Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Thoughts on the 2012 Election

Back in September 2009, I made the following observation about the 2012 presidential election:

In a situation where the economy is still struggling by late 2011/early 2012, (Massachusetts Governor Willard "Mitt") 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.

At the time, I felt that the economy WOULD have experienced significant improvement by 2012, and thus that the nomination would have naturally fallen to the most electorally viable of the hard right candidates, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Now I have revised my opinion, for three reasons:

1) Huckabee's popularity among grassroots conservatives has fallen considerably. While some point to his poor showing at the CPAC straw poll as evidence of this, I don't place a great deal of stock on the prophetic powers of that particular survey. To me, the more important developments have been:

i. The Maurice Clemmons Scandal. Back when Mike Huckabee was governor of Arkansas, he commuted the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, a man who had been convicted of committing unarmed burglary and sentenced to 108 years in prison. Huckabee, feeling that this punishment was excessive, reduced Clemmons' sentence t0 47 years, a decision that made the former burglar eligible for parole. Upon being released (with the unanimous consent of the parole board members), Clemmons was arrested multiple times (including for child molestation and aggravated assault, although prosecutors declined to file charges on those occasions), and his long rap sheet finally came to an abrupt close when he killed four police officers in Washington State, was pursued in an aggressive manhunt, and was finally shot dead by a Seattle police officer.
This scandal will be used by Huckabee's political opponents against him should he seek the presidential nomination in 2012. In many ways, this is unfortunate: Huckabee was hardly alone in believing that Clemmons had reformed himself, the sentence he commuted WAS excessive, and at the time of his release, there wasn't any reason to believe that Clemmons would go on to commit such a string of heinous crimes. Even worse, there actually IS an offender whose premature release from jail SHOULD lead to the downfall of Huckabee's candidacy - Wayne DuMond. Back in 1984, DuMond raped a 17-year-old girl who just so happened to be the third cousin of then-Governor Bill Clinton. This prompted right-wing conspiracy theorists to assert (without a shred of evidence, of course) that DuMond was the victim of a massive frame-up; therefore, as soon as Huckabee became governor, he commuted DuMond's sentence and, in a gross overstepping of his executive power, pressured the parole board into releasing him. The newly freed former jailbird went on to rape two women, murdering one (who was pregnant at the time).
Of course, because the DuMond controversy involved a Clinton relative, Republicans were loath to let that get in the way of considering Huckabee to be their presidential nominee in 2008. The Clemmons incident, however, will probably prove too much for them to handle; considering the questions it raises - legitimately or otherwise - about Huckabee's competence and commitment to law-and-order, it will quite likely deal a bodyblow to the Arkansan's White House ambitions.

ii. The Rise of Sarah Palin. While I still believe that Sarah Palin's association with the ideological fringe in the Republican party will ultimately thwart her efforts to be the party's nominee (see Point 2), it is obvious now that it has sucked a lot of the energy away from the movement Huckabee tapped into during his 2008 campaign. Energy, manpower, and momentum that would otherwise be Huckabee's exclusive province are being monopolized by Palin, thanks in no small part to the vast amounts of airtime she has been receiving. While Huckabee's television show on FoxNews was no doubt intended to keep him in the spotlight and thus help him maintain an enthusiastic base, the tendency of his program to "play it safe" has not helped it garner the publicity that Palin's penchant for controversy constantly attracts. With her soon to be joining the FoxNews roster, that will only further the downward spiral of his political brand at her hands.

2) The rise of the Tea Party movement makes Romney a more attractive political figure. Although some pundits believe that the Tea Partiers could push the Republican party farther to the right in the 2012 contest, I am inclined to believe that they will have the exact opposite effect - GOP bigwigs, while wanting to do everything in their power to keep Tea Partiers in the party fold, will nevertheless be wary of nominating a candidate too closely associated with their movement, for fear of turning off the independent and moderate voters whose ballots often decide presidential elections. Throwing enough red meat to ensure the Tea Party movement's loyalty to their candidate (as well as tap into their grassroots power) while simultaneously building a bridge to voters in the ideological center will be a very delicate balancing act, one that candidates like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and even Tim Pawlenty could never hope to perform. Romney, on the other hand, has the perfect mixture of unapologetic conservatism (particularly on the economic issues that Tea Partiers value most) and comparative moderation (on social policies) to make such a feat possible in his case. In short, Romney is the only high profile potential candidate with the power to capitalize on the support of the radical right while obtaining votes from swing voters; all of the other major contenders (especially Sarah Palin and Ron Paul) would receive the enthusiastic support of the conservative base, to the neglect of every other major voting bloc in America.

