Mitt Romney has long been the presumptive winner of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. After only one primary and a single caucus, it’s nearly impossible to seriously entertain the idea that this presumption won’t be confirmed. There’s been damned little real drama in this candidate selection process, despite the media’s desperate effort to promote first one, then another, and then another opponent as a viable challenger. It’s surprising that this should be so when there was no real candidate presumptive coming out of the 2008 election, and given how beatable conservatives believe Obama is. The odd story of the primary season, then, is that there is no story.
Or perhaps not. Charles Krauthammer thinks the story is Ron Paul’s ability to bring libertarianism in from the cold and finally achieve a respectable vote count. It’s an odd story Krauthammer tells, though. On the one hand he seems to be treating Paul’s success as something of a real and lasting achievement, but on the other hand he compares him to Jesse Jackson’s role in the Democratic Party in the ’80s and, most strangely, to Pat Buchanan, of whom he says, “Everyone remembers Buchanan’s fiery and disastrous culture-war address” at the ’92 GOP convention. Are these success stories? Perhaps, if we treat the last two Democratic presidents having allegedly been black as evidence of Jackson’s lasting influence, and the Tea Party as evidence of Buchanan’s lasting influence. But I’m dubious. And I’m dubious that Paul’s numbers represent a real breakthrough as much as they represent his name-recognition (attained over successive futile presidential runs) and the lack of substantive candidates in the GOP race. I see this as just another desperate attempt to find some kind of worthy story in this non-story year. I kind of feel for Krauthammer–he’s expected to write about politics and meet deadlines; he’s got to come up with something, even when there’s really nothing.
But there are stories behind the non-stories; one a story about expectations for the 2008 election, and one–the important one–about a radical innovation in the candidate selection process, the pre-primary debate.
The expectations story has to do with the clear disconnect between conservatives’ fervent belief that Obama’s a doomed lame-duck with no chance to win the election and the uncomfortable fact that any really good candidates the Republicans might have had didn’t show up for the supposed easy victory. One possible answer is that there really aren’t any good GOP candidates right now. It’s possible, but I’m not fully persuaded. It’s been fairly common in recent years for a candidate to rise from relative obscurity fairly quickly to become a serious candidate, so the absence of that person in the campaign doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t such a person out there; it could just mean any potential such persons looked at the landscape and decided this year wasn’t a great bet.
And that’s the other answer; that the better candidates evaluated this election season differently from the conservatives in the street and are looking to ’16. The one flaw in this theory is that a first presidential campaign is often just a dumbshow for the purpose of gaining name recognition and future mentioning as a real contender the next time around. But look at what happened to Obama when he did that–somehow he wound up getting the nomination. Would a smart but not fully prepared candidate really want that to happen to them this year?
Granted, serious candidate Mitt Romney did show, but he really had little choice. Having run so hard in ’08 he could hardly explain sitting out ’12 then returning for ’16. His time would be past, and he’d certainly not be taken seriously. Good and bad luck in timing one’s presidential runs may not be much talked about, but it’s a reality. He’s lucky in that there is comparatively little serious competition this year, but he may be unlucky in that his shot just happens to come in a year when the incumbent really is going to be damned hard to unseat.
My GOP operative/academic consultant thinks both of these things are happening. He thinks the GOP really doesn’t have a lot of good candidates hiding out in the wings, but he also thinks the smart money is sitting out this year and looking to ’16 because, in his opinion, Obama really is going to be damned hard to beat. Intrade has pretty consistently been picking Obama for re-election, and by now we’ve all heard that he’s already raised nearly a quarter million dollars for his campaign, none of which has to be expended in a primary battle. He can point to major legislative success with the PPACT (even if much of the public is skeptical about it, the majority don’t loathe it and often just the act of major legislative success has more salience with the public than the substance of it does), he did bring the troops home from Iraq, and by god the unemployment rate is dropping, just in time for him to point to continued improvement.
The other story behind the non-stories has not received enough attention. Never before have we had a months-long pre-primary sequence of candidate debates. As much as any other cause this is the reason why Romney is on the verge of wrapping up the nomination with unprecedented rapidity (despite the curious storylet of Rick Santorum’s belated Iowa caucus victory. Usually the winnowing out occurs during the primaries, but the debate series did the real winnowing out work this time around.
How did this come about? I don’t know, but I’m eager for someone more focused on electoral politics to tell me.
Is it a good thing, and what does it portend for the future of presidential selection? I don’t know this, either, other than to say that it further strengthens the the primaries’ effect of selecting presidents who are built to be Wilsonian popular leaders, rather than 19th-century clerk-style presidents. Some think 19th-century presidents are not suited for the 21st-century. I incline toward thinking that 21st-century style presidents are an unmitigated disaster of popular leadership as feared by the founders.
In the big picture, I think that is the story of 2011/12; the rise of the independent but damn-near mandatory pre-primary debate. But how it plays out, how it ultimately shapes the electoral landscape, is a story we can’t yet tell.