The Permanent Campaign
Mike Huckabee pulled off quite a Sweeps Week carny act Saturday night, pulling in what must have been a record audience for his Fox show by sending all sorts of mixed signals about his presidential intentions. Prior to his announcement, he presided over a spirited trashing of Mitt Romney’s health care speech and listened good-naturedly to guest Ted Nugent call for Navy SEAL teams to “secure” the borders by giving transgressors the ol’ bin Laden treatment.
In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, there’s been a silly effort among the conservative chattering classes to bat down the idea that this development means a permanent boost in Barack Obama’s approval ratings, or even guarantees his re-election. It’s silly, of course, because no one really believes the straw-man proposition in the first place.
For Mike Huckabee, the decision of whether to run for president has got to be excruciating. On the one hand, he’s done quite well in both primary and general election polls without lifting a finger. He has a very clear path to the nomination based on his demonstrated strengths with socially conservative voters in 2008. And the GOP has moved in his ideological direction since then, making his “insurgent” persona far more of an asset than a liability.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s surprise announcement that he is not, after all, running for president in 2012 is sparking an incipient sense of panic in the self-confident ranks of Republican insiders. Ol’ Haley was so their type: solidly conservative without getting too carried away with it, innately at home with money and those who made lots of it, and always ready to cut a shrewd deal. But now, for whatever reason, Haley’s out.
During the 2008 election cycle, Mitt Romney was often accused of treating politics more like a consumer-focused business than an exercise in leadership. “My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo,” he said, radiating the sense that if primary voters wanted something, anything, he’d be willing to sell it. His strategists obsessed about creating and selling “Brand Romney.” To many, these efforts made him look like a crass twit, a market researcher’s caricature of the perfect Republican candidate, even as he came in second-place for the GOP nomination.
By now, it should be obvious that anyone hoping party insiders will draft a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Rick Perry to rescue the lackluster Republican 2012 field from itself is living in a hopeless fantasyland. But in case you need even more evidence, consider this: Dark-horse candidates who aren’t fully committed to running for president, deep within their bones, have a terrible track record of misfires and flameouts. We need look no further back than 2008 for a vivid historical example.
There are so many unknowns to bedevil any poor pundit trying to call the 2012 Republican nomination. For starters, we still don’t know for sure who’s going to run.
The obvious way to think about Mitt Romney’s chances in 2012 is to revisit his 2008 campaign—what went well, what went poorly, and so on. But circumstances haven’t just changed for Romney since 2008—they’ve more or less inverted. Back then, running against “maverick” John McCain, social-issues heretic Rudy Giuliani, and economic-issues dissenter Mike Huckabee, Romney was essentially the movement conservative candidate in the race.
This week, Tim Pawlenty formally launched an exploratory committee to run for president. His path to the GOP’s 2012 nomination is reasonably clear: He will try to become everybody’s second choice in a field full of deeply flawed candidates, and there’s a fairly convincing case that he’ll succeed. Strikingly, though, this case for T-Paw in 2012 is essentially the same as the case that was made for Pawlenty as John McCain’s running-mate in 2008.