Friday, September 4, 2009

The Making of the President: 2012

In October 2005, I boldly made the following prediction in an op-ed piece for my college newspaper, The Bard Observer:

I, Matthew Rozsa, as of October 6, 2005, hereby predict that Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States.

Since then I have tried to replicate that success by attempting to oraculate as to the 2012 presidential contest, with conclusions that vacillated wildly back and forth. Yet now, since I am at roughly the same chronological distance from that election as I was when I first weathered the tempest of contempt almost four years ago, I think it is time for me to offer a definitive prediction about the national decision that is still more than three years away. Here it is:

1) The four main candidates will be former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former Georgia congressman and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Given the extensive fundraising required of presidential candidates since the 1970s, I find it highly unlikely that any dark horses will emerge at the last minute; indeed, the last presidential candidate to be nominated by a major party who didn't appear in the top four in polls at this time (three years or so before the actual election) was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

2) Palin and Gingrich have too many political liabilities too serve as viable candidates - Gingrich with his spotty personal life, reputed narcissism, and decade-and-a-half out of power, and Palin with her severe political inexperience, perceived intellectual deficiencies, and tendency to put herself in an unflattering spotlight on numerous wince-inducing occasions. Both have low personal approval ratings,and perform very poorly in run-off polls against Barack Obama. Although each one has a very special appeal to certain elements of the Republican party base (Gingrich among more cerebral conservatives and Palin among poorly educated hard-righters and paleo-cons), neither will be perceived as having the ability to expand beyond those bases. What's worse (for them), all of the positive attributes they possess will be present in more electable alternatives (i.e, Romney and Huckabee). As such, I see both of them being eliminated rather quickly.

3) In a situation where the economy is still struggling by late 2011/early 2012, Romney will be the obvious candidate. His extensive background as a fixer-upper in the business community and sterling personal integrity will be exactly what the Republican base and American public crave in such an environment - the former because of his unwavering loyalty to the oligarchy of wealthy Americans and big businesses that rule the Republican party, and the latter because his business background can be sold very easily as a prime qualification for getting us out of our economic turmoil (something along the lines of, we've had four years of a president who thinks government is the road to prosperity, now we need a man who understands that it's business that leads to growth, and here is a man who not only appreciates the value of business, but personally excelled in it). Romney's three main deficits will be his social class (people may harbor feelings of class-based resentment against a presidential candidate born into an economically and politically privileged background), his wishy-washy record on the social and cultural issues that matter so much to important elements of his party's base (due to his career as Governor of Massachusetts), and, sad though this is, his Mormonism (which has often been viewed with suspicion by Christian right-wingers and which polls show is a disincentive for many mainstream voters). These problems are serious, but if the economy is in severe enough difficulty, none will prove insurmountable: Romney's personal background will be irrelevant to average voters if they believe that he is better equipped to rescue them from economic woe than Obama (just look at how the wealthy Roosevelt trounced self-made man Hoover in 1932), his lack of conservative street cred (which would only really hurt him in the Republican primaries, but actually be an asset for the general election) can be fixed with the support of such prominent right-wing pundits as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter (both of whom have already proclaimed their undying love of the man), and his Mormonism - though an undeniable disadvantage under normal political circumstances (and sadly so, since Romney would deserve to lose for his political, not religious, beliefs) - would once again be rendered politically irrelevant in a time of economic desperation.

