03/14/2011 06:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Inevitable 'It Would Be Smart For The GOP To Lose In 2012' Piece Has Been Written

One of the magical aspects of presidential campaign coverage is that once the material facts of the day are dispensed with and their typical mundanity is absorbed, there's still about a million hours left to attempt all sorts of counterintuitive-sounding speculation. For instance, someone has to write the "maybe the smart move for presidential contenders in 2012 is to lose the election" piece. In this case, every political writer called "Not it!" and laid their finger alongside their nose until only Thomas Schaller remained, and so, here's his "Why Republicans should run in 2012 -- to lose."

It's a pretty standard subgenre of political thinking -- you'll find all sorts of arguments like "Obama would be better off without a filibuster-proof Senate majority," and "It would be a good thing for liberals if Bush won," and "Obama would be better off if he hadn't passed health care reform," and "Democrats will be better off if they lose Congress," and "John Kerry's loss in 2004 was great for the Democratic Party." And I'm sure you knew someone who, in sizing up the financial straits the country was in and coupling that with two long overseas military misadventures, said, "Obama would be smart to lose to John McCain." Just as comedy is the product of tragedy and time, this style of political thinking is born from the combination of very smart people and a long, long period of time in which there's nothing of particular interest worth talking about.

But, okay! It would be really smart for some of the people in the hunt for the GOP nomination to run in 2012 and lose, apparently. As it stands, says Schaller, the "smart money is on Obama," it's hard for one political party to hold the White House for three consecutive terms (except when it isn't) and GOP winners in the "post-Goldwater era" have tended to lose their initial bids for the Oval Office (except when they haven't). Those "three patterns," Schaller says, create "the ideal cycle for a Republican to run, lose, and then set himself or herself up to win the whole enchilada four years later."

For various reasons, this advantage cannot be taken by Mitt Romney (who's already lost a bid), Mike Huckabee (already lost a bid), Rudy Giuliani (lost his bid, terribly), Ron Paul (always loses) or Sarah Palin (terrible in general). After you factor out the improbable, the implausible and the impossible (Bachmann, Cain, Huntsman, Santorum, Trump) and the guy who's been pretending to run for president for a decade and a half (Gingrich), you are left with Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty as your 11-dimensional chess-playing, angling to lose in 2012 to win in 2016, secret political geniuses.

All three can and should announce their presidential candidacies and then proceed to spend as much time introducing themselves to the kinds of voters who would be key to their hopes in '16: Midwestern suburban women for Barbour, southern conservatives for Daniels and Pawlenty, Mountain-state Mormons for all three. After intentionally but gracefully losing next year's nomination, each of them could then earn party plaudits by throwing their vigorous support behind the winner (Romney, presumably) -- while, of course, being smart enough not to accept any vice presidential offers.

Of the three, my sense is that Barbour has more than Daniels or Pawlenty to gain from a '12 run-to-lose candidacy. Barbour is an institutional guy with deep party roots, but also a former lobbyist and governor with a thick southern accent. In other words, he's the kind of pol who takes a while not merely to get to know, but to grow comfortable with. A follow-up effort after four years of doing retail work in the Republican trenches could serve Barbour very, very well in '16.

So, this strategy apparently is especially smart for Haley Barbour, who will be 69 in 2016 and who has already been balking at the "ten year commitment" that a run in 2012 entails. (I'm also somewhat at a loss to understand why Jon Huntsman isn't included in the lose-in-2012-to-win-in-2016 group, seeing as he was the headlining example of this strategy in Schaller's fellow Salon contributor Steve Kornacki's similar piece.)

At any rate, a better -- though ultimately less compelling -- way of presenting this material would be to simply say that there are some candidates in the mix whose political brand would survive a 2012 loss and some who would not. I'm quite sure that the people running, say, Tim Pawlenty's campaign understand that this is an advantage he has over, say, Mitt Romney (it's probably why you'd want to join the Pawlenty campaign in the first place).

That said, I have to imagine that that no one is actively mounting a "play to lose" campaign, and that Pawlenty, Barbour and Daniels would be perfectly happy to win in 2012.

These sorts of "11-dimensional chess" scenarios tend to live only in the minds of political writers. What voters want, they want right now, and in general, candidates try to accommodate them.

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