JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 18, 2011
Mike Allen describes the Republican panic over the party's presidential field. It's a terrific piece of reporting, confirming everything we've known or suspected about how the party elites think of their field. For reasons I find strange, they desperately want a savior from outside the field, and consider Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie the most plausible white knights. I wrote a column for the New York Times magazine explaining my incomprehension with their assessment of these figures. I'd note that that the latest poll on Christie, which came out after that column, he sports an approval rating of 38%, with 56% disapproving. New Jersey may be a blue state, but this is not a sign that Christie's overbearing style wears especially well.
Allen reports, as we all suspected, that the prospect of a Michelle Bachmann nomination "terrifies Washington Republicans," an assessment I share. Historically, a candidate so staunchly opposed by the elite will lose. But Pawlenty Bachmann has powerful support among the kinds of conservatives who communicate to the party base. Rush Limbaugh loves her. Fellow conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt raved about her when I appeared on his show last night. Bill Kristol is a fan. Given the growing power of the grassroots vis a vis the elite -- Republicans toppled party-approved nominees in several Senate and House primaries this year -- and Bachmann's ability to win validation from at least some conservative thought leaders, if a clear alternative fails to emerge, she could really pull it off.
What I don't understand is why the party elites have so little enthusiasm for Tim Pawlenty, who seems like an adequate nominee -- lacking any special political skills, but not burdened by any prominent weaknesses, either. I haven't really dug into Pawlenty's record, so I don't know if the Republican ennui toward him is based on a real weakness or simply an unrealistic desire to be swept off their feet. If that white knight fails to ride in -- or if he rides in and falls on his face -- I expect them to reconcile themselves to the generic former Republican governor from Minnesota.