There was a surprise in this week’s National Journal Political Insiders Poll of Republicans. Not that they picked Mitt Romney as most likely to succeed in the race for their party’s 2012 nomination: The former Massachusetts governor has been around the track once before in 2008, can raise a ton of money, and has a national political network and a talented team of advisers.
Given all that, the discordant note was the downbeat mood of the Republican operatives, consultants, lobbyists, and strategists—the usual bunch that you’d see in the control rooms of presidential campaigns—as they look forward to the real start of their 2012 presidential campaign. And lack of enthusiasm among GOP Insiders, whom we asked to rate their party’s top five contenders, wasn’t limited to their front-runner; it seemed to embrace almost the entire field of likely Republican contenders.
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“I wish there were five top candidates," one GOP Insider sighed. “Alas, it’s really a choice between Mitt and Tim [Pawlenty]. Thank heavens we have the Senate takeover to get excited about.” And that was from someone who thought Romney had the best chance of winning the GOP nod this time around.
Pawlenty finished as the second favorite among GOP Insiders to win the nomination, but the prospect of him leading the Republicans in 2012 was also greeted with almost a tone of resignation. As one of his own boosters put it, “This pathetic party will nominate the person who is the least objectionable which is Pawlenty unless someone steps into the breach.” Another GOP Insider said of the former two-term Minnesota governor: “He is the least unacceptable candidate—a good choice to lose respectably to Obama.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who finished third in the ranking, is a newcomer to the top-five list. As one GOP Insider put it, “The polish on this guy’s apple is still fresh and shiny.” Another Republican groused, “This is the guy the GOP should nominate, but he is probably too thoughtful and collaborative for most primary voters.”
It’s not unusual for there to be some buyer’s remorse when it comes to presidential candidates, but these GOP White House hopefuls have barely been put out on the shelf. What gives?
The economy is having, at best, a tepid recovery, and unemployment remains high. And President Obama is still presiding over multiple wars. That combo helped sink Democratic candidates in the 2010 midterms that saw the Republicans take over the House of Representatives. Shouldn’t GOP strategists be feeling more optimistic about their 2012 presidential prospects?
There are at least a couple of possible explanations for the GOP Insiders’ blues.
For starters, their primary voters and caucusgoers have become increasingly conservative, and there’s a sense among many GOP Insiders that the nominating contest could end up shoving their eventual nominee so far to the right that he or she won’t be able to scramble back to the middle and successfully appeal to independent voters. But the Republican nominating electorate has been shifting to the right since the late 1970s, and that didn’t stop the party’s eventual nominees from winning the 1980, 1988, and 2000 elections when there were wide-open battles to become the GOP standard-bearer.
So far, this is a relatively weak field of candidates. And the decisions not to run by credible contenders like Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and most recently, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, help draw attention to that fact. Their exits have also contributed to the notion that Obama is going to be hard to beat—otherwise the candidates who opted out would be running. (Insiders just assume every accomplished politician has the burning ambition to be president.)
Another factor: Had these defections not occurred, many Insiders might by now have signed up with a campaign by now, especially if establishment types like Barbour, Daniels, or Thune had decided to run. Instead, a lot of Insiders are sitting on the sidelines. Since they don’t have a horse in the presidential race, they’re not vested in it. And that gives them the luxury to bad-mouth their front-runner and the field. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong, just that they’re less discreet with their observations.
So how seriously should we treat this early-stage criticism? It’s quite possible that the nominating process with all its twists and turns could produce a fairly strong nominee. A great convention and a sluggish economy won’t hurt either -- just ask Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign advisers.
But Republican political elites are entering this presidential contest in an unusually dour mood, and that can’t be a good thing. It may mean that more than a few party operatives and fundraisers stay on the presidential sidelines and decide to invest their talents and energy in efforts to take over the Senate or hold the House. Whoever becomes the GOP nominee, right now it looks like he or she is going to have a selling job with some of the party’s top strategists. Isn’t the job of wresting the White House from an incumbent hard enough without having to convince your own best allies that you have a chance?
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