It’s not that I assume that Barack Obama is going to be the next president of the United States (in fact, I anticipate a furious charge from a devil-may-care John McCain in the next 21 days).
But when conservative columnist William Kristol is urging the Republican presidential nominee to divest himself of an operationally incompetent and strategically incoherent campaign apparatus, then perhaps we can at least take a peek, a look-see, at a future in which a Democrat runs the country. Which Republicans might be challenging President Obama in 2012?
In terms of 2008 aspirants we can say that McCain and Fred Thompson will be too old. Rudy Giuliani too strategically incoherent. That leaves the following (with apologies to Tancredo, Brownback, Hunter, Paul and Keyes):
Sarah Palin: If the governor of Alaska wants to run for the White House then she is going to have to spend every day of the next four years systematically rehabilitating her public image. In return for the honor of being selected by that other Maverick, Palin has been rewarded with the widespread perception that she is a dim-wit, dishonest, an abuser of power, and a religious zealot.
Similar charges were leveled at Dan Quayle in 1988, another politician who went from total obscurity to the Most Detested Person in Liberal America in a matter of seconds (I seem to recall a headline in The Village Voice: “Bush flips America the Bird!”). But at least he actually got to be vice-President.
What Palin does bring to the table and what may make her attractive to GOP kingmakers is her ability to “energize the base.” By “base” we mean White Conservative Evangelicals. And if reports from the field are accurate, then the base isn’t only energized by her, but short-circuiting. Her crowds are huge and their shout-outs are becoming increasingly inflammatory. (Incidentally, an Evangelical pastor yesterday correlated Obama’s followers with worshippers of non-Christian gods).
It will be interesting to see what type of campaign Palin would run when unencumbered by McCain’s handlers (who did not, I think, do her any favors in the last six weeks). If she strikes populist Christian themes and plays on her small-town appeal then that should be of concern to. . . . .
Mike Huckabee: I have gone to great pains to point out that the base did not–I repeat, did not–necessarily get overheated for the former governor of Arkansas. In his 2012 incarnation Huck must secure Evangelical support earlier and more often. Palin will be winking at them as well and the mind races at the thought of these two cudgeling one another for a share of the same demographic in Iowa (Chuck Norris, meet the First Dude. First Dude. Chuck).
But if there is one thing we are learning in this election season it is that White Evangelicals are less of an electoral force than they were four years ago. The leadership is in flux. Issues beyond abortion and gays interest them. A younger generation is rising.
A weakened–more precisely, a fractured–Evangelical base signals the possible re-emergence of that other GOP base composed of Free Marketeers, daredevil de-regulators, the pro-Big Business faction, and the anti-tax brigades, among others. It may also a signal an opportunity for ….
Mitt Romney: If McCain loses, it seems safe to say that it was the stupid economy that did him in. Had Romney been selected as his running mate in 2008 he could have addressed this issue with more authority than both Mavericks combined.
But let us not forget that Romney himself pandered to the conservative Christian base (which he fought Huckabee for in some sort of mutual annihilation pact). He proclaimed himself an “evangelical Mormon.” He flip-flopped on abortion. He thumped Bible. He lambasted secularists. In short, Mitt Romney ran as a Culture Warrior–a role he was not suited to play.
If Palin, Romney and Huckabee do run in 2012 they will have to learn one crucial lesson from 2008: culture warfare is not enough. Put differently, they will need to play to the bases. To win a presidential election it takes more than faith.