4) I do not believe the economy will still be struggling by 2012. Although optimism is hardly vogue at this time, the reality is that all signs point to a slow but steady recovery taking place, one that will have the GDP back in a state of growth by the end of the year and will cause a noteworthy rise in wages/drop in unemployment by the middle of 2011. Considering that this will be largely attributable to the effects of Obama's economic stimulus package and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, it will severely weaken the foundations upon which Romney would have to build political support. This isn't to say that Republicans won't still claim that the economy is in a wreck when 2012 rolls around; since the 1930s it has been a standard practice of both parties to decry the economic policies of their counterparts. That said, in a period of prosperity, Republican denunciations of Obamanomics will not provide the centerpiece of their prospective nominee's appeal, either to his own base (when trying to win the nomination) or to the general public (when trying to get elected). Instead, barring some unforeseen international or domestic crisis, that emphasis will probably rest where it has in many previous elections - on a plethora of cultural and social issues, which use economic and international overtones as a weak cover for the deeper rifts they bring to the fore. In such a political climate, Romney (though still doing well in the primaries) will be damaged by his personal background, wishy-washiness on socio-cultural issues, and Mormonism. Instead the candidate most likely to flourish in such an environment is the one who rose from humble beginnings, served as a pastor for many years, exudes charm and amiability, is a captivating orator, possesses undeniable intelligence, and is as far to the right on social, cultural, and international issues as any candidate offered up by the Republican party in its history (he is equally conservative on economic matters, and although there is a populist streak to his tone when discussing these topics that cause concern among plutocrats, he will no doubt be able to alleviate with a well-timed speech to win them over). That candidate, of course, is none other than former Arkansas Governor Michael Dale Huckabee, and I believe that his adroit skills for grassroots organizing (which are in stark contrast to the ineptitude of Palin's abilities) will help him win the passionate support of the Republican Party's radical right-wing base in a way that no candidate has done since Barry Goldwater in 1964. His only main flaw will be the claim (no doubt made repeatedly by the Romney team) that Huckabee is simply not electable, but unfortunately for supporters of the hapless Michigan native, Huckabee will be able to effectively diffuse those claims by pointing out that his standing against President Obama in polls is roughly equal to that of Romney's. As such, Huckabee will quite likely coast to the top of the Republican ticket in 2012, leaving behind him a base of supporters as enthusiastic as those that propelled Barack Obama to his party's nomination four years earlier.

5) At that point, Huckabee's main concern will be the same one faced by so many other major party presidential candidates - finding a way to compensate for the political liabilites that limit his electability and to broaden his appeal (presumably toward the moderate and independent voters that wind up deciding elections) while not alienating his base. In Huckabee's case, his main political weaknesses will be as follows:
a) The perception that he supports theocratic policies, which turns off moderates and independents.
b) His inexperience both in foreign policy and in dealing with the federal legislature.
c) His sexist comments about women (he once signed a statement in USA Today that declared a woman's obedience to her husband to be as important as her obedience to God).
d) His bigoted comments about Mormons (he has been caught joking that Mormons worship Satan).
e) His insensitive comments about Jews (comparing his massive weight loss on several occasions to experiences in concentration camps, or saying that he looked like a Holocaust survivor).
f) His outspoken hatred of homosexuality (he has referred to same-sex relationships as sinful and evil, blamed them in part for the wave of school shootings in the 1990s, opposes all forms of gay rights, et cetera).

Huckabee won't do squat about his homophobia - the only Americans who will care that deeply about gay rights are Americans who won't be able to win anyway, and standing his ground on hating homosexuals will help keep the enthusiasm of his base. On the other hand, Mormons are a vital Republican voting bloc, but the most obvious way of appealing to them (selecting Romney or some other high profile Mormon as a running mate) could jeopardize his election, considering the genuine prejudice against Mormons in America. As such, Huckabee will probably resolve this problem by offering some form of highly publicized apology for his insensitive remarks, which will no doubt be accepted by the Mormon Church (since it tends to be very conservative in its politics anyway, and will want its supporters to vote for the candidate most amenable to them on the issues). When it comes to his sexist past, Huckabee can probably fix that by putting his wife, Janet Huckabee, front and center in his campaign's image, even as he simultaneously makes up some Ron Paul-esque excuse to distance himself from the words he once endorsed (along the lines of "I never read it when I signed it" or "I signed it as a member of a larger group of ministers and all of us naturally had our signatured affixed to that document"). Despite the transparent falsehood of his excuse, the chances are it will prove effective - conservative women will either not care or overlook this transgression due to their support for him on policy matters, liberal women are once again a voting bloc about which Huckabee cares very little, and moderate/independent women - while they may not entirely accept Huckabee's explanation - will probably want to avoid immersing themselves in the "feminist debate" (which Huckabee will no doubt trying to make this issue about) and instead focus elsewhere.

