Okay, first there's the mid-term election – the 435 members of the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and state- and local-level races for governors, state legislators, mayors, city councils – all the way down to country commissioners and city dogcatchers, but not for president. Still, we feel it’s never too early to bring you probable GOP candidates for the job of Obama's nemesis in 2012.
Prime attention this year will undoubtedly focus on whether or not the Democrats can hold their majorities in both houses of Congress at or near current levels. Some Democratic senators who have been in office for decades; others who were elected in generally Republican-leaning states have decided not to run, or seem to be at risk. As a result, even though more Republican senatorial seats are up for grabs, the central question will be whether Democrats can hold something close to their current margins in both houses.
There is no presidential race this year, but, never fear, that election is only 1,000 days away. And, once the mid-term election is history on 3 November, every American politician will begin looking towards the 2012 presidential election. Putative candidates like Sarah Palin have already quit their day jobs to do the things future candidates do to wrap up political debts and position themselves on the inside rail.
Well, okay, Barack Obama has had an up-down year. He swept into office on a wave of popular support for change. For much of the country it was anything but the morass of the Bush years as well as some real fear about the spreading economic crisis. Nevertheless, the past year saw Obama’s popularity fall to about 49%, tying him with Ronald Reagan for the lowest popularity after one year in office since 1960. He’s had, at least potentially, success with healthcare reform, but critics (albeit from some very different political persuasions) are saying he has stumbled on terrorism, on Afghanistan and unemployment, the stimulus package and those intensely reviled bailout efforts.
Still, as they say in America, a year is a lifetime in politics. It’s hard to predict now the shape of the American political landscape in 2012. Iraq could be a success or a failure, Afghanistan could work out or implode. The housing market could fall further and unemployment could continue to hover around 10% or begin to recede just as 2012 begins. But presidential election preliminaries start so early, it is now just possible to suss out some of the contours of that landscape, even this far in advance, on the basis of what is happening in the Republican party now.
The first thing to say with certainty is that John McCain will not be a candidate. Once defeated, the usual logic (apart from Grover Cleveland in 1892, Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and Richard Nixon in 1968) is that defeated presidential candidates do not run again. Candidates bested in the primary campaigns are, however, sometimes resurrected. Voters tend to admire a comeback spirit, once they are familiar with the person.
So, let’s imagine we’re Republican party king-makers, gathered in one of those allegorical smoke-filled rooms (Republicans tend to be less PC on smoking than Democrats, according to the popular mythology) to assemble the perfect winning candidate. Over the past several decades, Republicans generally default to being fiscal conservatives or social-values candidates. This is rooted in the fact that both parties are coalitions of different interest groups. These groups, suitably goaded or inspired by the various candidates, are the keys to winning in the primaries and becoming the party’s actual candidate – even if this is different from winning the national race itself, where the race to political and ideological centre becomes key.
So, what would our model Republican candidate be built of? He, or she, would be a fervent supporter of the private sector and smaller government, with a mantra that would go something like: “Government doesn’t create jobs, the private sector makes them. Government needs to get off the backs of business and industry so we can get on with the job.” If we were lucky, our candidate would actually have a background in business as well as in making a government function more efficiently.
However, a strong strain in contemporary Republicanism is also about “social values” – opposition to immigration, abortion, gay marriage, multicultural relativism and all the other things that supposedly accompany or will cause the collapse of civilisation. A final component to Republicanism remains strong international security positions – tough on terrorism and other bad guys – even if this means bigger government and massive expenditures on defence. Oh well, remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “foolish consistency” and all that on government budgets.
Maybe our ideal candidate could bring some ethnic affiliations to the mix as well. A key Republican deficit at the national levels has been about bringing an automatic ethnic or racial base to its electoral base. African Americans are about 11% to 12% of the population, Hispanic Americans even more (although fewer tend to register or vote). But both groups have generally gone strongly to Democrats in general elections for many decades.
Religion still matters too. Jews and Catholics remain mostly Democratic, and the non-religious tend to vote Democratic as well. However, evangelical Christian voters have been between a quarter and a third of the usual Republican presidential vote total, regardless of whether they won or lost the election.
And in the gender wars, certainly in recent years, Republicans have generally won a majority of the male vote and almost certainly a majority of the white-male vote, even when they have lost the overall election. Obviously they haven’t done as well with women and when they have lost the presidential poll look no further for a reason why.
