Amid exceedingly little fanfare, or even media attention, the Republican Party quietly held its first presidential primary debate last Thursday, officially kicking off the race to wrestle the White House from President Obama next year. Though there were a few memorable moments and a couple of witty lines, the event was largely noteworthy only as a reminder of how pathetically slim the declared GOP candidate roster is at the moment. Of the five who took to the stage, only former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty could claim the mantle of being a “real” candidate, in the sense of being at least somewhat well-known and holding a relatively mainstream Republican philosophy. The remaining four began with Ron Paul and only got more fringey from there, which should give you some indication of why most networks weren’t exactly scrambling to reschedule their Osama death coverage.
For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, the 2012 Republican primary has been an excruciatingly protracted dance of seven veils. While there the race has a large number of high profile “presumed” candidates, including (in the order they appear in my comic) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee, all have yet to come out of the proverbial campaign closet and formally declare their intentions to run. This has led to a bizarre paradox whereby the press can constantly complain that there are no “serious” Republicans running for president, yet simultaneously give endless excited coverage to the theoretical campaigns of the dozen or so GOP bigwigs who still officially aren’t.
Part of the problem seems to be America’s campaign finance regime, which only imposes its regulations and spending limits once a candidate completes his paperwork to formally run for office. This creates an incentive to keep one’s campaign stuck in contemplative limbo world for as long as possible, in which it’s legally a little bit easier to raise and spend money promoting yourself, so long as it’s only for “exploratory” purposes (whatever that means). If your popularity tanks, it’s also far less damaging to the ol’ ego to merely abandon an exploratory committee, rather than shamefully withdraw a full-fledged presidential campaign, and considering the entirely uncertain mood of the Republican base at the moment, many top GOP contenders apparently don’t want to risk their pride until it’s entirely apparent they have a serious chance of avoiding humiliation in the polls.
Other prospective candidates have even more particular strategic concerns. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, for instance, are clearly the candidates with the most to lose by running for president, at least from a strictly financial perspective. Neither of them has ever been particularly rich, yet at the moment both are enjoying great wealth and career stability, as a result of their newfound media careers as authors and FOX pundits. Running for president would require a resignation from this pleasant lifestyle, so both Huck and Sarah are predictably taking an exceedingly long time to weigh their options, as their pollsters and bean counters no doubt work furiously in the background.
Overall, the GOP presidential contenders can be organized into three tiers, which I present here, with links to official campaign sites, for handy reference:
1. Officially running (attended debate, and have exploratory committee): Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, Herman Cain
2. Officially “considering” running (have exploratory committee, but did not attend debate and have been campaigning less overtly): Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich
3. Considered to be a “likely” candidate by the media (have either mused openly about running, or poll well among the party faithful, but have no committees or websites): Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, John Huntsman.
The biggest fear of the conservative establishment is that none of the tier three people ever migrate to tier one — since the former seems to be where most of the big, interesting, popular names are residing — and the party gets stuck with a candidate who is either way too unknown, or too fringey, to pose a serious threat to Barack Obama.
Partisanship aside, who do you think the Republicans would be wisest to nominate? I’m personally a bit conflicted. On the one hand, since I expect President Obama to win reelection fairly easily, a case could be made that nominating the most Obama-like candidate — which is to say, moderate in temperament and ideology — would be wise, which would push Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, and Daniels to the front. On the other hand, an equally strong case could be made that in a Republican “off year” the party has less to lose by making a strategically desperate gamble, and nominating someone with the ability to mobilize right-wingers to the ballot booths in record numbers. That would then favor someone like Trump, Bachmann, Ron Paul, or even Herman Cain. After all, the logic goes, the Republicans can only win in 2012 if they can somehow tap into some inactive base who ordinarily wouldn’t vote, just as Obama did with youths and minorities in 2008. “Angry conservative white guys” have certainly been more active than usual via the Tea Party as of late, so maybe a Tea Party candidate is the only strategically sensible option at this point — though such a conclusion is obviously quite troubling to any conservative who views the Tea Party movement with some fear and skepticism.
But I’ve never been much at predictions. I want to hear what you think!
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