The strongest attribute of any of the Republican candidates for President is that they are not named Barack Obama. Obama’s unpopularity is such that re-election is hard to fathom, or stomach, but stranger things have been known to happen (like his election in the first place). His advantage lies in a built-in 40% of the vote – consisting of blacks, knee-jerk liberals, union
members, and recipients of public handout – although the labor unionists might have been turned off by the President’s decision to delay the Keystone oil pipeline that would have weaned the US off Arab oil and provided tens of thousands of jobs to Americans. Oil’s well that ends well, he must assume.
The fear of Republicans is that no one candidate has gripped the
imagination of the public or galvanized the support of barely a quarter of the
electorate, much less half plus one. That foreboding sense – born of several
snap conclusions – is misplaced, as follows.
No person seems presidential until he/she actually becomes the President
and some not even then. In November 2007, no one could have looked at Barack Obama and seen a “President.” Such a perception was laughable in the extreme. One can never compare a person who carries the trappings of high office with either civilians or lower level politicians. The entourage is different, the mode of travel, the absence of a presidential seal, the obvious presence of the Secret Service, the capacity to actually do things (or pretend to do things; see Obama’s speeches about student loan waivers), and, mostly, the necessity to
talk only of the future, which is always speculative. People tend to grow into
the office, and not just in the office, and so almost any of the candidates
could easily fit the bill and be perceived as presidential one year into their
Consequently, the head-to-head polls are not as meaningful at this early
stage, when sane voters have not yet coalesced around one candidate and therefore – as a display of partisanship – construe Obama as electable if their personal favorite is not nominated. However, is it credible that a Gingrich supporter would actually vote for Obama over Romney? Possibly, but highly unlikely, especially since the election will ultimately be a choice between Obama and Anybody Not Obama who is a functional human being. It is true that you cannot beat something with nothing, but as the election draws nearer, candidates begin to appear more plausible, especially as the field narrows.
The other factor that exercises people these days are the flaws that are
perceived in each of the Republican candidates. It is a lot like the Jewish
dating scene, where people go out with each in order to find the one trait that
renders them unmarriageable. But of course each candidate is flawed because no one is perfect (except, apparently, the critics of each of the candidates). Nor
is it rational or sensible to expect that a voter should agree with every
single position of even a preferred candidate. (The wag said: “If two people
agree on everything, then one of them is superfluous.”) Certainly each
candidate comes with weaknesses, vulnerabilities, ideological inconsistencies,
questionable personal conduct, unpalatable positions – all because each is a
thinking, breathing human being.
Thus, those who look for salvation to the non-candidates – Chris
Christie, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, et al – don’t realize that if any of them,
or others, entered the race, they too would be crucified and vilified within a
very short time. That unhappy aspect of modern life keeps many fine, though
imperfect, people out of politics. And some of the “perfect” candidates don’t
measure up under even mild scrutiny. That is why we were never privileged to
elect President Fred Thompson or President John Edwards. Mindful of the
Talmud’s statement (Yoma 22b) that a leader should have some skeletons in his
closet in order to keep him humble, we must evaluate the candidate’s strengths
and weaknesses, and look for the “best” and not the “perfect.” There is no
Additionally, the pundits and laymen who obsess daily on this process
seem to forget that not a vote has been cast in either a caucus or a primary,
and that polls are volatile. They reflect momentary perceptions but not the
reality over time. It is frankly, bizarre, that disproportionate weight in the
primaries is given to states like Iowa and New Hampshire that are hardly
reflective of the rest of the country. But it is what it is, and undoubtedly
after the votes are cast – within a few weeks – the field will be whittled down
and an apparent nominee will appear, who will even begin to look somewhat
So, without expressing a personal favorite – I find endorsements presumptuous – here is the current racing form:
THE PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE – It is Mitt Romney’s race to
lose. He recognizes that, which is why he seldom allows himself to be
interviewed, and prefers to control the dissemination of his message unimpeded
by annoying media queries. He looks the part (important today – Lincoln could
not have won a primary or an election), has command of the issues, and no
scandals have yet attached to him. Indeed, he is criticized for looking
perfect. His papers and positions on Israel issues are solidly on the right-wing
of Israeli politics (indeed, like all the candidates except for Ron Paul), and
it impossible to imagine a President Romney ever oozing the contempt for Israel and its Prime Minister that President Obama does.
Sad to say, the main obstacle that Romney has to overcome is the
distaste that many Evangelicals have for Mormons, whom they consider heretics, and that many Conservatives see Romney as too pareve in an election in which the choice will be between meat and milk. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I can only assume that on Election Day, revulsion for Obama will cause these voters to cringe and vote for Romney. In any event, I think most
Americans are long past having a religious test for president, which the
Constitution itself rejects. And the Mormon experience is, on a skeletal level,
somewhat akin to the Jewish experience, so a Romney would have a much greater affinity for Jews than an Obama – a disciple of the US-hating, Jew-baiting Reverend Wright – could ever have.
What about Romney the flip-flopper? That is media talk. Most normal
people change their positions on some issues during their lives, whether
because circumstances change or maturity gives them a new perspective on old
issues. The only people who never change their minds on anything are people who have stopped thinking. It would seem that a President Romney shares the morals agenda of the American Right, but like President Reagan, will not do much about them. And Romney has the endearing habit of actually looking his opponents in the eye, and listening to – and responding to – what they are saying, all indicia of a leader. His main weakness is that his message is too elastic and spongy to attract the most energized Republican voters – the Tea Party enthusiasts and the Christian Evangelicals – who want a political revolution. Romney wants to continue business-as-usual, but done better, more intelligently and more effectively.