3) The most important reason for all: I no longer believe that the economy will have significantly improved by 2012.

The reason for this dreary prediction is simple - Obama has, with a steadfast determination that utterly baffles me, refused to pursue the policies that will be necessary to lead us to a recovery. What he should be doing right now, for political as well as moral reasons, is casting himself as a bellicose populist, one who uses the prestige and raw power of the presidency to help the people in their time of need by pushing through policies which solve their problems and serving as a bulwark between them and the cupidity of their adversaries (a tactic that has worked beautifully for economically progressive presidents from Andrew Jackson to the two Roosevelts). Equipped with this image, he should then push for measures that - however unpopular with conservatives and so-called centrists, and however initially extreme they may appear to many independent-minded Americans - are nevertheless guaranteed to have an immediate, significant, and overwhelmingly positive effect on our country's economic life. Above all else, this should involve passing an additional $1 trillion stimulus package, including $700 billion in private investment and infrastructure spending, $200 billion in aid to state and local governments, and $100 billion in a second WPA, which will almost instantly start creating thousands of jobs, bringing us into a much healthier economic state by autumn 2012 (when Obama needs to be re-elected) and to full employment within a year or two after that.

Instead, Obama refuses to do any of this. He seems to have bought into the myth that has been adamantly propounded by the Democratic Leadership Council, the Blue Dog Coalition, and other so-called centrist groups within his own party for years - i.e., that America is a right-wing nation, and as such will turn against any politician who tries to press a liberal agenda upon them. The fact that all of the evidence, historical and contemporary, points to Americans being a distinctly non-ideological bunch - that we are, indeed, a nation that cares far more about meat-and-potatoes RESULTS than we do about the ideological mechanisms through which those results are reached - has eluded him. To avoid being branded a "socialist" or a "radical", Obama has chosen a strange approach that can best be called glorified inactivity, consisting of proposing measures that nibble at the edges of our biggest problems without doing anything meaningful to solve them. For a tactic that is meant to win over the support of all three American voting groups - his conservative opponents, liberal allies, and moderate friends - Obama's approach has pulled off the unique feat of guaranteeing the worst of all three worlds: his political allies are angry at his insistence to budge from his love affair with inefficient half measures, his enemies continue to distort the inadequate piffle that he does push through as being "socialist" and "radical" (despite the fact that they are mostly borne of his attempts to accommodate them), and because his policies don't work, moderates continue to be angry at the lack of tangible results. Yet with a stubbornness that is very unbecoming a president (as we saw when it was displayed by George W. Bush in the last decade), Obama refuses to recognize the error of his ways, and instead plods ahead with the same failed strategy.

Should this continue, the chances are very strong that the economy will not have recovered enough by 2012 for Obama to be re-elected. Although the current polls show the Republican presidential field to be very competitive (with Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney exchanging the lead amongst themselves by very slight margins while roughly 40% of all Republican voters express themselves as "Unsure"), the political arithmetic for a Mitt Romney nomination in an economically-depressed 2012 is too compelling to be defied. Indeed, to win with relative ease, all Romney would need to do is avoid any major political gaffes, not allow any scandals to mar his image, and pick a solid running mate - someone conservative enough to please the Christian right-wing element of the Republican base (which will initially have difficulty swallowing his flip-flops on touchstone social issues and his Mormon background) while not so radical as to frighten moderates (as Sarah Palin did in 2008), as well as an individual with foreign policy and federal political experience to compensate for Romney's deficiencies in those areas. Unfortunately, unless a significant change comes from the Obama administration, that is precisely the situation I see occurring in America's future.

Final Blog Addendum - March 19, 2010:

PS: For what it's worth, if the economy recovers before the 2012 election (and, of course, no other significant issues arise to tarnish the Obama Administration in the eyes of the American people), the chances are that:

i. The Republican Party will nominate a right-wing All Star - someone who, like Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern (for the Democrats) in 1972, is able to coast to the nomination on the enthusiasm of the GOP's grassroots base of right-wing ideological purists. This will happen because, in the absence of a climate in which defeating President Obama appears likely, the pragmatism that would normally compel Republicans to nominate a Mitt Romney will go by the wayside, leaving in its wake the vociferousness of the Tea Partiers and their ilk.

