So the first third of the Republican presidential race is ending. The first third is the introduction: “This is who I am, this is what I want to do, this is why you want to choose me.”
The campaign is announced, organized, and goes forward in key early states.
The second phase is the long slog through the primary states to the convention next August in Tampa, Fla. The third and final is the election proper, in the autumn of 2012.
The first phase was clouded by an overlay of frustration and dissatisfaction: The best weren’t in the game. Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, John Thune, Haley Barbour, none of them reporting for duty. But in the past few weeks another mood has begun to dig in: You fight with the army you have. You pick from the possible candidates. You make a choice and back him hard.
Part of this is simple realism. Time is passing, and the contenders have been at least initially inspected. Every four years the potential nominees on either side look smaller than the sitting president who, whether or not you like him, is the president. You’re used to him. He’s on TV. They play Hail to the Chief when he walks in. The office is big and imparts bigness.
But less so this year than past years. There’s a lot of 1980 in the 2012 presidential election, which doesn’t mean it will end the same way, but still. The incumbent looks smaller than previous sitting presidents, as did Jimmy Carter. His efforts in the Oval Office have not been generally understood as successful. There’s a broad sense it hasn’t worked. And Democrats don’t like him, as they didn’t Jimmy Carter.
This continues as one of the most amazing and underappreciated facts of 2012—the sitting president’s own party doesn’t like him. The party’s constituent pieces will stick with him, having no choice, but with a feeling of dissatisfaction. It is not only the Republicans who have been unhappy this year. All this will have some bearing on the coming year.
Debates arrived in a new way, with a new power. Candidates rose and fell depending on how they did in nationally televised forums. The whole primary season this year has been more wholesale than retail, more national than local.
Mitt Romney (left) debates Newt Gingrich during the ABC News GOP presidential debate on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Dec. 10.
In the past, state issues were important, but now only one issue—the nation’s economy—is important. An hour with the Grand Rapids Rotary Club is still nice, but not as nice as an eight-minute, prime-time cable hit. This marks the continuation of a half century-long trend. National trumps local, federal squashes state, the force of national culture washes out local culture. Primaries are fully national now.
The most memorable line of the first phase? There’s “9-9-9” and “Oops,” but the best came from Mitt Romney when he was asked about the Gingrich campaign’s failure to qualify for the Virginia ballot. Mr. Gingrich had compared it to Pearl Harbor, a setback, but we’ll recover. Mr. Romney, breezily, to a reporter: “I think it’s more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory.”
It made people laugh. It made them want to repeat it, which is the best free media of all, the line people can’t resist saying in the office. And they laughed because it pinged off a truth: Gingrich is ad hoc, disorganized.
The put-down underscored Romney’s polite little zinger of a week before, that Mr. Gingrich was “zany.” And it was a multi-generationally effective: People who are 70-years-old remember “I Love Lucy,” but so do people who are 30 and grew up with its reruns. Mr. Romney’s known for being organized but not for being deft. This was deft. It’s an old commonplace in politics that if you’re explaining you’re losing, but it’s also true that if they’re laughing you’re losing. The campaign trail has been pretty much a wit-free zone. It’s odd that people who care so much about politics rarely use one of politics’ biggest tools, humor. Mr. Romney did and scored. More please, from everyone.
Newt Gingrich in the end will likely prove to be a gift to Mitt Romney. He was a heavyweight. This isn’t Herman Cain, this is a guy everyone on the ground in every primary state knows and has seen on TV and remembers from the past. But his emergence scared a lot of people—”Not him!’—and made some of them think, ‘OK, I guess I better get off the sidelines and make a decision. Compared to Newt, Romney looks pretty reasonable.”
Mr. Gingrich took some of the sting out of Romney-as-flip-flopper because he is a flip flopper too. He also, for a few weeks there, made Mr. Romney look like he might be over. He made Mr. Romney fight for it, not against an unknown businessman but against a serious political figure whose face and persona said: “I mean business.” In the end it will turn out he was a gift to the Romney campaign, a foe big enough that when you beat him it means something.
The worst trend in politics that fully emerged during phase one? People running for president not to be president but as a branding exercise, to sell books and get a cable contract and be a public figure and have people who heretofore hadn’t noticed you now stopping you in the airport to get a picture and an autograph. In an endeavor like this you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You’re not held back by any sense of realism as to your positions, you don’t have to worry about them being used against you down the road because there won’t be a down the road. You can say anything. And because you do you seem refreshing. People start to like you—you’re not like all the others, who are so careful. You rise, run your mouth for a month and fall.
Maybe this is harmless. But America is in crisis. The world is in crisis. Everywhere you look establishments and old arrangements are falling, toppling to the ground. Does it help, in this context, to lower the standing of the American political process by inserting your buffoonish, unserious self into it? Or does it make things just a little bit worse?
The continuing mystery of phase one? The failure of Jon Huntsman to gain traction. It’s not precisely a mystery—he didn’t run as a successful conservative two-term governor but as a striped pants diplomat—but it is a frustration. Democrats like him, a lot. New Hampshire has an open primary. Democrats can vote for him there. Maybe they will. But will that make him a contender or an oddity?
What seemed true at the start of phase one seems true now. A number of the Republicans on the debate stage could beat Mr. Obama. But if there is a serious third-party challenger the president will likely be reelected.
Predictions? The essential message of phase one was, “I am a credible candidate, and I can win.” Phase two will be “I not only can win but my victory will have meaning.” Phase three? There will be some “He made it worse.” But watch for another argument. “In a second Obama administration he will be operating without any of the constraints that limited his actions in the first. He will never have to face the voters again. Obama unbound, with interest groups to reward. America, you don’t want to go there.”