Don’t Underestimate Republicans in 2012: Ramesh Ponnuru

May 24 (Bloomberg) -- The 2012 presidential race has barely begun, but it is already time to retire one of its cliches: the much-repeated claim that "the Republican field is weak." Liberals say it with a smirk, because they think it will guarantee President Barack Obama’s re-election. Conservatives say it while begging someone else to enter the race and rescue them.

Maybe Congressman Paul Ryan. Or Governor Chris Christie. Or Senator Marco Rubio. Or some other shiny new face. Governor Mitch Daniels’s decision not to run is sure to make this clamor louder.

But the Republican field isn’t weak. The three people most likely to win the Republican nomination -- Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman, according to -- have all been governors. Two of them were governors of states that Obama carried in 2008. By contrast, the top three candidates for the Democratic nomination last time around (Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards) had a combined zero days of executive experience. This time, even some long-shot Republican candidates have stronger resumes than that: Libertarian gadfly Gary Johnson, for example, was a two-term governor of New Mexico.

Romney is well-versed on the issues and fast on his feet. Pawlenty, by addressing voter concerns about health care and traffic congestion while holding the line on taxes, managed to win re-election in deep-blue Minnesota in 2006, when Republicans were routed nationwide. Huntsman was a popular governor of Utah and, as the former ambassador to China, is knowledgeable about the country’s most important economic relationship.

Real Accomplishments

All three have real political skills, and real accomplishments. All can credibly challenge Obama on the economy: Romney and Huntsman because of their business backgrounds, Pawlenty and Huntsman because their states did relatively well under their leadership during the worst of the recession. None of these men is positioned on the right edge of their party. If one of them wins the nomination, Democrats may be able to convince voters that the Republican Party as a whole is unsuited for power. But they won’t be able to make a case that the nominee is a particularly extreme member of the party.

So why the disrespect? Partly it’s because the number of serious contenders is small. If Huntsman doesn’t take off, the race could well be a two-man contest between Romney and Pawlenty. The Democratic wave elections of 2006 and 2008 left Republicans with few plausible contenders (although their own wave election of 2010 gives them a deep bench for 2016). And no candidate dominates the field, giving a misleading impression about the strength any of them would bring to the general election.

Matter of Psychology

Dissatisfaction with the Republican candidates is also a matter of psychology. Republicans may not like, and some of them may not even respect, the incumbent president. They nonetheless see him sitting in the Oval Office and commanding troops. They see their own candidates, by contrast, sharing a stage with a bunch of other people, some of them fringe figures. They seem small. They will keep seeming small until some of them start winning primaries and one of them wins the nomination.

Offstage, Republicans imagine, is the perfect candidate. He has to be offstage because nobody onstage is perfect. He also has to be offstage because not running is part of his perfection. If he ran, he would be another guy competing for microphone time at the debates. The other candidates would suddenly have an incentive to draw attention to his flaws.

Right now, conservatives think of Congressman Ryan as a bold, free-market visionary. Within weeks of his entering the race, he would be redefined as the longtime Washington fixture who voted for TARP, the prescription-drug benefit, the auto bailout and other bills hated by Republican primary voters.

No White Knight

Fred Thompson mistakenly thought he could play the role of white knight in 2007. Then, as now, Republicans were complaining about the lineup of candidates. Rudy Giuliani was a pro-choicer with a messy personal history, Romney had flip-flopped too much, John McCain had committed a long list of apostasies. Republicans saw Thompson the way they see Christie today: as a solid conservative who makes for great tell-it-to-them-straight TV. They pleaded with him to run. He surged in the polls. Then he ran, and he stopped looking quite so glamorous. He seemed tired and uncommitted. He won no states.

The sourness of the national mood, finally, is another reason the Republican field gets such negative reviews. Nate Silver, a number-crunching blogger for the New York Times, notes that the major Republican candidates have lower "favorability ratings" than candidates in previous presidential elections. During the first half of 1999, for example, 63 percent of Americans had a favorable view of then-Governor George W. Bush and only 16 percent had a negative one.

Romney and the rest are currently faring much worse. Silver concludes that the conventional wisdom is right: The field is weak. But the public mood was much sunnier back then: 53 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the direction of the country in early 1999, according to a Pew Research Center poll, while only 30 percent say so now. Partly as a result, the public is nowadays quick to turn on politicians. Figures as different as Obama, Scott Walker and Donald Trump have all seen their numbers drop quite quickly in recent years.

Obama may well win re-election in 2012. Black and Hispanic voters will surely turn out in greater numbers than in the 2010 midterms. The economy could improve. The politics of entitlement reform probably still favors the Democrats. But if Obama does win, it won’t be because the Republicans didn’t field any strong opponents.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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