So, our candidate must be tough as nails on government efficiency, the decisions of the market place, strong on social values issues and “the family”, and prepared to walk the talk on defence and security issues – a traditionally vulnerable area for Democrats. He or she must have a strong base – regionally, ethnically or religiously – without simultaneously repelling other possible bases he can expand towards. Simultaneously, though, our candidate must project warmth, empathy and feeling – perhaps via a truly photogenic family, a military hero background or a compelling personal narrative of growth and struggle – and just maybe a touch of the vulnerability that makes a candidate “human” and authentic.
Trying to handicap this race, this far ahead, a leading Republican political strategist, Terry Nelson, commented, “This is a time when leaders in our party are trying to put forward a more compelling vision for voters. It's also a time when one group of leaders has exited the stage and a new group of leaders has to come on to the stage to effectively put forward that message.”
Such a candidate must have some money to burn – or the ability to find some rich friends who will support his first, tentative efforts to become a viable candidate. The adage that money is the mother’s milk of politics is never more important than in the opening moments of a campaign – there are offices to open, travel to pay for, staff to hire, TV and print ads to buy, polling to carry out and a million other things – even as there is no fundraising machine in operation yet.
So who’s out there? First, perhaps, is Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential candidate turned female Republican Hamlet; the country’s best-known, helicopter-riding wolf- and moose-hunter, and head of America’s favourite dysfunctional family. Already the darling of right wing “values” voters, she resigned from the Alaskan governorship so she could promote her political memoir, get out across the country to press the flesh, and, most importantly, earn some real, flash, folding money.
Sarah Palin signs her book "Going Rogue" in front of a lit-up Christmas tree, at a shopping mall in Fairfax, Virginia December 5, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Theiler
Her book advance of around $5 million for her memoir - and likely total earnings of about $11 million - will give her the freedom to pay off her lawyers, buy a comfortable house somewhere closer to America’s population than her lake-side cabin in rural Alaska and support her family. She’ll be free to take political soundings around the country about what’s next in her life, and she can build up a bank account of political debts earned by helping other Republicans in local, state and national races between now and 2012. Because she no longer has one of those dreary day jobs, she can travel, collect those political debts, speak out in her gutsy platform presence – or even stay in to study up on those things she still knows very little about, like geography, history, the US Constitution, the list is long.
Her first decisions for 2010 seem right. She’s agreed to speak to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference as well as a so-called “tea party” supporters’ conclave, even as she takes a pass on the upcoming national meeting of conservative political action committees. Why? The CPAC folks are already in her corner (something perhaps not true for Southern Republicans as long as former Arkansas Governor and GOP primaries runner-up, Mike Huckabee is around) while the “tea party” mob is still taking shape and still growing. If The New York Time’s political columnist David Brooks is to be believed, it may well represent people sufficiently disaffected by traditional politics that they have to be wooed and won again, rather than be taken as a given. And some of them were Democrats, independents or even non-voters previously.
Photo: Mitt Romney addresses the third session of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota September 3, 2008. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Of course, the indomitable Mitt Romney is still there as well. As far as regular Republicans go, Romney was right on the money with his background in government efficiency and management as a former Republican governor in rock-solidly Democratic Massachusetts and self-made multimillionaire. But, as a Mormon, he was anathema to the evangelical Christians in the South and Midwest. He has money and backers aplenty, but his international security experience still seems notional. He’s got that great narrative as business virtuoso, saviour of the Utah Winter Olympics and governor. But as for his speaking style, well, let’s be kind and just say he is charisma-challenged.
So what about Mike Huckabee? Yet another former governor with a good management scorecard, a tap root right to the evangelicals and southerners, a gifted public speaker from his past as an ordained minister, a “just folks” background as a guitar-picking, poor boy risen high (how many people do you know who were so poor while in university that they caught squirrels and deep-fat fried them in a popcorn popper for supper?).
Huckabee gains top marks with the social values folks, although he, too, is less surefooted on international security issues – Arkansas is not a part of the country that deals much with terrorism, China trade frictions or Mideast peace negotiations. Nonetheless, in a recent conservative activists’ convention straw poll, Huckabee aced out all the other potential candidates – including Palin.
