What, exactly, is the Republicans' problem?
President Obama looks highly vulnerable as he begins his campaign for re-election. His job ratings, even after the elimination of Osama bin Laden, are only middling -- around 50%, which is the threshold for re-election. Last year's midterm was catastrophic for Democrats. The excitement factor, which drew huge Democratic turnout in 2008, is not there anymore.
And the economy is worse than it was when Obama took office. The nation's unemployment rate was 7.8% in January 2009. Last month, it was 9%. The most optimistic forecasts have the unemployment rate dropping to about 8% next year.
Ten presidents have run for re-election since World War II. Six of them ran when the unemployment rate was below 6%. They all got re-elected. Four ran when unemployment was over 7%. Three of them lost (Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the first George Bush in 1992).
The exception? Ronald Reagan. When Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, the nations' unemployment rate was 7.2%, about the same as when he took office. Nevertheless, Reagan could claim a major economic victory. He cut the inflation rate by two thirds, from 13.5% in 1980 to 4.3% in 1984. And Obama? Since he took office, gasoline prices have nearly doubled.
Every re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. If most voters are satisfied with the way things are going, they vote for continuity. They re-elect the incumbent. If they are unhappy with the status quo, they vote for change. They fire the incumbent. All the opposition party has to do is nominate a plausible challenger.
"Aha!" you say. "There's the Republicans' problem. They don't have a plausible challenger." Actually, they do. Three of them, in fact. If Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, or Jon Huntsman wins the Republican nomination, Obama is in for the fight of his life. Pawlenty, Romney, and Huntsman were all governors. Governors always make better presidential candidates. They have executive experience, and they can claim to be Washington outsiders.
Moreover, both Pawlenty and Romney got elected in strongly Democratic states (Minnesota and Massachusetts). Huntsman was governor of Utah, one of the most Republican states in the country. But he angered conservatives by taking moderate positions on gay rights and the environment. And by accepting an appointment as President Obama's Ambassador to China.
Can any of them win the Republican nomination? Ah, there's the problem. Pawlenty, Romney, and Huntsman are all suspect to two core Republican constituencies: the Tea Party and the religious right. They are suspect for the same reason they are plausible challengers: all are mainstream politicians who know how to build a governing coalition. That requires deal-making and compromise -- the very things the Tea Party and the religious right denounce as selling out. The far right may try to veto the nomination of any of them by joining forces behind an alternative. But who?
Right now, the Republican field divides into three groups. One is the mainstream contenders who could defeat Obama -- if they can figure out how to get the nomination. Then there are half a dozen marginal contenders whom columnist Peggy Noonan has dubbed the "antic candidates": Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and possibly Sarah Palin. Several of them have fervent supporters. But they can't build a broader coalition: the base of their support is the limit of their support. They can't defeat Obama. Not even Gingrich, whose campaign is becoming more antic by the day.
Finally, there are the fantasy candidates: Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, to name a few. It is a sign of the Republicans' anguish that the list of fantasy candidates keeps growing as other candidates drop out of the race. Actually, the fantasy candidates have also taken themselves out of contention (well, Perry says he is re-thinking that decision). But they, too, have problems. Jeb Bush and Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, have the same problem: they would remind voters of George W. Bush. Paul Ryan has an even bigger problem: Medicare.
Of the fantasy candidates, Christie is the most interesting. He is the governor of a major state (New Jersey) that usually votes Democratic. You know how dissatisfied voters usually look for an alternative who is the polar opposite of the incumbent? After Nixon the corrupt, Carter the pure? After George W. the inarticulate, Obama the eloquent?
Christie is the un-Obama. Obama was a law professor. Christie was a prosecutor. Obama doesn't have a populist bone in his body. Christie is a raging populist. Obama is no drama. Christie picks fights all the time. And he certainly doesn't look like Obama.
Christie versus Obama! What an exciting race that would be. Only it probably won't be, as long as Christie resists the blandishments of Republican insiders.
So the Republicans are left with three plausible contenders, each facing a crucial early test:
Even if they pass those initial tests, each of them faces an even bigger test in the south. The south is now the heartland of the GOP. None of the three mainstream candidates is a southerner. Southern Republican primary voters can either crown one of them the nominee, or veto their nomination. That's why the South Carolina primary is once again shaping up as pivotal. South Carolina vetoed John McCain in 2000 and gave him the nomination in 2008.
So yes, Republicans do have a problem. They have several plausible candidates who could beat Obama, but they will have a tough time getting nominated. And the candidates who might be able to get through the nominating process can't beat Obama. There is name for that problem: Catch-22.
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