Dr. Jason Johnson
Now that the dust is settled on the mid-term madness, and Obama has successfully convinced the press that he has his ‘mojo’ back (even if the polls are still catching up) during the “Lame Duck Session” we can begin looking at what really will matter once the ball drops and 2011 begins: The presidential election of 2012. Republicans are already lining up with websites and bus trips through Iowa and while the president must sit back and watch the opposition has to prepare for a creative assault to make any headway in 2012. The catch will be, how will the new congress influence GOP candidate’s presidential ambitions?
The important thing to remember is that whoever the Republican nominee is in 2012 is actually helped or hamstrung by what the Republican Congress is able to do with or against Obama in 2011. This congress comes in with a stark choice: Reject everything the president does and hope the economy boots him out of office, or try to improve the economy with the president and hope a GOP candidate can take more credit than Obama. It is unlikely that House Speaker John Boehner (D-OH) with his orange colored tan and penchant for crying on camera will be as much a foil to Obama as Newt Gingrich was to Bill Clinton. Consequently Republicans are better off trying to stymie the president’s efforts than take control and credit because they lack the congressional leadership personalities to make those kinds of claims. So which GOP contenders can make the most of a Congress that will try to take “Do Nothing-ness” to new heights?
The Republican candidate who can best get political momentum out of a Congress that may have little to show for itself would be an outsider. Someone who is far removed from Washington politics that can portray themselves as a sheriff coming to town to clean up a mess made by Obama. Fortunately for Republicans they have nothing but outsiders at the forefront of the party so this won’t be much of an impediment. But which outsider can make the best case? Who will be making credible speeches in Iowa next summer preparing to make an official announcement in the fall?
The first issue to point out is that the GOP candidate has to be able to win on their own merits. Namely those who are Republicans or plan to vote that way in 2012 should avoid the ‘electable’ candidate at all costs. The man or woman who says vote for them because: “They Can Beat Obama”. That plan didn’t work with John Kerry against Bush and it won’t work in 2012 against Obama. This knocks out cookie cutter candidates like Mitt Romney (The Republican version of Al Gore) or Jeb Bush. Those who have legitimate records to run on or political charisma are Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. And while not in any particular order they might have the best chance to capitalize on the new Republican Congress.
Newt’s masterful running of the GOP House in the 1990’s would give him a foothold by next summer to say that a strong president must be able to get things done with Congress as he did 17 years ago. Boasting a keen mind and a resume of economic success in the 1990’s Gingrich has a credible claim. Mike Huckabee, who in early polls is the only Republican with a consistent lead over Obama in 2012 has the charm and success in Arkansas to say that he can really change Washington D.C. with fiscally conservative policies bolstered by years of executive experience. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty may be the dark horse right now which works in his favor. Little known outside of the GOP he hails from the heartland where he’s seen the recession first hand and has a better handle on how to fix the problems real Americans face. Even Sarah Palin who I don’t believe will mount a credible run for president can make use of a resistant GOP congress by claiming that they, like the American people are stymied by Obama’s liberal agenda.
The real issue heading into the next year won’t be whether or not certain candidates will run, or if they have a chance to succeed. It will be whether or not they can successfully explain or justify their own Congress’s behavior in the coming months in a way that will position them best against Obama in 12 months. And they have to hope that he doesn’t simply outmaneuver them first making his re-election all but assured.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at email@example.com.)