Photo: Mike Huckabee speaks during the third session of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota September 3, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Segar
And for the rest of the pack? Former New York City mayor Rudi Giuliani, a favourite of the security concerned, has already said he’s not in the running. Newt Gingrich, former Georgia congressman and nemesis of mid-1990s Democrats with his “Contract with America”, can truly talk the talk, at length, but he’s got those personal narrative issues as well. Some are touting former Republican party chairman Harley Barbour, also a former governor from Mississippi. He has a tonne of political IOUs in his pocket, he speaks the social values talk pitch-perfect and connects viscerally with southern white voters. Problems? He has little experience in international relations or national economic issues, but most of all; he comes across as a super-smooth politico, rather than a man with a compelling personal history. And he is, how shall we put it ... rather large.
Coming up behind these are sitting governors Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota) and Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), South Dakota senator John Thune, former governors Gary Johnson (New Mexico) and George Pataki (New York), former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Indiana congressmen Eric Cantor and Mike Pence, and Florida governor Charlie Crist - although his run for the US Senate this year will complicate things for him. Of this bunch, Santorum may be the most likely to make a few waves. He’s right on the money with those family values voters and he’s been on the national scene long enough to have spoken about international affairs with typical Republican zeal, without sounding like a starry-eyed nebbish.
But there is someone else out there, someone about whom talk is just starting – someone even veteran politicians admit they hadn’t paid attention to until recently: Luis Fortuño. Think of him as a real-life Republican version of fictional West Wing candidate, congressman Matt Santos.
Fortuño is governor of Puerto Rico, the self-governing US commonwealth in the Caribbean Sea, east of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. And, yes, Fortuño is a bona-fide US citizen by birth. He’s a Republican true believer, a Reagan-loving, National Review-reading member of the party — despite the distinctly liberal leanings of his native island.
As a native-born American citizen, albeit from a US territory not a state, Fortuño can run in an American presidential election even if he can’t vote in one. This is because presidential voting is conducted state-by-state for the electoral votes that are roughly equivalent to the relative size of the respective populations of the states and the District of Columbia, rather than as a simple national direct vote.
Since taking office a year ago, Fortuño has been gaining a reputation for fiscal leadership. His plan to cut governmental spending by $2 billion a year and reduce government payrolls by tens of thousands of workers is designed to bring the island’s budget deficit back in line and focus on private-sector job creation. Fortuño has already cut about 20,000 government positions and, with the help of $6.5 billion in combined federal and local stimulus funds, has created 17,000 new private-sector jobs. This puts Puerto Rico in third place nationally, behind Washington and Montana in terms of jobs created by the federal stimulus bill. Fortuño is actually using Obama's activist government policies to move his island towards less government, less spending and more privatisation. Targeting values issues in the coming years, Fortuño may even punt a school-choice bill, red meat for Republican conservatives who foam at the mouth at the influence of the teachers’ union, as well as to push for lowering the island’s top tax rate to 20%. One objective of the latter would be to entice retirees seeking sun, sand and low taxes, and bring in retirement wealth in return.
Watch: Luis Fortuño at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota
On a personal level, Fortuño is still young at 49. He’s telegenic, well-educated (Georgetown University and the University of Virginia’s law school – one of the nation’s finest) and he’s flawlessly bilingual. Most important, perhaps, he’s a winner on some solid Democratic turf as the first Republican governor of Puerto Rico since 1969.
Well, okay, he’d be a real long shot in 2012, but just the mention of his name itself is startling. The Republicans are strong on opposing illegal immigration or decriminalising illegal immigrants. Importing a candidate from the Caribbean to be their national standard bearer would probably be a bridge, er, a boat, too far for most of them. But, the GOP has virtually no one, now, who is a credible minority-ethnic public face, just as the country at large is increasingly multi-ethnic. This is glaringly noticeable vis-à-vis Latinos, the country's fastest-growing minority group and one that gave only 31% of their vote for John McCain in 2008.
A Republican Governors Association official commented, “Our party needs growth among minorities. Then along comes a young, well-spoken Puerto Rican governor, and we've got a person who can help our party articulate why Hispanics and Latinos should fit into the GOP.” So, get ready to start hearing Fortuño's voice over and over again, during the next three years – in both English and Spanish.
Main photo: Luis Fortuno speaks after his inauguration as the ninth governor of Puerto Rico in the North wing of the Capitol Building in San Juan, January 2, 2009. REUTERS/Ana Martinez