That leaves three more problems - his inexperience in foreign policy and dealing with Congress, concerns held by independents and moderates about his strong ties with the Christian Right, and his insensitive comments toward Jews. These last three liabilites will, I believe, be addressed by Huckabee in one fell swoop - by selecting Congressman (and House Minority Whip) Eric Cantor of Virginia to be his running mate. Cantor offers seven main assets to a Huckabee ticket:
a) What will by 2012 be more than a decade's service in the House of Representatives, and in positions of great influence as well, thus covering Huckabee's weakness in lacking federal experience;
b) His background as Chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and service on the House International Relations Committee, which will not only compensate for Huckabee's lack of foreign policy experience but do wonders in bringing to his side the support of foreign policy neo-cons (who up to this point will be only lukewarm in their support of Huckabee);
c) The fact that he is a native Virginian, which means that he will help the Republican Party enormously in that electorally rich swing state;
d) The fact that he is young, intelligent, and articulate, thus contrasting with Huckabee on the first one and further reinforcing his strengths in the latter two;
e) The fact that his Jewishness will not only presumably help Huckabee among Jewish voters (whom the Republican Party has been trying to siphon away from Democrats since the days of George McGovern) but also underscore criticisms of Obama's policies toward Israel;
f) The most important variable of all - his Jewishness will convince moderates and independents (the majority of whom are not Jewish, incidentally) that Huckabee is not a captive to the Christian Right. What's more, while most vice presidential running mates who appeal to moderates and independents only do so by disappointing a presidential candidates base supporters, Cantor's staunch right-wing stances on virtually every major issue will not only enable him to keep his base, but actually further fire up their enthusiasm (especially since the Christian Right, though suspicious of Mormons, is right now very close to Jews due to their shared support of Israel). In short, Cantor's perfection will rest in the fact that he can pull off that rarest of feats - assuaging the political center while being applauded by the hard-liners in his own party.

6) No doubt to keep some attention on the Democratic ticket in the midst of all this, rumors will probably be circulated from Obama staffers (though none will ever be traced back to an identifiable high profile source) that he is considering dropping Joe Biden from the ticket. Those rumors will ultimately prove groundless - barring a situation in which Biden is either a severe liability or in which a potential replacement is viewed as being extremely valuable, the chances are Obama will play it safe and stick with the ticket he already has. Historically speaking dropping vice presidents is a very risky proposition, since it can lead to the perception that you don't have your own house in order (especially if the vice president being dropped doesn't want to go, which will almost certainly be the case with Biden) and because the person with whom you replace your vice president, should he or she backfire, could sink your ticket very quickly. As such, although a case could be made in favor of Obama removing Biden (namely that the main reason for Biden's selection, to address concerns over Obama's inexperience, will no longer be necessary in 2012), it will ultimately prove politically smarter to leave him on the ticket unless there is real fear that Obama will be in danger of imminent defeat (which there won't be) and thus a Hail Mary is deemed necessary (which it won't).

