If the Republican presidential field were any more unstable, it would be radioactive. At this point just about anyone can jump in and briefly poll on top of the heap, before slowly sinking down to the bottom again, like a banana in a bowl of stale jello. Party players pin their hopes on candidates that aren't running. Pilgrims in thousand dollar suits court state governors. Activists assemble petitions. But none of that is the solution. It's not so much that the man is missing, but the message.
Trump's ring toss and retreat has become the opening number of the race. Mid-terms are dangerous. It takes huge amounts of money and coordination to pull off a presidential run. Not to mention facing a media gauntlet of unprecedented ugliness. It's easier not to run. Especially if you have no compelling reason.
It's the lack of a compelling reason, a gut issue, that has left the field so pale. If 2010 was an uprising against government mismanagement, 2011 is more like a career fair in which no one is eager to take a leaflet or claim a job. The gut issues of smaller government, less regulation and more economic growth have been swallowed into the belly of budget debates. And you can't run on budget debates. Pawlenty's Time for Truth ad with its faintly upbeat music and downbeat message is the problem. Its forlorn sincerity is downright Carteresque. An insurance commercial for austerity.
The grass roots uprising spoke to individual grievances and a sense that.the country was being lost. And now that message has been buried in policy wonkery at the worst possible time. It's not that the policy debates don't matter. They do. But they have to be summed up in a larger vision. And that vision has to focus on a resurgence. It has to be hopeful. It has to be Reagan's Morning in America, not Carter's Gloomy Gus. Cutting spending has to be positioned as empowerment, not depression. The right thing to do even if we weren't in the midst of an economic disaster.
2010 accomplished what it was meant to. It put Obama, Pelosi and Reid in a stalemate. Not a perfect stalemate. But enough to slow them down. Hamstring their agenda. The next step will either be a comprehensive victory or an extension of the stalemate. A Republican victory breaks the stalemate, but if Obama wins and the Republicans make some limited gains, then the stalemate goes on.
The reason Obama loses against a generic Republican ballot, but does better against some known candidates, is that right now the negative vote is a powerful force in American politics. More powerful than the positive vote. Obama knows he doesn't have to win over most of the swing voters. He just has to make the Republican opposition look like a worse option.
This is what we're up against. This time around we're not up against the messiah of hope and change. It's the governor of the status quo that we're running against. The candidate of the devil you know. And while to most people reading this, the devil you know is never a viable option. To many people he will be. Even those who don't like him and who know he doesn't like them. Because the alternative is either uninspiring or scary. Summed up as that most frightening of words. Insecurity. And in an insecure time, many will cling to what they know, if the alternative doesn't offer them much hope.
Any Republican who hopes to win is going to have to draw on a positive vote. And that is not going to be easy. This time we're going to be the ones selling hope and change. And we're going to have to do it inspirationally. If we can't do that, then all we can do is warn of a disaster and hope the negative vote is enough. And it probably won't be.
Last year we tapped into discontent. This time we're going to have to do more than that. The economy is the binding issue, but it's a blade that cuts both ways. The candidate offering hard truths doesn't have a history of performing well in national elections. Especially in an economic crisis. Otherwise FDR would have never taken the White House. And that was before a sizable portion of the country depended on entitlements. Afterward, it's even more of an uphill battle. That's without factoring in the media barrage or last minute surprises. That doesn't mean the hard truths don't belong, but that they have to be part of an optimistic vision.
There's a glumness to the field right now. A dourness. Only the populist favorites like Trump and Cain seemed to be enjoying themselves. The infighting, the opposition research, the articles and posts indicting one candidate or another for the faults that most of them have, only add to the mood. It all feels too much like 2008 all over again. Or 1996. A campaign of old hands fighting for a desperate shot at a race they don't really hope to win.
And the connection to the gut issues is missing. The Battle of ObamaCare had become about more than just the law. It was a metaphor for the overreaching hubris of an administration. Its interference, its arrogance and its refusal to listen. Its wild spending and bills that couldn't be read. The backlash tapped into a frustration with government authority and uncontrollable spending. But despite the NLRB's abuses and the latest insane spending sprees, that focus has been lost.
The public is still dissatisfied, but the leadership has diffused into civil wars in echo chambers. Insiders debating over who the real insiders are. Agendas being set that can't be fulfilled. Everyone is positioning themselves in a battle. But the morale is lacking. There are a thousand flags, but no single flag to wave high. The Gadsden flag, that became the banner of the Tea Party movement, with its motto, 'Don't Tread On Me' is ideal for what is missing. For what we aren't fighting for.
The problem of all policy debates is that they sink into the workings of governments. They turn into a debate over what bills to pass and what laws to make. And then that reflexive outrage of, 'Don't Tread on Me' is lost. And what you have left are generic candidates angling for the best strategy. Fighting to win, but with no real reason to win.
The challenge of 2012 is to unite the Gadsden flag with the flag of the United States. To merge popular dissent into a vision of independence. A vision that enlarges rather than diminishes. Outrage is enough for a populist backlash in a midterm election. But outrage alone won't see us through. Neither will all the criticisms of Obama. Every rebellion has to give way to a vision of a better nation. And it must transcend the personal ambitions of its leaders, but not the personal grievances of its people.
The field we have now is driven by personal ambition. And ambition has limits to its resonance. Even when dressed up in messianic clothes and turned into the illusion of democratized fame. None of this is enough. Unless we can raise a flag that beams, 'Morning in America', then the race will become Obama's to lose.