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The State of the Race: The Saturday Assessment

Saturday, April 30, 2011  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt

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Every few Saturdays, and eventually as we get close to voting in Iowa, every Saturday, I will try and lay out where the GOP race for the nomination stands.

It is a pleasant surprise that the GOP race has not already become a brawl among contenders. There is a shared recognition that President Obama’s serial incompetencies have produced such terrible consequences that the would-be standard bearers for the Republicans have to conduct themselves in such a way as to press upon the voting public not just the fact that individual candidates are responsible, competent and thoughtful individuals, but that the entire enterprize is being undertaken as a sober march towards November 6, 2012 when a very stark choice presents itself to the voters, and that stark choice will be made less clear by theatrics of any sort now and through the next twelve months.

So the race to date is much less full of back-slapping and rallies and televised debates and much more focused on individual candidates talking about the problem set facing the country, which is large and growing. The GOP candidates are staying out of the way of the Congressional debates except for generally supportive statements on the budget arguments while using the president’s record of fiasco after fiasco abroad to alert voters that president’s ought to proudly defend America and American interests, not “lead from behind” as an Obama advisor summarized the president’s approach to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.

Donald Trump is of course different, and dissolving before our eyes as he refuses not only to approach politics seriously but also to answer serious questions. Pete Wehner and Rush Limbaugh have been having the Trump discussion, and Pete’s latest does much more than return Rush’s powerful serve in defense of the Donald, it also uses the occasion to remind everyone of how Reagan campaigned in 1980, which already looks like the template for 2012, right up to the ally-turned-Islamist-menace and the stagflation.

The Republican race in 1979 and 1980 featured Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as former Texas Governor John Connally, Congressmen Phil Crane and John Anderson, and four senators –Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Larry Pressler and Lowell Weicker, though the latter two never made it to even a single primary.

Trump is in many respects the recasting of Connally, right down to the anti-import rhetoric, as when Connally famously thundered that the Japanese had “better be prepared to sit on the docks of Yokohama in your little Datsuns and your little Toyotas while you stare at your own little television sets and eat your mandarin oranges, because we’ve had all we’re going to take!” Connally was the big man with a big voice and a big budget and he captured one delegate.

The other GOP candidates in 1980 were accomplished and respectable people, but not perceived as up to the challenge of taking on a sitting president, even one as sadly incompetent as Jimmy Carter. When focus arrived, the choice quickly got down to Reagan or Bush, and the debate was a serious one.

This looks to be where we are headed this time as well, with Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney as the two top tier candidates who are certain to be winners or runners-up in at least a couple of early contests. Newt Gingrich is the wild card who could either elbow his way into the front rank or disappear quickly as the figure of another age that couldn’t pull off the Churchill-like return. Rick Santorum’s role is a crucial one, providing social conservatives a vehicle into which they can put their energies and concerns over Mitch Daniels’ call for a “truce,” and Mitch Daniels could still become the favorite of Beltway elites, as could Jon Huntsman, though the latter’s service in Team Obama just makes the case hard to make, though not impossible.

My friend Michele Bachmann allows the Tea Party and the Sarah Palin fans a banner to march behind, and she will be doing a great service by rallying these columns.

So there are seven serious candidate, but it is a two person race at this point, and if the two former governors could somehow contrive to spend some time in conversation about the various issues –say on a radio show?– it would message the electorate that this is a very different campaign, one that won’t be captured by MSM-orchestrated sideshows with talking snowmen and Santa Claus asking questions.

(Note: I don’t think Governor Huckabee gets in, given his superb position in the media which would be lost and perhaps not regained and the lateness of the hour to organize a populist run, especially with Senator Santorum and Congresswoman Bachmann in the field and very popular among the former Arkansas governors’ likeliest supporters.)

The problems surrounding the country are too many and too deep to conduct the same old campaign, and the serious GOP candidates know this. The hoopla around Donald Trump is a symptom of the MSM’s desperation to turn the primaries into an Obama-relief program, but the GOP is having none of it.

Good all around. For the reasons laid out here in audio and here in print, the country cannot handle a second term of President Obama. The president’s approval rating has dropped to 43%, and with growth slowing and unemployment showing no signs of easing significantly but with inflation around the corner, this most incompetent of chief executives is obviously vulnerable and just as obviously has decided to run a “mobilize the base” campaign based on appeals to the hard left and fear among seniors.

The longer the GOP delays its intramural battle from becoming an MSM-conducted mud fight, the more attention will remain on the White House and the more the president will sink in the public’s eyes. The president’s decision to respond to Trump with the release of the birth certificate this week is another example of the president’s tin ear, and left most non-birthers wondering, as Senator Jon Kyl and I discussed briefly on yesterday’s program, why did he wait so long? There was never any there there, but did the relentless political machine in Chicago see some advantage in priming the birther pump until it began to get into the water table? Only a completely cynical operator would draw out that episode for years and then abruptly end it. Birtherism was never going to spread very far even on the fringe, but the image of the president lecturing people on being serious when his fundamental fecklessness had allowed the absurd idea to fester won’t be forgotten soon.

There’s a GOP debate scheduled next week. The challenger, Pawlenty, will be there. The front-runner, Romney, won’t. Expect more positioning like this for the next few months, and with little impact on the race. It isn’t a year for straw polls, but a year for good books by candidates —both Romney and Pawlenty have put them out– and for long form interviews that display command and competence, not come-backs and quips or narrow appeals to single digit constituencies.

It is a very serious cycle because we are in serious trouble. Merchants of political news and gossip love the Donald because he’s great copy, even as he F-bombs his way to single digits, but the other Republicans are very well advised to stay focused on the president’s many failures and especially on detailing the plans they would bring with them to 1600 Pennsylvania to turn things around.

Reagan, wrote Wehner yesterday, “was dignified, philosophically well-grounded, and gracious in his tone and demeanor….Reagan was not given to rants or buffoonery or conspiracy theories. Reagan is the type of figure, in fact, who (like his close friend William F. Buckley, Jr.) would be inclined to detach conservatism and the GOP from those peddling paranoid theories.”

And Reagan in 1980 kept the same optimism about the country’s future front and center. The GOP standard bearer has to believe in the return of robust economic growth, free trade, a strong defense and the innate appeal of American exceptionalism.

The GOP nominee will have to believe in “leading from the front and all the time.”

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