections, and he got swept away in the Obama electoral tide of 2008. It is also significant that when the time came for the state party to choose a candidate for the 2010 midterm, it turned to another conservative, former Congressman Pat Toomey, rather than Santorum, to narrowly defeat Democrat Congressman Joe Sestak in the race to fill Arlen Specter’s involuntarily vacated senate seat.

 

Santorum was quick to criticize Romney’s defense of his Massachusetts health plan last week, but it seems unlikely that Santorum would win over many of Romney’s supporters to his own camp.

 

Pawlenty was one of the first figures to announce his candidacy for the nomination. While he has no glaring faults, his candidacy has failed to generate any enthusiasm among the party faithful. While he remains in the mix, he is not considered likely to remain in the first tier of candidates for long unless he can happen upon a more compelling campaign theme.

 

BRING ON THE GOP GOVERNORS

 

There are at least three more potential candidates, including two current and one former governor, who have generated a good deal of interest and speculation in both party circles and the media.

 

One is Mitch Daniels, who served as the White House Director of Management and Budget for two years under George W. Bush before he became the governor of Indiana in 2005. Now in his second term, Daniels has proven that his conservative approach to government finance can keep his Rust-Belt state solvent despite the worst recession since World War II. He is also unafraid to challenge Obama over the fatal flaws in his Obamacare plan, while offering his own, more practical alternatives.

 

Daniels is also refreshingly normal. He explains his positions calmly and, as governor, has avoided some of the more bitterly partisan social issues. He has preferred instead to emphasize policies designed to revive the state’s economy and balance its budget. Some fault Daniels for lacking the burning ambition for political power that has driven so many recent presidential candidates, while others praise him for it.

 

He has, characteristically, taken all the speculation about a possible presidential run from prominent GOP opinion makers very much in stride. He has promised to announce by the end of this month whether he will enter the race.

 

Another potential candidate is the popular former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. He is known as a fiscal conservative with a mix of positions on social issues. He is just getting back into the GOP national political game after completing a 20-month stint as Obama’s ambassador to China.

 

NEW JERSEY’S ANTICANDIDATE

 

Finally, there is the GOP’s anti-candidate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His name keeps popping up in every discussion of the race for the 2012 nomination, The gruff, overweight Christie is the antithesis of the model for today’s polished, media savvy, successful politician. He was a virtual unknown, even in New Jersey, before he ran in the state primary in June, 2009, for the right to challenge the Democrat incumbent governor, Jon Corzine.

 

Corzine, entered politics in 2000 by using the personal fortune he had made on Wall Street to crush his GOP opponent for a New Jersey US Senate seat. He then did the same when he decided to leave the Senate to run for governor in 2005. But in his 2009 race for re-election. Corzine was upset by Christie, who ran on a conservative-Tea Party-style platform. He narrowly beat Corzine in the 3-way race, winning 48.5% of the vote.

 

Christies GOP victory, and another in the Virginia governor’s race on the same day, were the first sign of the rising Tea Party political tide. But what has made Christie so attractive to GOP conservatives today has been his efforts to actually carry out his promises to rein in the overspending by the New Jersey state government.

 

CHRISTIE MEANS WHAT HE SAYS

 

After years of scandal-plagued leadership and chronic deficits, followed by rising taxes, Christie has imposed fiscal discipline, and has had the courage to tell the state’s most powerful special interests, to their faces, that he was cutting programs and benefits for their ultimate good. That was impressive enough, but Christie amazed the national political establishment when he did the unthinkable last year, by cancelling a highly popular, and partially federally funded rail tunnel under the Hudson River, because he said that New Jersey could not afford to pay for its share of the massive cost overruns for the project.

 

Editorials screamed in outrage, and the federal government even billed New Jersey for the work already done on the cancelled tunnel project, but Christie held firm. That won him the admiration of fiscal conservatives who recognized political courage when they saw it. They have accepted his repeated declarations that he is not interested in the 2012 presidential nomination as sincere. But that hasn’t stopped them from talking about a possible grass roots draft Christie movement, especially if no declared GOP candidate, frontrunner or not, can generate enough enthusiasm before the national convention next year to beat Obama in the general election.

 

OBAMA’S PROSPECTS

 

Some have suggested that the lack of a dominant GOP frontrunner at this point of the 2012 campaign, and the fact that so many prominent Republicans have declined to run, reflects Obama’s perceived strength as a candidate for re-election. But 17 months before the presidential election, it would be foolish to make any firm projections about the outcome. However, the overall shape of the race is becoming clearer.

 

First of all, the whispers heard in some liberal Democrat circles after last November’s electoral debacle of mounting a serious primary challenge will not materialize. While the liberal discontent may be real, they have no viable alternative to put up against Obama, notwithstanding some idle speculation about Hillary Clinton.

 

Part of the reason why there will be no challenge to Obama is the political adjustment he made after the midterm election. This includes the tax compromise he reached with congressional Republicans, and the changes in White House policy and personnel he made to defuse the opposition that had built up against him in the American business community.

 

Obama’s relations with the new Republican majority in the House are still rough, and the business community still does not trust him. However, he has demonstrated enough flexibility and political savvy to assure those in his own party who have to run on the ticket he heads, that he can function in an environment of divided government, while laying the foundation for a competitive 2012 campaign. In addition, in running for re-election as the incumbent, Obama will enjoy the natural advantages of any incumbent president, including the ability to control the daily national news cycle and use the power of the federal government to reward his political allies.

 

2012 OUTCOME STILL UNPREDICTABLE

 

The small bump in Obama’s job approval rating from the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden two weeks ago has faded, and fallen back below 50%. However, at this stage in his first term, he has plenty of time to recover sufficiently to win re-election.

 

His victory is by no means assured, because many potentially crucial political variables are in play. These include the state of the job recovery, to the price of gasoline on the domestic scene, along with the unrest now sweeping the Middle East to the progress in Obama’s war of choice in Afghanistan, abroad. The uncertainties are so great, that making a prediction of the outcome of the 2012 election would be foolish.

 

With regard to the issues, there is the contrast in the ways in which Obama and the Republicans propose to deal with the chronic federal budget deficit, as well as deep philosophical differences with regard to Obama’s liberal environmental and regulatory policies.

 

The reaction of voters to these developments and issues has yet to become apparent. As was the case with the Obamacare debate in 2009, both Democrats and Republicans believe that the American people will come around to support their positions. In 2009, the Republicans won the political debate, even though the Democrats and Obama were able to push the unpopular measure through. The Democrats then had to pay the price for defying the will of the American people at the polls in November of last year.