Early musings on the Republican Presidential race
Prognostication a year and a half ahead is always risky, but I think the Republican starting line-up, at least, has pretty much taken the shape it's going to have. There will be no "man on a white horse" to deliver the party from its lack-luster field (Perry, if he runs, will be just another Barbour or Huckabee, a fairly-skilled politician with regional appeal but bulging gaffe-baggage in tow). The right wing remains divided into two factions, Sane and Nutty -- and the party is now down to just two Sane Presidential candidates, Romney and Huntsman, both of whom happen to be Mormons and thus deeply suspect in the eyes of the party's fundamentalist base. Further, Palin is now showing every sign of being seriously back in the race.
Could a Republican beat Obama? It's unlikely but possible. If Republicans unite behind a Sane nominee, if the slow economic recovery collapses back into recession (something Congressional Republicans seem to be actively trying to bring about, with their mania for cuts and their debt-ceiling brinkmanship), or if Obama is wounded by some event like a scandal, a major terrorist attack, or a foreign-policy disaster -- yes, it could happen. It's true that the Republicans have massively blundered with the Ryan budget, and that the new breed of teabagger governors like Walker and Scott now have approval ratings roughly equal to that of E. Coli, but the party still has a year and a half to recover, if it can bring itself to recognize its problems. And each of our two major parties always has some chance of winning -- that chance may be low, but it's never zero.
What's Palin up to? I remain skeptical that she really wants to be President. Ever since McCain first drew her into the national spotlight, she has shown far more appetite for celebrity (and its attendant cash-flow) than for the hard work of actually holding office, and she must know that the Presidency is an even more demanding job than being Governor of Alaska. If so, her smartest move is to maintain the appearance of being in the race for as long as possible, to keep attention and speculation focused on herself. Her bus tour, the Rolling Thunder stunt, and the hype surrounding her upcoming film (not the film itself, which will turkey out as fast as Atlas Shrugged did) make sense in this light.
What about Bachmann? We tend to think of Bachmann as essentially another Palin, perhaps a tad less colorful; but as a non-quitting career politician who has held one office or another since early 2001, she's actually more dangerous. If she runs for President, there's no reason to doubt she's in to win.
Could a Sane candidate get the nomination? Yes. First, if Palin and Bachmann both run, they could split the Nutty vote in the primaries; their rivalry would be all the more fierce given that they would be competing for the same constituency. Second, the prospect of a Nutty nominee could panic the party establishment into rallying behind Romney and crowning him. Either way the disgusted teabaggers and fundies might stay home on election day -- or they might not; it all depends on whether hatred of Obama trumps RINO-phobia and anti-Mormonism.
Could a Nutty candidate get the nomination? Definitely. There's no clear front-runner; Palin polls only two points behind Romney among Republicans, despite it not even being clear yet whether she's running; Trump led the field during his brief foray into it. Paul, a niche candidate, is unlikely to expand his support beyond the libertarian cult, but Pawlenty might appeal as a Nutty wolf in Sane sheep's clothing who could fool the voters for long enough to get elected. (Gingrich seems to genuinely straddle the two camps, but with his history of gaffes and hypocrisy and his flip-flop on Ryan, I think he's very unlikely to be nominated.)
So what happens? Kevin Drum produced this amusing graphic of the results if the Republicans choose a "wingnut" or a "reality- based" nominee, and if that nominee wins or loses:
A Nutty candidate winning the Presidency would indeed be the worst-case scenario, but it's also the least likely one; Palin, for example, is considered unqualified to be President even by a majority of Republicans. Still, as I noted, the probability is never zero. The Republican party is one of the two major parties of the mightiest nation on Earth; for it to nominate a grossly-unqualified person for the most powerful office on the planet would be an act of existential irresponsibility, but these are weird times.
Here's a suitably-weird scenario I find plausible: The Republican establishment puts its foot down and makes Romney the nominee. A major Nutty figure, most likely Palin, runs as a third candidate and draws off the teabagger/fundie vote, allowing Obama to win in a landslide. Republicans are left in total confusion about whom to blame. It could be the perfect scenario for Palin, who would thus remain the center of attention down to election day and perhaps beyond, but with no risk of actually winning and thus facing the drudgery and responsibility of the Presidency.
As a hedge against such a scenario, a Sane nominee might well choose a Nutty running mate -- perhaps even Palin herself. Palin would certainly hurt him, though; she hurt McCain, even though her flaws were far less apparent back then, and no Republican would have had much chance in 2008. Pawlenty or Gingrich, less terrifying to centrist voters, might be more likely VP picks; the trouble is, they make the teabagger/fundie crowd yawn, too.
The problem is that a Sane nominee losing to Obama -- the most likely scenario overall -- might well strengthen the Nutty faction among the Republicans, as Drum's graphic implies. The next-most- likely scenario -- a Nutty nominee losing to Obama in a landslide -- might bring the Republicans back to their senses, something the country desperately needs. But don't count on it. These people are dedicated to reality-denial, and the apocalyptic-minded Christian Right already tends to view worldly rejection as a mark of virtue. And what if some freak set of circumstances allowed that Nutty nominee to win the Presidency? The world can't afford the risk.
It's going to be an interesting race, and many sets of nails -- not all of them American -- will be bitten over it in the months to come.