ii. Conventional wisdom among pundits dictates that the candidate of choice among these voters would be either former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee or former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. The former can be ruled out of contention for the reasons I've already discussed; the latter, though admittedly popular among certain segments of the GOP base, is nevertheless reviled by libertarian purists, who are turned off by her lack of intellectual heft , close ties with the Christian right, and reputation for cronyism during her gubernatorial tenure. What's more, despite their passionate followings, neither Huckabee nor Palin inspire the unadulterated zeal necessary to compensate for the political conventional wisdom that dictates (correctly or incorrectly) that each of them is unelectable. Indeed, of all the hard-line conservatives, only one has inspired the type of devoted following that conjures up memories of the Goldwater and McGovern revolutions - Congressman Ronald Ernest "Ron" Paul of Texas.

iii. Should the economy have recovered by 2012, I believe that Ron Paul's well-organized grassroots campaign - combined with his cerebral mien, admirably consistent voting record, and novel ideological message - will make him the surprise victor of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.

That said, the nomination won't come easily to Ron Paul. Although Huckabee and Palin would likely split establishment conservative votes between themselves, thereby permitting him to monopolize the right-wing base of the party, Romney will soon thereafter emerge as his key adversary for the nomination. What Paul will have in the support of libertarian and right-wing ideologues, Romney will counter with the backing of the big business interests that control Republican party fortunes (which, despite Paul's laissez-faire policy proposals, remain deeply distrustful of his positions on foreign policy and the Federal Reserve), ideological moderates (especially in the Northeast and other blue states), Mormons who will want to produce their faith's first president, and even conservatives who will be frightened away from Paul by the perceived radicalism of his agenda. I suspect that a showdown would erupt, comparable to the Ford-Reagan nomination contest in 1976. Whereas the moderate (Gerald Ford) ultimately defeated the radical (Ronald Reagan) in 1976, two factors will work in the favor of the radical (Paul) this time around:

- Unlike Gerald Ford, Mitt Romney does not have the benefit of incumbency.

- The Reagan revolution of 1980 significantly altered the ideological composition of the Republican party from what it had been in Gerald Ford's day; while Ford had many moderates whose support he could tap, Romney will find that the supply has significantly dwindled over the past thirty-six years.

In short, I would see Ron Paul sweeping the Southern, Plains, Midwestern, and Pacific States (even picking up on the support of Christian right-wingers who, though disappointed in Paul's conquest of Palin and Huckabee, will still prefer him over the Mormon Romney), while Romney would claim the Northeastern and predominantly Mormon states, as well as Michigan. It would be a close and hard-fought battle, but my instincts tell me that Paul would emerge as its champion.

iv. While I am uncertain as to who Romney would choose as a running mate in 2012 (should the economy be poor and he be the quasi-inevitable nominee, of course), it's relatively easy to figure out Paul's pick. He would want to win over the support of Mormons who will have been disappointed at the defeat of their champion, place a younger candidate on the ticket to balance out his septuagenerian status, and pick someone whose philosophy is close enough to his own so as to avoid alienating his die-hard supporters. Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona is a perfect fit.

v. Barack Obama would defeat Ron Paul by one of the greatest popular vote landslides in American presidential history. This would be in no small part due to the success of his first term as president; however, the media will no doubt focus on Ron Paul's radicalism as a central issue of the campaign, much as they did for Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972, causing a knee-jerk reaction against it among the independent voters who are so critical in deciding elections. In addition, the lukewarm support Paul will receive from the well-moneyed interests that so often make-or-break GOP candidacies will significantly hinder his fortunes (despite what will probably be overwhelming financial support from grassroots constituencies). Finally, Ron Paul - unlike John McCain in 2008 - has made questionable comments on racial topics in the past, the significance of which will be accentuated by the fact that he will be running against our first black president. All of this will no doubt combine to put Ron Paul on the wrong end of the most one-sided popular vote margin in American presidential politics since the Johnson-Goldwater and Nixon-McGovern contests. His electoral vote tally will probably be somewhat better than those of his predecessors (he'll likely claim the entire South, Plains, and Rocky Mountain states), but not by much.

vi. As a quick sidenote, I suspect that an Obama-Paul race would see the Democratic ticket winning the largest percentage of Jewish votes in recorded American history. While this may seem like an unusually bold assertion, the fact that Jews are an overwhelmingly liberal voting bloc - with even Jewish Republicans generally tending to be closer to Obama's governing philosophy than that of Ron Paul - will combine with Paul's well-known opposition to providing foreign aid to Israel to cause Jews of almost all ideological stripes to flock to the Obama-Biden campaign. The greatest Jewish vote-getters in American presidential history (post-1916, anyway) have been Franklin Roosevelt (90% in 1940 and 1944) and Lyndon Johnson (90% in 1964). I could easily see Obama surpassing those figures by receiving more than nine-out-of-ten Jewish votes.

