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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's a Long Season and Too Soon to Say

                  Is there anything more pointless and depressing than public opinion polls about the popularity of prospective presidential candidates this far in advance of the election? Most of the country isn’t thinking about it at all, and even the political consultants don’t know yet who their hookup will be.
                  We don’t even know what the 2012 election will be about. At this point in 1979, the Iran hostage crisis was six months in the future and totally unexpected. At this point in 2007, the near-collapse of the financial sector was more than a year away.
                  Sometimes those changes of circumstance can turn the right candidate into the wrong candidate. At this point in 2008 I thought John McCain was the Republicans’ best hope because his maverick reputation distanced him from the Bush administration and his age and experience would resonate well in contrast to Obama’s youth and slender resume.
                  That analysis turned out to be completely wrong, but at a time when the economy seemed OK and most voters would have identified Sarah Palin as a celebrity chef, it made sense. Instead, McCain’s choice of her as a running mate made him look like a man with no judgment, and his inability to respond emotionally or intuitively to the financial crisis sealed his fate. Though I never would have said so six months earlier, Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee would have been better nominees, given how things turned out. They, at least, would have known how to demagogue the economic meltdown.
                  Like games in team sports, close elections are often decided by matchups. If Bill Clinton had been able to run for a third term, George W. Bush could never have beaten him. Bush’s warm, easygoing personality was a good matchup against Al Gore’s cerebral coolness, and it allowed him to win an election he shouldn’t have — in more ways than one.
                  So, assuming they’ll be running against Barack Obama, which of the Republican candidates is the best matchup? Hard to say.  Someone calm and reassuring probably can’t beat Obama at that game, and someone strident and full of conviction would have to hit exactly the right notes all the time to avoid driving voters to the incumbent. Ronald Reagan might have been able to pull it off, but he’s sui generis and long gone.
                  And if, on November 6, 2012, the unemployment rate is near 5 percent, gasoline prices are below $3.75 a gallon, and there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack, there probably will be no such thing as a good matchup against Obama. Only twice in 75 years has an incumbent president been beaten. In both cases the challenger was an exceptional politician who was running against an economic downturn (and, in Reagan’s case, a foreign-policy nightmare).
                  So is there anything that can be said at this point about the next presidential election. Based on a long view of things, here are two predictions.
                  First, the Republicans won’t nominate Sarah Palin. She has become, either by choice or happenstance, a politician without a program who is no more than a spokesperson for a set of resentments. The public has turned against her. She could still rehabilitate herself as a serious politician, interested in answers rather than complaints, but that’s a project for 2016 or beyond.
                  Nor will Donald Trump be the Republican nominee. He’s riding a wave right now because he’s blunt and outspoken and not afraid to make an ass of himself. That can get you elected to Congress, and if the stars are aligned right, governor (see Ventura, Jesse). But in a presidential campaign it’s political fool’s gold and won’t stand up to scrutiny. Americans may flirt with a candidate like that, but they won’t marry him.