First term elections usually bring out two types of candidates. The obligatory candidates and the unexpected candidates.
Then there are the unexpected candidates. Men and women whom the party thinks are too dangerous or too unserious. Novelty acts who may or may not have held office, but aren't part of the in-crowd. Their ideas are a little too scary and they lean too far to the populist side. Party insiders have names for them like "clowns", "buffoons", "novelty acts", "jokes" or just plain "unserious".
When Republicans went up against Carter in his first term election, it was down to a clash of two men. George H.W. Bush, a party insider with all the popular appeal of a dead fish, and Ronald Reagan, with his crazy "voodoo economics" and values candidacy. Had the party insiders won, not only would Carter have gotten two terms with unknown consequences for the economy and the decline of the Soviet Union, but the evolution of the Republican party would have been aborted. The Republican party as we know it today, defined by conservative positions on national security, economics and values, might not even exist at all.
The situation isn't quite as straightforward today. We have plenty of dead fish, but no one with the combination of Reagan's credentials and media skills. Instead we have the 'front runners' that no one particularly likes, but poll well nationally, and the underdogs who are popular among the grassroots, but poll badly outside it. That's what makes the beginnings of the 2012 campaign so peculiar. We have the unpopular popular candidates, and popular unpopular candidates.
The frontrunners have the machine and the numbers, and are disliked by the grassroots. Their presence in the campaign is primarily negative. Everyone has reasons why they dislike Romney, Huckabee, Gingrich or Pawlenty. Few have reasons why they do like them. On the other hand the backburner candidates, Cain, Bachmann, Bolton, have fierce tidal pools of enthusiasm, but don't have the numbers or the machine. There are the also rans like Santorum and Huntsman who are versions of the frontrunners but with less party support. Then there are the dark horse candidates, Palin and Trump, who have the resources the name recognition to break out and win the nomination, but alienate too many voters to win a national election.
Finally there are the unknowns. The candidates who are might jump in now if they think the water is warm enough and if the party gets desperate enough. That can cover men like Christie to Giuliani, who have enough name recognition to probably be banking on a run in 2016. Waiting till 2016 when O is out and Biden either leaves gracefully or puts up a clumsy fight for his party's nomination, is the safe bet. A nomination without a win in 2012 would be a career ender. It would certainly take out Romney or Huckabee as anything but FOX News commentators or Chamber of Commerce speakers. Christie has been careful not to dive in prematurely, but his ego is big enough that he might overrule his own common sense if he's courted vigorously enough. Giuliani failed badly once. Running and barely scoring twice would kill his candidacy for good.
The poverty of the field is the best strategy for Palin or Christie. Just as it's the booster behind Trump's surge. When the party sees that Romney, Pawlenty and the rest are not taking off, it's more likely to unify behind an unconventional but promising candidate. Give Trump another month, and Palin will start looking good to the insider. Let Romney sleepwalk his way through more speeches and the insiders will kneel at Christie's feet. That's the likely strategy anyway. And if Trump really isn't running, then the most likely reason he's doing this is to make the party desperate enough to unite behind a candidate who would have otherwise made it a tough fight.
Walking that line is where Huckabee is bound to shine. Huckabee has a talent for governing like a liberal, talking like a conservative and smoothing over the difference with some moralizing and humor. Romney and Pawlenty clumsily attempt to back away from government health and cap and trade, but Huckabee rarely has to even bother. Like Bill O'Reilly, he's done such a good job of adopting the persona of a conservative that most don't even question his bona fides.
But none of the frontrunners project strong leadership. And that leaves them stuck as unexciting. There are no cowboys here, the closest thing is Palin. No common sense wits, the closest thing is Huckabee. And no actual candidates who come off as strong leaders. The closest thing is Gingrich, and he always seems like he should be Prime Minister instead.
The enthusiasm gap was obvious enough at the 2008 convention, as speaker after speaker drew hard on McCain's biography. But at least McCain had a biography. Imagine trying to draw on Romney's biography for something the crowd will cheer. Imagine getting people to cheer Romney at all. Romney has the appearance and gravitas of an actor cast as the president in a movie or TV show. The image is there, but it's hollow.
