Has the GOP presidential race really come down to this?
- A thrice-married former House speaker -- severely censured by his colleagues for ethical improprieties in 1995 -- who now fancies himself the "darling" of the Christian Right?
- A self-professed Catholic "zealot" who's already sent thousands of his brethren rushing from their pews to embrace a devout Mormon?
- A reputed "vulture capitalist" who's generated fewer jobs in three decades than even President Obama has spawned in a single month?
- A devotee of Ayn Rand whose cranky libertarianism suddenly seems mild compared to the rantings of the Tea party?
Yes, it has -- and remarkably Republicans haven't yet toppled their king and resigned this year's presidential chess match. But checkmate, though technically not imminent, is fast becoming inevitable. Most of the nation's leading economic indicators -- from the job market to the stock market, from GDP growth to rising auto sales -- increasingly point in Obama's favor, and will likely look even better come election time.
You might think there's a presidential contest still on, and technically, of course, there is. The major network news and print media, which live and breathe the political "horse race" -- and by convention time, will need filler for the summer re-run season -- are still taking bets, of course. But on what?
That the putative GOP front-runner -- Mitt Romney -- might not get a first-ballot delegate majority, leading to a fabled "brokered" convention that, in fact, no serious political pro thinks is a realistic possibility? That a late entering "dark horse" might arrive like a magical unicorn, carrying the crippled GOP to an improbably celestial victory?
Don't take that bet. Two former incumbents -- Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- once seemed highly vulnerable to defeat, and were in worse shape than Obama, in fact. Early pre-election polls showed their rivals leading by 10 points or more, not trailing by the same amount as Romney, Santorum, Paul and especially Gingrich are. And still, both Reagan and Clinton rebounded during the final stretch and went on to win re-election by a landslide.
And back then, in 1983 and 1995, the economy really was recovering from a deep recession in a big way. Even so, fickle American voters seriously considered jumping ship -- or at least changing captains. But they never did. The iron law of incumbency prevailed -- as it usually does.
And now? It hardly takes anything -- a mere smidgen of good news, like a fall in joblessness from 8.8 to 8.3 percent -- for the American public to start re-embracing the man they invested so much God-like faith in three years ago. Call it the power of hope, or perhaps just "sunk" costs -- once you fall for a guy, you still want to believe that the relationship can work, and you'll look for any sign that he's changed his erring ways, and hasn't really abandoned you.
Obama, mind you, hasn't even geared up his campaign yet. It's hard to, when your opponents are still so confused about which of their weak prospective nominees should offer his head to the guillotine. In 1988, and again in 1992, the Democrats ran for months against George H.W. Bush with such an unimpressive and divided field that the media dubbed it the "seven little dwarfs." In 2012, the GOP's laying siege to Obama with the equivalent of four midgets.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said it best perhaps in an interview in December 2010 when he confessed that he really didn't want to run for president in 2012 for a simple reason: against such a powerful and likable incumbent, he was afraid that he'd get crushed. Now Huckabee is loyally defending the GOP "Lite" Brigade, suggesting that any one of them, including his one-time arch-nemesis Romney, could still take down Obama.
But apparently just about everyone else in the party knows better. A good third of the GOP electorate would still like to see a fresh candidate in the race, but their hopes are rapidly fading, as one by one, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, and rising rock star and political bully Chris Christie have all made clear that they're not going to run, even if the party poo-bahs beg them (and behind the scenes, they have).
And so, you have the truly absurd spectacle of an opposition party loudly proclaiming 2012 the "most important election in our lifetime" and yet none of its best candidates with the "cojones" -- as Sarah Palin likes to say -- to mount up and charge into battle.
Is it any wonder that the vaunted "enthusiasm gap" between Democrats and Republicans has all but disappeared? Or that leading conservative pundits, everyone from George Will to the editors of Commentary magazine, are suggesting that the GOP abandon hope of the presidency and focus its efforts on recapturing the Senate?
They better hurry up, though. With Maine Senator Olympia Snowe's sudden retirement, and Democrat Bob Kerrey's unexpected decision to re-enter the Nebraska race, even the GOP's strategic fall-back option is no longer looking like a sure thing.