vii. What will the ultimate legacy of a Ron Paul campaign be? There is a temptation to claim that, like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, he will cause an influx of new voters into the fold of one of America's two major parties, significantly altering its ideological composition and the future course of American politics and thereby turning a landslide defeat into a historical victory. The problem with this, in Ron Paul's case, is that he would merely be repeating a revolution that has already happened; Barry Goldwater already brought the Paulesque elements into the Republican Party back in 1964, and Ronald Reagan handed them the reins of government in 1980. Arguments over whether the Reaganites were ultimately loyal to their own principles notwithstanding, the reality is that Paul wouldn't be forging a new coalition so much as he would be infusing energy into an old one. While many of the Republican Party's power-brokers will be leery of him, the chances are that his resounding defeat will enable them to find ways to win over his supporters in future elections while luring back those elements who defected during his campaign. In short, it is doubtful that Ron Paul will leave the Republican Party looking that much different than it had been before his brief time at its helm.

That said, there is one significant impact Ron Paul will have on the American political landscape. Since its creation during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, the Federal Reserve has been considered an untouchable institution - pundits and citizens may question its practices and policies, but rarely if ever has it been deemed acceptable to openly oppose its very existence. Although Paul's war against the Federal Reserve will be depicted at the time as radical, the very fact that his voice will at last be heard will end the long-standing taboo against challenging its existence. Considering that America does have a historical precedent for destroying national banks that control its economy (see Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and American politics in the 1830s), people who begin to mull over Paul's opposition to the Federal Reserve and find that opposing its ilk is NOT un-American will gradually become emboldened to challenge it on their own. When you combine that with the growing populism caused by our recent economic calamity, what you get is a climate where the Federal Reserve may be in dear trouble in the near future.


Megan said...

An interesting, if bleak, outlook. And a quite plausible one. I will be most vexed if I'm not back in time to vote and/or come back to a Republican president ...

John Hagan said...

Matt, interesting analysis. Though I just don't think Obama is going to lose re-election. If Bush can beat Kerry, Obama can beat Romney.

By the way, please follow my blog. It is called The Social Gadfly!

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with discriminating against him cause he's Mormon? Mormons believe in dumb shit, even more so than Christians, which, I'd probably hold against Obama if I didn't think he was playing mere lip service (which appears obvious)

I have a couple questions:

Do you think there will be any attack ads that focus on Romneys Mormonism?

I mean these attacks obviously wouldn't come from the Democratic Party officially, but I am curious if this will happen

Are you gonna give us your run down on which Senate seats will likely flip? Delaware, Indiana, North Dakota look like they will

Tiguhs said...

So you're suggesting Obama should further alienate himself and his Party by trying to push through a far left, populist policy agenda? Why? Have you paid any attention over the last year (yes, I'm refering to Health Care).

If the policies are not politically feasible then it's simply a waste of energy, but then again you think Carter was a decent President so I guess what you want Obama to do does not diverge from your world view

He's got to run to the center, there's a potential coalition of about 65 Senators he could run w/ if he wanted to pursue a more centrist policy agenda. Beats getting nothing done and losing face whilst doing so, which is what he's done thus far.

Matthew Laszlo said...

To Megan: I will also be most vexed if you come back to a Republican president.

To John: While I hope you are right, it is important to remember that George W. Bush was not widely perceived as a failure in 2004. Saying that Bush's victory over Kerry means that Obama should be able to beat Romney is the equivalent of saying that Nixon's victory over McGovern meant that Carter shouldn't have had any difficulty defeating Reagan. Sadly, it doesn't always work out that way.

To Anonymous: I read the first paragraph of what you wrote - the part in which you insulted Mormons and Christians - and decided that the remainder of your post wasn't worth my time.

To Tiguhs: I address your position in several blog posts, including "Economic Priorities of 2010" (Parts One, Two, and Three) and "Will There Be An Obama Era?". If you don't have time to read them (since they admittedly very long), I can understand that, but if you are going to continue insisting on a simplistic position - namely, that liberalism is politically fatal - you might want to first bone up on the more nuanced opinion held by those who disagree.