05.23.11

Candidates Wanted: Republicans' Void for 2012

Republican voters are fired up and ready to take on President Obama—but with no Daniels, Huckabee, or Barbour in the race, they're in need of a true champion. On their wish list: Christie, Ryan, Perry. Jill Lawrence reports.

Republican voters are fired up and ready to take on President Obama—but with no Daniels, Huckabee, or Barbour in the race, they’re in need of a true champion. On their wish list: Christie, Ryan, Perry. Jill Lawrence reports. Plus, Jack W. Germond on candidates' insane path to the presidency.

Help Wanted: Civil, thoughtful social conservative more interested in red ink than red meat, with potential to win over independents and moderates in a general election. Must have enthusiastic family.

It’s hard to overstate the void left by Mitch Daniels’ exit from the Republican presidential race. There’s nobody quite like the Indiana governor in the field or in the wings, though Jeb Bush comes close and Tim Pawlenty, an official candidate at last, is trying to claim Daniels’ fiscal mantle with his “time for truth” slogan.

The conservative Republican primary electorate is, as President Obama used to say of Democrats in 2008, fired up and ready to go. The Tea Party and deep antipathy to Obama have driven the party to the right and left essentially one path to the nomination: Except for Obama’s role in the killing of Osama bin Laden, criticize everything about him in terms that are harsh, mocking, dismissive, and/or apocalyptic.

The mood was captured by two pundits on ABC’s This Week. “The adjective to describe today’s Republican Party—and particularly the nominating electorate—is hot,” said columnist George Will. Matthew Dowd, a former strategist for George W. Bush, said the GOP “wants passion and wants the vilification of the president.”

Daniels wasn’t into vilification, but he had passion. His exit triggered an outpouring of suggested candidates by commentators and Republicans wondering, as Peggy Lee once said in another context, “Is that all there is?” Three names that come up repeatedly are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. All fit the Republican moment in their way. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, wrote the highly controversial budget plan that privatizes Medicare, cuts Medicaid, reduces taxes on corporations and the rich, and is the new purity test for all GOP contenders. Christie is big, bombastic, and proud of his budget battles with unions. Perry is a handsome states’ rights advocate who has suggested at times that Texans may want to opt out of Social Security or perhaps the union altogether. He’s author of a book called Fed Up. How perfect is that?

All three say they are not running or have no plans to run. The active contenders and prospects already include many natural-born provocateurs with appeal to the mad-as-hell base. Among them are former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (why merely lament the tragedy of the Tucson shooting when you can also accuse critics of “blood libel”?); Texas Rep. Ron Paul (why merely back lower tax rates when you can call for the abolition of income taxes as “involuntary servitude”?); Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (why merely disagree with colleagues when you can suggest an investigation into whether they are anti-American?); former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (why merely criticize Obama’s policy toward Iran when you can say he “sided with evil”?); former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain (why stick to the issues when you can slam Obama for not mentioning God more often in public?), and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (why describe Obama as wrong when you can say instead that he has a “Kenyan, anti-colonialist” worldview and his administration is a “secular-socialist machine”?).

“I would like to see a couple more people get into the race because I think a crowded, strong field is good for the party,” said Henry Barbour.

The two former governors widely viewed as the top contenders for the nomination, Minnesota’s Pawlenty and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, are pretty boring, practical fellows doing their best to match the tone the times apparently require. Romney has issued cutting reactions to just about every Obama policy and pronouncement. The president is, in Romney’s words, weak, inexperienced, and naïve, has made the world more dangerous and has created an economic legacy of “Hoovervilles.” Pawlenty says Obama projects weakness on foreign policy, his Middle East policies are “incoherent,” and he is “chicken” on deficit reduction. “We the people of the United States will rise up again! We will take back our government!” he exhorted thousands of religious conservatives at a gathering in Iowa.

Just imagine Daniels shouting those lines, complete with dropped G’s and a tinge of drawl. Forget it. You can’t.

Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, is closest to Daniels in demeanor—a cool customer not given to fiery rhetoric. But Huntsman faces a few challenges Daniels did not. One is his resume: Until three weeks ago, he was ambassador to China in the Obama administration. The other is a relatively moderate record that includes support for civil unions and gay rights, the 2008 bank bailout, Obama’s 2009 stimulus program, and a cap-and-trade system to ease climate change (since renounced, or at least set aside).

Which brings us to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a personable, thoughtful, policy-oriented conservative who is fluent in Spanish and whose wife is Mexican, who has a passion for education, and who (like Daniels) praises Obama’s education initiatives. “I wish Jeb Bush had a different last name. He’d be fantastic,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member whose uncle, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, is a policy-oriented conservative who cut short his explorations and decided not to run.

It’s impossible to know how Daniels ultimately would have fared in the GOP primary process. There aren’t too many ambitious Republicans who have refused to sign a no-tax pledge (as he did in 2004) or who acknowledge that new taxes may have to be part of a debt-reduction package (as he does now). Yet Daniels’ willingness to compromise likely would have appealed to independents in a general election, and his allure remained strong among conservatives. Less than a week ago, Henry Barbour tweeted: “no idea if Mitch Daniels is running, but this wide open field needs another truth teller with a record like his…”

Barbour says Romney and Pawlenty are capable candidates. But he told me: “I would like to see a couple more people get into the race because I think a crowded, strong field is good for the party. I think it will strengthen our nominee, whoever ends up winning.” All indications are that Bush, his latest fantasy candidate, won’t be one of them. As polls show more than half of Americans still blame his brother for the recession, Bush said again in an email Sunday that he won’t be joining the 2012 race.

Have we seen the last of Daniels? In an apologetic letter to supporters and in statements to the media, Daniels explicitly said the “women’s caucus” in his family, his wife and four daughters, had vetoed a run. His decision means they will not have to endure any further speculation, questions, or judgments about the painful 1990s' period during which Cheri Daniels divorced Mitch and married another man.

“It was torturous watching this play out. The guy clearly wanted to run but he couldn’t get his family on board,” said Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. When a door at a local gym slammed into Daniels so hard that he was briefly hospitalized and needed 16 stitches in his forehead, Howey told me, “You had to wonder if that was divine intervention.”

Divine, but perhaps temporary. It may be wishful thinking by an Indiana political junkie, but Howey doesn’t write off Daniels as a national figure. “He’ll be on every short list for vice president,” he predicted.

Jill Lawrence is an award-winning journalist who has covered every presidential election since 1988. Most recently, she was a senior correspondent and columnist for PoliticsDaily.com. Her other positions have included national political correspondent for USA Today and national political writer at The Associated Press.