All eyes have been on Capitol Hill, but let’s take a look at the early stages of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
This week the papers have been full of sightings—Newt and Huckabee are in Iowa, Pawlenty’s in New Hampshire. But maybe the more interesting story is that a lot of potential candidates will decide if they are definitely going to run between now and New Year’s—and some of them will be deciding over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s all happening now, they’re deciding in long walks, at the dinner table, and while watching the football game on the couch. They’ll be talking it through, sometimes for the first time and sometimes the tenth. “Can we do this?” “Are we in this together?” “How do you feel?”
In some cases those will be hard conversations. A largely unremarked fact of modern presidential politics is the increased and wholly understandable reluctance of candidates’ families to agree to a run. Looking at it through a purely personal prism, and that’s where most people start, they see it not as a sacrifice, which it is, but a burden, a life-distorter, and it is those things too. But they have to agree to enter Big History, or a candidate can’t go. And a lot of them don’t want the job, if victory follows candidacy, of “the president’s family.” The stakes are too high, the era too dramatic, the life too intense. They don’t want the intrusion, the end of all privacy, the fact that you’re always on, always representing.
A president’s spouse gets mass adulation one week and mass derision the next. But if you’re a normal person you probably never wanted mass adulation or mass derision.
So what’s happening now in the homes of some political figures is big and in some cases will be decisive. Potential candidates already have been approached by and met with campaign consultants, gurus looking for a gig telling them “Don’t worry about all the travel, you can have a Facebook campaign, we’ll make you the first I-pad candidate! You can keep your day job. You can even work your day job!” And then there are the potential contributors, the hedge fund libertarian in Greenwich, and the conservative millionaire in a Dallas suburb, who are raring to go. Candidates have to decide by at least New Year’s in order to be able to tell them to stay close and keep their powder dry, and in order to plan an announcement in the spring, in time for the first big GOP debate, at the Reagan Library.
Some candidates and their families are not wrestling with the idea of running, of course. Mitt Romney, for instance, surely knows he’s running. But not every potential candidate is serious about it. Some look like they’re letting the possibility they’ll run dangle out there because it keeps them relevant, keeps the cameras nearby, keeps their speech fees and book advances up. The one thing political journalists know and have learned the past few decades is that anyone can become president. So if you say you may run you are immediately going to get richer and more well known and treated with more respect by journalists. Another reason unlikely candidates act like they’re running is that who knows, they may. It’s hard to decide not to. It excites them to think they might. It helps them get up that morning and go to the 7 a.m. breakfast. “I’m not doing this for nothing, I may actually run. The people at the breakfast may hug me at my inauguration; I may modestly whisper, ‘Remember that breakfast in Iowa when nobody showed? But you did. You’re the reason I’m here.'” They’re not horrible, they’re just human. But history is serious right now, and it seems abusive to fake it. If you know in your heart you’re not going to run you probably shouldn’t jerk people around. This is history, after all.
All this decision making takes place within the context of a new mood in the party. We are at the beginning of what looks like a conservative renaissance, free of the past and back to basics. It is a revived conservatism restored to a sense of mission.
The broader context is this: Every four years we say, ‘This is a crucial election,’ and every four years it’s more or less true. But 2012 will seem truer than most. I suspect it will be, like 1980, a year that feels like a question: Will America turn itself around or not? Will it go in a dramatically new direction, or not.
And if there are new directions to be taken, it’s probably true that only a president, in the end, can definitively lead in that new direction. On spending, for instance, which is just one issue, it’s probably true that the new Congress will wrestle with cuts and limits and new approaches, and plenty of progress is possible, and big issues faced. But at the end of the day it will likely take a president to summon and gather the faith and trust of the people, and harness the national will. It’s probably true that only a president can ask everyone to act together, to trust each other, even, and to accept limits together in pursuit of a larger good.
Right now, at this moment, it looks like the next Republican nominee for president will probably be elected president. Everyone knows a rising tide when they see one. But everything changes, and nothing is sure. President Obama’s poll numbers seem to be inching up, and there’s reason to guess or argue that he hit bottom the week after the election and has nowhere to go but up.
Most of my life we’ve lived in a pretty much fifty-fifty nation, with each cycle decided by where the center goes. Mr. Obama won only two years ago by 9.5 million votes. That’s a lot of votes. His supporters may be disheartened and depressed, but they haven’t disappeared. They’ll show up for a presidential race, especially if the Republicans do not learn one of the great lessons of 2010: The center has to embrace the conservative; if it doesn’t, the conservative loses. Add to that the fact that the White House is actually full of talented people, and though they haven’t proved good at governing they did prove good not long ago at campaigning. It’s their gift. It’s ignored at the GOP’s peril.
All of this means that for Republicans, the choice of presidential nominee will demand an unusual level of sobriety and due diligence from everyone in the party, from primary voters in Iowa to county chairmen in South Carolina, and from party hacks in Washington to tea party powers in the Rust Belt. They are going to have to approach 2012 with more than the usual seriousness. They’ll have to think big, and not indulge resentments or anger or petty grievances. They’ll have to be cool eyed. They’ll have to watch and observe the dozen candidates expected to emerge, and ask big questions. Who can lead? Who can persuade the center? Who can summon the best from people? Who will seem credible (as a person who leads must)? Whose philosophy is both sound and discernible? Who has the intellectual heft? Who has the experience? Who seems capable of wisdom? These are serious questions, but 2012 is going to be a serious race.
Good luck to those families having their meetings and deliberations on Thanksgiving weekend.