And that gap is still crippling the field. It creates a division between the front runners and the rest. Many of whom can actually summon that enthusiasm. And if the party doesn't pay attention to the enthusiasm gap, the 2012 convention will be nothing but a dry run for 2016.
The party isn't really worried about the backburner candidates. Cain may do well enough to get himself a VP spot. The rest they will safely ignore. But the dark horses scare them. Palin has built up an impressive machine of her own. And Trump has the resources and media presence to make the campaign all about him. And then who will pay attention to really "exciting" candidates like Romney and Pawlenty. Palin and Trump are the insider's worst nightmares because they're independent enough to do what they please and their populism appeals to the grass roots.
The insiders have never been too comfortable with populism, they view elections as a science, but the populists as an unpredictable art. The insiders see government as a matter of making unpopular decisions palatable to the public. The populists promise that the people will get what they want. Reagan's success put an end to the image of the Republican party as the safe party and finished what Goldwater had begun, by reinventing it as the insurgent party standing for American values against the elitists of the left.
McCain had feebly tried to hit those notes in 2008, Palin had done it with somewhat more success, but still failed to connect with a frustrated electorate. 2010 however showed the power of the GOP as the insurgent party. The party of the people taking back the government. Popular protests supplanted name candidates. But 2010 was marked more by failures at the state level. Grass roots senate candidates performed poorly. But then so did many insiders. The Tea Party had provided a boost, but the Republican party still had an identity crisis. Protest movements tend to unite in opposition, but defining what they are for is more divisive.
Bush ran in 2000 on Compassionate Conservatism, reconciling conservative social values, libertarian impulses and liberal social welfare, throwing back a major attack on Reagan era domestic policies. But in 2010, the Tea Party movement reinvented the GOP as a party of committed budget cutters. Conservative values gave way to libertarian ones. If Bush Jr was a version of Reagan that like Clinton felt your pain, what is the candidate of 2012 going to use as a model?
The timing of the Paul Ryan plan may be the single most insane thing any party has ever done going into an election. It's not just that ending Medicare comes with a heavy political cost, it's that proposing to do it when you don't control the Senate or the White House means that the political cost is also being borne for nothing. What's the point of announcing a politically controversial plan that you can't pass without winning a major election, right before that election. It might make sense if the plan is popular enough that it will actually win you votes, but in what universe will the Republican party pick up more votes than it loses by supporting an end to Medicare.
Had Obama been able to draw up a blueprint for the Republican party, getting the GOP to endorse a plan to end Medicare would be at the top of his list. But he didn't even have to do it. And now every congressional Republican will have to face negative ads about voting to kill Medicare. While Obama can cast himself as the protector of seniors. Sure we can begin an education campaign to tell seniors that the plan doesn't affect them. And the advantage will go to the attacking side. Not the side doing the explaining.
Asking people to make sacrifices while PBS and the NEA and a thousand points of pork are being funded is not the way to go about it. It would have been wiser to study how Cameron gained support for his economic reforms in the UK. Or how Harper achieved such popularity. Instead the premature championing of the Ryan plan leaped over the political cuts that needed to be made. Rhetoric that accuses seniors of wealth transfer and being greedy pigs feeding at the government trough creates a destructive political echo chamber. Treating people who have worked all their lives like welfare recipients is the best way to validate every liberal stereotype about conservatives.
The overall language of small government and budget cuts appeals to a majority of voters. 2012 represents an opportunity to change the narrative. The right candidate can do that. The wrong candidate won't.
This is a chance for the Republican party to complete the reinvention it began in 2010. But ideas need living symbols in the form of leaders. Men and women who champion and take responsibility for those ideas. But the very structure of a political party filters out independent thinkers and leaders. It chooses the safe and the predictable. The path that may not lead to victory, but to the status quo. That status quo is what stands in the way of reinvention and a meaningful victory that will not merely elevate a Republican to the job of safeguarding a moderate version of the legislation of the Obama Administration, but to the task of making its dismantling into the base of a revitalized nation.