Newt Gingrich is about to start running for president. Newt Gingrich! For the Grand Old Party, this raises an old political question: "Who the hell else you got?"
In fact, there are quite a few, few, or more accurately none, with any real prospect of sitting in the Oval Office. So weak is the Republican field that opportunity appears to beckon anyone and everyone except Jeb Bush, the chiseled South Dakota Sen. John Thune, and the decidedly unchiseled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. (These three appear to be calculating that Barack Obama won’t be beaten, so they’ll wait for 2016. )
This week even brought the sudden appearance of former Louisiana congressman and long-ago governor Buddy Roemer, who says he'd "love to be president." But as they say in the Big Easy, 'who dat?' Nationally, almost no one knows Roemer, and what he cites as his calling card now is less his political past than his present experience as a small-time banker whose community bank didn't get bailed out. It's his version of the peanut-farmer positioning that Jimmy Carter took to the country in 1976. In a serious time, America seems unlikely to fall for that again. But maybe, Roemer must think, you can't be so sure about the tea-addled GOP primary voters, who last year nominated a Senate candidate who had to deny she was a witch before going down in flames.
Roemer has been described by a New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist as "still crazy after all these years." Still, the fact that he sees it as sane to trek to Iowa and New Hampshire actually reveals less about him than about the shallow footprints of the other hopefuls who've already been there. As a whole, the Republican lineup is one of demagoguery, mediocrity, or masquerade.
Take Tim Pawlenty, a conservative but credible governor of Minnesota who could run as T-Paw, the commonsense–Sam's Club–candidate. Instead he has rushed to audition as a Tea Party rabble-rouser. In his flat Midwestern voice, he recently sounded an unconvincing shout-out to a gathering of the true believers, urging them to "rise up." Pawlenty, who knows better after eight years in the fiscal trenches as governor, opposes raising the federal debt limit — which could trigger a government default on bonds, explode interest rates, destroy the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and more than conceivably collapse the national and global economy.
Fortunately for all of us, for Pawlenty, and for the other un-presidential GOP wannabes offering up this financial hemlock, they'll probably get the benefit of pandering to uninformed disaffection without having to face the consequences. Republican congressional leaders will struggle mightily with their own ranks to avert a showdown in coming weeks that would make the government shutdown of 1995 look like a minor inconvenience. (Although for them, the strategy of kowtowing to the right and then backing off could go wrong; as Barbara Tuchman reminded us in The Guns of August, none of the major powers wanted World War I, but miscalculation and the momentum of events pushed them into catastrophe.)
Pawlenty is making the same fundamental mistake that undid Mitt Romney in 2008 — recasting himself as something he's not. Romney proved then, and he proves now, Sen. Edward Kennedy's verdict on him during their 1994 Senate contest, during which he told Romney in a debate: "You’re not pro-choice; you're multiple choice." Romney had to flip-flop on abortion rights to have a chance as a Republican presidential candidate and he opted for a total political face-lift that failed to persuade primary voters that he was anything but two-faced. He might have won the nomination running as who he was, a McCain adviser suggests, and then in the face of the financial crisis, drawn on his economic credentials to edge out Obama. I doubt the latter, but there’s no doubt that Romney has now doubled down on the masquerade that didn’t fool enough of the Republicans, enough of the time, the last time out.
Romney should be the nominee in 2012 under the traditional GOP rubric of primogeniture: The party always selects the next person in line. But he wears the mark of Cain for the cross-party health reform he passed as a governor; Romneycare in Massachusetts more than resembles Obamacare in America. He flip-flops here too. Having defended the individual mandate as a national policy in 2008, he claims today that the decision should be left to each of the 50 states. This is pathetic and probably unavailing. The angry Republican right, which is now the dominant stream of the party, can’t abide the mandate at any level. It would be wrong even as a matter of states' rights.
To compensate for his mortal sin, Romney also tacks constantly and across the board to the conservative fringe. This compounds his image of neatly combed phoniness and marginalizes him for a general election if he could ever get there. The odds are high that he can’t. Despite all his exertions, a Winthrop University poll of 11 Southern states ranks him as fourth choice among GOP voters — at 6.9 percent, barely ahead of Pawlenty and behind both Gingrich and Sarah Palin. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee comes in first at 21.9 percent; we’ll dispose of him later.)
Palin, Gingrich, deposed Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and delusional Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are the four horses of the reactionary apocalypse.