7) In the general election, the Obama-Biden ticket will win by an electoral and popular landslide. There will be three reasons for this:
a) A general public satisfaction (though probably not enthusiasm) for Obama's policies and the state of the union as of 2012;
b) A relatively high personal approval rating for President Obama;
c) The fact that the bulk of independents and moderates will swing ultimately choose him over Huckabee, who will simply be unable (despite his best efforts) to avoid the fate of almost all major party candidates who are nominated by appealing directly to the ideological extremes - the very words and sentiments that made them so popular among the base will turn off everyone else.
As a rule of thumb, I believe that in every presidential election (barring those in which there are prominent third-party candidates), each major party can depend upon receiving the votes of three-eighths (or 37.5%) of the voting public (comprised of each of those party's respective ideological bases). A small fraction (1% to 3%) of the voters will gravitate toward a third-party candidate, while the remaining one-fourth to one-fifth ultimately decides who wins the election. If you look at the six greatest landslides of American political history (those in which the winning candidate receiving at least seven-twelfths, or fifty-eight percent, of the popular votes cast), all of them are distinguished by the fact that the winning candidate picked up virtually every vote that wasn't already committed to his opponent's base, as well as a small fraction of voters who would normally appeal to the other party. Some of them did this solely by dint of their own extraordinary personal popularity (Franklin Roosevelt over Alfred Landon in 1936, Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale in 1984), others because of the degree to which the voting public disliked and/or feared the opposing candidate (Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972), and some through a combination of both factors (Warren Harding over James Cox in 1920, Herbert Hoover over Alfred Smith in 1928). Although Obama's current approval rating is somewhat low, it is noteworthy that very little of this has affected his personal approval; most people still like Obama as a human being, but simply disagree with the policies he is pursuing. This works to his advantage because it means whatever damage he has done is not permanent. As such, I believe that by 2012 he will be the beneficiary of general public goodwill, causing him to not only keep his own base but win virtually all of the independents and a few of Huckabee's nominal Republicans. Ultimately, I believe Obama will win 59% of the popular vote to Huckabee's 38%, with 3% being split among various third-party candidates (most likely libertarians). His victory in the electoral college, while decisive, won't be as sweeping; I anticipate that he will pick up all of the states he won in 2008 (including Cantor's Virginia), except for North Carolina and Indiana, and will also add Missouri, Montana, and Arizona to his column, making the final Electoral College tally 362 to 178 (that said, the census will reallocate the distribution of House members in such a way that the actual number will be slightly different from this one).

So there it is: I hereby predict, as of September 4, 2009, that Barack Obama will defeat Michael Huckabee in the presidential election of 2012. May God put sugar on my words in case I have to eat them (and assuming it's not too expensive at the time).

Addendum: Although Huckabee will be the second presidential candidate (and first Republican) to have a Jew as his running mate, I actually think he will perform worse among Jewish voters than any Republican since George H. W. Bush in 1992. At the end of the day, most Jewish voters select candidates based on their liberalism (see the article I wrote on the subject) and, to a lesser extent, their support for Israel. The chances are that not only will Obama win the same 78% who voted for him in 2008, but he will also pick up about half of the Jews who supported McCain that same year; many, though perhaps not pleased with Obama's policies on Israel or economic issues, will be so distrustful of Huckabee that even having a Jewish running mate won't help him. Although this isn't a major point from the perspective of the larger election, I am still satisfied with the probability of Obama joining Franklin Roosevelt (1936, 1940, 1944) and Lyndon Johnson (1964) as one of history's all-time greatest Jewish vote-getters (i.e, any candidate who surpasses 85% of the Jewish vote).

Second Addendum: If the economy is still flailing in 2012, and Mitt Romney is consequently selected to be the Republican presidential nominee, I do not know who he will choose to be his running mate (apart from the fact that he or she will be a candidate pre-approved by the Christian Right), but I can say that he will win. Of course, that is the least of the reasons why Obama must get the economy back on its feet - not only be stimulating a growth in Gross Domestic Product (which is already essentially going on), but by creating jobs and increasing wages. Anything and everything else is unacceptable.

Third Addendum: Remember the name Wayne DuMonde. The Republicans had Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis, and the Democrats will have Wayne DuMonde against Michael Huckabee. You can bet on it.


Jettboy said...

"Mormons in America. As such, Huckabee will probably resolve this problem by offering some form of highly publicized apology for his insensitive remarks, which will no doubt be accepted by the Mormon Church"

Nope this won't be the case. You really underestimate the amount of animosity that exists among Mormons to this man. His past is such that Mormons don't trust him no matter how many "sorry about that" he does. He has already done his highly publicized apology to the Mormons. Hasn't helped him and won't help him. It is true that Mormons will vote for him in the general, but chances are there will be a dramatic drop in voter turn out. Mitt will get a lot of write ins in protest.

Matthew Laszlo said...

I hope you're right, Jettboy. Hatred toward Mormons is still a socially acceptable form of bigotry, and it is high time that it was made clear that it deserves the same stigma that has been rightfully attached to other forms of prejudice.