Imagine them all clustered in a roadhouse, having a beer around sunset, shaking their heads over the lost opportunity.
On TV they watch the political circus of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich—all rising and falling in succession as the GOP flavor of the month while the unloved, once-presumptive frontrunner, Mitt Romney, remains the only man in politics with a glass ceiling.
There are all sorts of reasons to decide now is not the right time to run for president. It tends to hold back the most responsible people because they ask themselves reality-based questions about policy preparation, personal vulnerabilities, the ability to raise money and the impact on their families.
But the most irresponsible just say what the hell and try to make the race for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a will to power, often with alleged personal encouragement from God. So being a three-term congresswoman who couldn’t win statewide office in Minnesota or a pizza-chain CEO is no impediment to running for president of the United States.
They impose their own reality show on the presidential race, enabled by the increasing polarization of the primary electorate.
But imagine what a selection of strong center-right candidates could have offered the Republican Party and the country in 2012.
Because, clustered in that roadhouse, are candidates who could beat President Obama by building bridges between fiscal conservatives and independents. They are people who actually worked with Ronald Reagan, rather than just invoking him. They could have connected with the millennial generation and credibly created cross-aisle coalitions in Congress. For the most part, they are leaders with executive experience, and all are capable of articulating a compelling alternative vision to that of the Obama administration.
They represent the road not taken—and it’s now clear that any one of them could have been a contender.
But instead, the sideshow has taken over the Big Tent. And the loss is the country’s, as well as the Republican Party’s.
After all, Chris Christie is still winning fans with his engaging, no-BS executive attitude. But far more than style, it’s his accomplishments over two years in office that create converts—closing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap without raising taxes and taking on the teachers' union over educational reform while reining in pension obligations.
The New Jersey governor is comfortable with confrontation but can reach across the aisle to pass legislation in the Democratic-dominated state legislature. And while some conservatives groused at his appointment of a Muslim judge, Christie has a unique ability to appeal to the Tea Party, as well as the Northeast establishment. In a speech at the Reagan Library, Christie condemned “a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign-style politics at the Capitol’s door,” causing Rush Limbaugh to mutter that Christie was starting to sound like John McCain.
Christie ultimately decided to back Romney, bowing to the GOP’s time-honored principle of primogeniture, but this may have been the moment for Christie’s message.
On the opposite side of the charisma spectrum was Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels—understated competence personified. But in a time when the fiscal issues are what unite the GOP and connect them with independent voters as well as the Tea Party, Daniels’s record of reform remains appealing. He passed the kind of public-sector union-pension reforms that have gotten Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in hot water, but did it in a less polarizing way, and turned his state’s fiscal situation around in the process, bucking the pledge by raising a few targeted taxes as part of the path to a balanced budget.
He has a reputation for integrity and experience as Office of Management and Budget director in the Bush administration. Most of all, he had the guts to call for a “truce” on social issues in favor of a national focus on our fiscal crisis, which got him skewered by Rush Limbaugh, the National Organization for Marriage, and other conservative activist groups. Amid a flurry of oppo-research-driven brush-backs and attacks on his wife—to whom he has been married twice—Daniels declined to enter the race for president, and another center-right leader was lost.
Rep. Paul Ryan was the long-time fantasy candidate for Bill Kristol & Co. at The Weekly Standard, and it’s easy to see why. Whatever you think of the Ryan Plan, at least he had the guts to put serious policies forward at a time when too many of his colleagues were content to demagogue the debt rather than put offer a specific plan to deal with it. His fiscal-conservative credentials are impeccable, and as a representative of Gen X, he speaks in a way that could help the GOP connect with the millennial generation—bringing a sense of personal urgency to the generational theft that is the deficit and the debt. Already one of the youngest Budget Committee chairmen in recent memory, Ryan decided that he had plenty of time to run for the highest office, but only one chance to raise his children.
If the GOP had a popular former governor of Florida with a record of building bridges to the Hispanic community and a passion for education reform running for president, it would immediately catapult him to the top of the consideration set. But even loyalists recognize that it’s just too soon to nominate a guy named Bush for the presidency, regardless of his qualifications. And so Jeb Bush wisely decided to sit this one out, despite a cover-story call to run from National Review. The stink of dynastic ambitions was always going to be too strong to overcome, but Jeb earned respect as a policy leader with a sense of perspective.
The prospect of a 2012 Rudy Giuliani presidential run struck many observers as ill-considered after the fate of his 2008 campaign. But the reality is that polls showed Rudy being the only prospective candidate consistently beating President Obama—and the door to a possible run wasn’t closed until October. Rudy provides plenty of red-meat rhetoric to Republican audiences, but it is his record of results in New York City—cutting taxes and reforming welfare as well as dramatically reducing crime—that could have made him a serious contender this time around.
Like him or not, Rudy offers strong executive leadership. While there are few candidates more hawkish on foreign policy or fiscal policy, his comparatively centrist positions on social issues could have helped connect the GOP with independent voters, as it did when he twice won election in a city that is 5-to-1 Democratic. Let’s face it—Rudy is about the only pro-choice, pro-immigrant, pro-gay-rights candidate likely to make a serious stand on the GOP presidential stage in the conceivable future.
Given the recent rise of Newt Gingrich as the alternative to Mitt Romney, it’s easy to imagine any of the above as serious candidates for the presidency, capable of inspiring enthusiasm among swing voters who now look at the Republican field and throw up their hands in frustration.
The center-right seems to have been entirely eclipsed. After all, this is the farthest-right Republican field in recent memory. Romney can be considered a centrist only if you accept that he has been lying since he started running for president—after all, he campaigned as the social-conservative alternative to Mike Huckabee in 2008.
Jon Huntsman has drafted the best fiscal-conservative policies in the field, according to The Wall Street Journal and pledged to end “too big to fail,” but he is reflexively attacked as a RINO and can’t seem to break out of the low single digits. Pandering to conservative populists seems the surest way to get ahead in the short run, and yet that ends up making modernity the enemy. And the Republican Party needs a modernizer.
The good news is that there’s evidence of an appetite for it. Back in March 2011, when Mitch Daniels’s call for a truce on social issues was making waves among the conservagencia, a Wall Street Journal poll found that “Nearly two-thirds of Republican primary voters said they would be ‘more likely’ to vote for a GOP primary candidate who says the party should focus more on the economy and the deficit and less on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Only 8% said they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate.”
But for the time being, that pent-up demand for something different is denied, as litmus-test politics—specifically on social issues—is the suffocating norm. Each of the above candidates was preemptively attacked as insufficiently conservative by some corner of the movement. This is what happens when our politics starts to look like a cult—dissent is seen as disloyalty.
And so, back at the roadhouse, the coulda-been-a-contender candidates watch the serial implosions unfold on television at a time when a generic Republican does better against President Obama than any of the declared candidates. The economy sputters, and a sense of drift and disappointment hangs in the air. The background soundtrack playing on the jukebox is an old poem put to music: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”