Gingrich positions himself as the informed — well, the intelligent — Palin. He earnestly preaches personal morality, explaining that he’s reformed since marrying his third wife and former mistress and converting to Catholicism. Both Palin and Gingrich have national approval ratings that approximate those of Richard Nixon in exile. Either could be the first choice of Democrats for the Republican nomination.
Not far behind, because they would run so far behind in the fall, are Bachmann and Santorum. Her unmoored expostulations and his proud extremism would drive independents to Obama in droves. Santorum, crushed in his reelection bid in 2006, wouldn’t dare run for the Senate again, so he set his eyes on the ultimate prize. Anyone can fantasize, and he has. His latest issue is a whiny complaint that Fox News has suspended him (and Gingrich) from their roles as commentators because of their impending candidacies, even though the network so far has spared Palin and Huckabee.
Then there are the fallback choices of a Republican establishment on the brink of panic.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is a veteran super-lobbyist who wouldn’t have to invite industry executives into the Oval Office for a closed-door meeting to write an energy policy that would give away the store; he could just meet with himself. He also inserts his foot in his mouth whenever he’s talking about race; at first he defended, and then reluctantly came to oppose, a state license plate honoring the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Imagine the party of Lincoln sending Barbour to challenge the first African-American president. He is widely known in his native South, but he is the first choice of only one of 282 Republican voters nationwide in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels racks up all of 3 percent in the same poll; bland, competent, and occasionally even given to sensible observations about the need to raise taxes, he fares better inside the Beltway than he ever will out in the Republican countryside. If he made it to the podium for an acceptance speech, where he might put the convention and the country to sleep, he would pound away at his chosen issue, the federal deficit. A strange choice for the man who was George W. Bush’s Budget Director: It would be entertaining for us and self-defeating for him to run against the problem he created.
This leaves the two H’s — Huntsman and Huckabee.
John Huntsman is the mega-rich governor of Utah who resigned to serve as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China. The appointment was assessed at the time as a smart move that took Huntsman, a Romney not shod in flip-flops, out of the 2012 sweepstakes. Now Huntsman’s coming back. He could be a more plausible nominee than most of the field, but his decision to join the Obama administration is not his only conservative apostasy. He endorsed the stimulus plan; he’s been a moderate on immigration reform and civil unions for gay couples — and a realist not a denier on climate change. Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post: "I’ve yet to find a single Republican officeholder, former campaign adviser, or conservative activist who takes Huntsman seriously." Voters in November of 2012 might; he might lose then by less than the others — and he almost certainly would have been better off staying in Beijing. He’s the kind of candidate the GOP just might tolerate — but only after a second successive drubbing in a presidential contest.
Huckabee could be the remainder man, the one to have when the others don’t have what it takes. He presently tops most primary polls — in Iowa and nationally. But his genial exterior won’t permanently conceal his ideological bile and his casual relationship with the facts. He’s charged that Obama was raised in Kenya — so he has a negative "view of the Brits, very different from Americans." Huckabee’s operatives quickly explained that he misspoke: he meant Indonesia, where the very young Obama spent all of four years. And it wasn’t a place to acquire any "view of the Brits"; Indonesia had been a Dutch colony.
With his hardline positions on social issues — for example, he's compared legalizing civil unions to legalizing drugs — Huckabee’s the darling of the religious right. That, and a fundamental sense of unseriousness, mark him as ultimately another loser in November.
The GOP unease about him isn’t just practical, either. He raised taxes in Arkansas, which makes him suspect among small-government conservatives who exploit but aren’t driven by the passions of social conservatives. And most of all, he appears to have more fire for his bank account than fire in his belly. Right now, he’s a non-candidate on hold, collecting speaking and Fox fees rather than primary support. As one Republican consultant observes, "reluctant runners don't usually finish first."
All this has moved The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and radio agitator Laura Ingraham to bemoan the lack of "a good, strong leader" who’s unambiguously in the GOP field — and to condemn those who are "sitting around, wringing their hands, and saying they won’t run." But they mostly won’t because they're not interested in the empty honor of a futile nomination. Another conservative talk show host, Martha Zoller, who dares to be politically incorrect even about her own party, bluntly predicted on MSNBC this week that the 2012 Republican standard bearer will be someone we’re not even talking about yet.
But who dat? Who the hell else they got?
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