THE SMARTEST KID IN THE ROOM – Newt Gingrich blows away
every listener with his mastery of the issues. He has not only thought through
each of them, but he has proposed solutions (in some cases enacted them into
law) and revised them and proposed new solutions when the former did not work. A Gingrich-Obama debate would be worthwhile and riveting television from which people might actually learn something.
Gingrich has the charming quality of being able to apologize and to
admit when he was wrong, a trait that comes in handy given his checkered
personal history. (Asked the other night about a commercial he made with Nancy Pelosi about climate change, he answered that “it was the dumbest thing I ever did. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought it was a good idea at the time.” And he laughed.) A Gingrich candidacy would make it easy on Democrat advertisers, as they only need to trot out the “Gingrich=ogre, monster” ads from 1998 and 2000. His successes as Speaker are only now being recognized – four consecutive years of balanced budgets from his House, for which Bill Clinton claimed credit to all those who don’t comprehend that spending bills all originate in the House. It was Gingrich who forced Clinton into balanced budgets, against the will of the Democrat Party at the time.
Can Gingrich overcome his personal baggage – affairs, three wives, the
demonization by the press for whom Gingrich has little-disguised contempt? That is also possible under the ABO theory of this election, but still risky. He
will be a human piñata for the media. Expect a tsunami of anti-Gingrich stories
in the next two months dredging up past positions and peccadilloes.
RAISING CAIN – Herman Cain possesses leadership qualities
and business success that are well-suited to the needs of this election. Still
a little raw on the issues, his main problem is not the recent kerfuffles with
female accusers. They have harmed his brand – which was the refreshing aura of the non-politician trying to right the listing American ship – with the dirty,
“politics as usual,” unproven accusations that might just backfire and energize
his supporters, especially given the credibility of his accusers, some of whom
are serial plaintiffs. Oddly, Cain seems to have confined his “harassment” to a
2-3 year span all during the Clinton administration – not before or after, an
unlikely resume for a real harasser.
Cain’s main problem is that the early states – Iowa, New Hampshire – do
not cater to his strengths, and poor performances there will set the media
train rolling to the theme of “Cain’s fall and decline” from which it is
difficult to overcome. He does well in the polls, but that is not the same as
success in individual states. Nonetheless, he can still be a formidable
candidate – one reason why the accusations arose – if the female drumbeat
ceases soon, because he is perceived as a straight-talking, solution-oriented
businessman who rose from obscurity, lived the American dream and can cut
deeply into Obama’s black base.
THE TEXAN – Every election since 1948 (except 1972) has featured
a Southerner as either the presidential or vice-presidential candidate, and this
year’s participant is the estimable Texan Rick Perry. Perry is a solid
achiever, whose candidacy has been undermined by his wooden and sometimes
obtuse debate performances. His assets do not lend themselves to that format,
which, in truth, is completely unrelated to the needs of the presidency. A
president never debates anyone – he sifts through various issues and arguments
– and makes decisions. His recent stumble over the government departments he would shut down – he should’ve said ten, not three – only shows that he had
over-rehearsed, and was parroting but not thinking.
He is done, but he will inevitably re-appear in the future, better
prepared for the rigors of the campaign. He reminds me of another Southern
governor whose initial foray into national politics – a long-winded, incredibly
tedious speech in support of Mike Dukakis at the Democrat Convention in 1988
that became the butt of jokes – until Bill Clinton stopped the laughter in
1992. Perry might be in the future another Clinton, only more honest.
THE DAFFY PERENNIAL – Every election features candidates who
always run, never win, but represent a sector of the electorate. That is the
candidacy of RON PAUL, who has some good ideas on the economy, and an attractive libertarian streak, that is undone by some wacky views on major issues. For a candidate to harp on proposals that will never come to pass (end the Federal Reserve), whatever the merits, is a waste of time. And Paul is a throwback to the isolationists of the 1930s, in a time when the world is much smaller and the dangers to America and its allies much greater. Although the politics differ, Paul seems to do a good Ross Perot imitation, but votes for him are wasted.
NOT HIS TIME – RICK SANTORUM is a solid candidate with good ideas but dogged by the one black mark on his record: he lost his own state – Pennsylvania – in a landslide defeat just a few years ago. He is also running on a social values platform that, although worthy, is out-of-step with the needs and interests of this particular campaign. Santorum, a fine speaker and good debater, will likely drop out sometime in January, endorse Romney, and be in line for a cabinet position in a Romney administration.
THE WOMAN – It is difficult to pinpoint when MICHELLE BACHMANN’s campaign fell off the rails. She is an appealing candidate, well-versed on most issues, and clearly possessing more depth and experience than Sarah Palin. She is fiery, unafraid and very competent, but has received something of the Palin treatment by the mainstream media: since she, too, cuts into a major Democrat voting bloc – women – the media attempts to marginalize her as extreme, backwards, just a pretty face, etc. Nothing sticks but she is dying the death of a thousand cuts, and being ignored as well. A misstatement or two, all blown out of proportion to the actual significance, has not helped. Iowa is her first and last stand, but she will remain a formidable influence, and should. If she hadn’t criticized Romney harshly on health care, she might be in the running for the Veep slot. Her career is far from over.
THE UNKNOWN WHO WILL REMAIN UNKNOWN – Jon Huntsman is a thoughtful fellow with some accomplishments under his belt who lacks only two assets in presidential politics: a base and other voters that the base can
In truth, all the candidates are credible (except for Paul) and all
would be improvements over the incumbent. It is actually a strong field of
contestants who are honing their messages in the seemingly interminable
debates. One who sees the field as weak is being influenced by the fact that no
one looks presidential until they become president. In time, and not very long
at all – months – two or three will stand head and shoulders above the rest and
the choice will be clearer. And the road to recovery, if there is such a road,
that much closer.