Yes, you read the news right: there is going to be a 2012 presidential debate this evening. Five Republicans are getting together in Greenville, South Carolina to kick off the long process of burying their party as a mainstream political force for the next decade or so.
I can’t remember a grimmer time for the Republican party in my lifetime. Now that Bin Laden is dead, the 2012 election seems like a formality. The setup is all wrong for the Republicans from almost every conceivable angle, with some of that being bad luck and some of it being poor strategy.
First of all, for the next eighteen months, Obama is going to respond to every single foreign-policy question by holding up Bin Laden’s head and swinging it in front of him like a lantern (metaphorically speaking, of course). It doesn’t matter what the question is: ask Obama about the Irish debt crisis, he’ll answer, “The Irish have been important allies in our fight against terrorism, which as you’ll recall resulted recently in the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden …” Things are so bad for the Republicans on this front that their only strategy left is to adopt an antiwar platform and complain about such things as the brutalizing of Afghan citizens by American troops and the illegality of the Bin Laden operation, things that would have been celebrated by the likes of Karl Rove had they occurred during a Bush presidency.
And from a domestic-policy standpoint the Republicans are similarly screwed, absent a new financial crisis, which of course is far from unlikely. A year or two ago anxiety about the economy and deficits was at an all-time high and the Republicans smartly rode public discontent by bashing Obama’s spending habits. But in following that path the party went a step or two too far, unleashing Paul Ryan on the budget; now, for the next eighteen months, Barack Obama can walk into Florida and Arizona and California and explain to every person over 50 that the Republicans want to eliminate the Medicare program as they know it. The Republicans meanwhile are already running sideways away from Ryan’s program, or at least are clearly concerned about having to enter 2012 owning Ryan’s Medicare-voucher program. Couple that with dropping unemployment levels and the stabilized capital markets (stabilized of course by massive ongoing government spending, but the casual voter knows little of this), and Obama can now waltz into 2012 claiming that while he was busy rescuing the wrecked economy left to him by George Bush, Republicans were using the financial chaos as an opportunity to launch long-planned attacks against Medicare and Social Security. How true or just any of this is is a different matter, but this is the strategic reality heading into 2012. And this is without even taking into consideration the highly negative (for the Republicans) demographic picture heading into 2012, in which a Republican base that skews older, male, and white is slowly shrinking, while Obama’s urban, ethnic, and young base is growing. The Republicans on the demographic front have to hope for poor turnout, which is not a good place to be heading into a presidential election against an incumbent with a huge war chest (although the turnout for 2010 was low).
Of course the one way to combat all of this would be to put forward a unifying, charismatic candidate whose personality reaches across the middle and snags that extra 4-5 percent of middle-ground undecideds who would put the Republicans back on top. But that’s exactly who the Republicans do not have. Instead, the potential Republican field is made up of two distinct types of candidates: loony-ass, polarizing insurgents drunk on Christian mysticism and/or ego sickness (Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin) and waffling, opportunistic bores destined to spend most of the primary campaign arguing that they are less terrifying to imagine holding the nuclear briefcase than anyone from the first group (Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney). All five of the group A candidates very likely sincerely believe that they were chosen by God to run for president, humorously including Trump, who probably doesn’t even believe in God per se, outside of His role as the executor of Trump’s providential destiny. Bachmann on the other hand is already openly asking God to help “anoint” her staff. Huckabee, famously, credited God for helping him win in Iowa in 2008. Rick Santorum’s wife Karen told CBN that it was “God’s will” for her lunatic husband to run for president, while Palin, if she runs, already has a long record of seeing God’s hand in political choices, from the building of an oil pipeline to her election as governor of Alaska.
All of these Chosen Ones will be leading the charge against movement apostates Pawlenty and Romney, neither of whom is terribly skilled in the God-humping/hellfire-tossing arena. Romney’s platform, guaranteed, is going to revolve around the fact that appears less insane than the field, but if he wins the nomination, he’s going to spend the entire general-election campaign running against his own well-established positions on abortion and health care. Romney is one of the first politicians I’ve ever covered who is a fair bet to change his mind on an issue in the middle of a speech. His whole political career is one of the funniest things I’ve ever experienced. In fact, it’s too bad South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker didn’t include Romney’s career as one of the mathematically-inevitable jokes invented by the German-designed “FunnyBot” from their awesome new episode last night – Romney is what you get when a creature raised entirely in the corporate marketing world enters politics and honestly doesn’t realize that you can’t change your mind with the times the same way you change food labels or car designs. David Frum recently compared Romney’s career to the Darden Restaurants fast food chain, which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and and Longhorn Steakhouses:
Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?
Romney, I’m sure, feels the same way, which is why he appears completely untroubled by his sudden virulent opposition to Obamacare, which he basically invented. His completely sincere lack of scruples in this regard is funny enough in itself, but what’s even funnier is that it’s successful with plenty of voters, and may even be enough to win him the nomination. But if he does win the nomination, his complete absence of a spine or a soul will seem just as grotesque and be just as difficult a problem for general-election voters to get past as would be the uncompromising apocalyptic extremism of any of the group A weirdos.
That to me leaves Pawlenty, and I’ll admit, I know very little about Pawlenty – other than the fact that I’ve seen him give speeches in person at least three times and still couldn’t tell you what he stands for, what his speaking style is like, even what he looked like. If police asked me to help make a composite sketch of Tim Pawlenty, God knows what it would end up looking like; in my mind’s eye he’s a cross between Ed Begley and the late character actor Vince Schiavelli. Obviously that might be just me, but Pawlenty does already have a reputation for being perhaps the most boring politician in America. But this might in fact be mostly what he’s selling. If the rest of the field is wacked-out Michelle Bachmann and Donald Trump’s Hitlerian ego, boring might be a great quality to market during primary season. But against Barack Obama?
Anyway, all of this madness gets started tonight. If you can block out how depressing it is, it makes for a good spectacle.