Comeback kids in politics, as in sports or any other competitive endeavor, are those that truly surprise us. The more the media labels someone a comeback kid before the comeback, or a politician claims to be one, the more likely the characterization, win or lose, will turn out to be untrue.
The media has been replete with stories of late anointing President Barack Obama the Comeback Kid following his ostensible reversal of fortunes during the lame-duck session of Congress. Notable among them was conservative Charles Krauthammer’s December 17 column “The New Comeback Kid.” In it, Krauthammer opined: “If Barack Obama wins reelection in 2012, as is now more likely than not, historians will mark his comeback as beginning on Dec. 6, the day of the Great Tax Cut Deal of 2010.”
Krauthammer, an outspoken critic of President Obama, became the temporary darling of the liberal media, which relished and repeated his comeback-kid commentary at every opportunity. Krauthammer was on the right track by prefacing his analysis with “If Barack Obama wins reelection in 2012 . . .” Obama’s comeback may be “a year ahead of (Bill) Clinton’s” 1996 comeback, according to Krauthammer, but if Obama wins reelection, pundits like Krauthammer having predicted it, will it be a surprise?
Bill Clinton labeled himself the Comeback Kid after trailing Paul Tsongas badly in the polls and coming within single digits of winning the 1992 New Hampshire Primary. The spin was effective. The media loved the headline and ran with it. The media again declared Clinton the Comeback Kid when he won reelection in 1996, two years after Democrats lost control of Congress; but Clinton’s defeat of Bob Dole was hardly a surprise; throughout the run-up to the 1996 election, Clinton maintained comfortable leads in the polls over Dole and third-party candidate Ross Perot. Clinton’s real comeback happened after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but by then he’d already been elected to a second term.
Barack Obama may still earn the comeback-kid title. The voters’ rejection of him and his agenda in the 2010 midterm elections, his plunging poll numbers among Independents and criticism of him by members of his own party have put him down, but he is by no means out. Great uncertainties for the U.S. economy and national security lie ahead. Obama’s reaction to those uncertainties could weaken him further.
With all due deference to Charles Krauthammer, however, let’s not award Mr. Obama the comeback-kid medallion before he’s earned it — as the Norwegian Nobel Committee did when it awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. And let’s not write off Obama’s principal competition for it either.
One could argue these days that the comeback-kid label more aptly fits Sarah Palin. Considering how the media wrote her off after the 2008 election, she’s certainly made a surprise comeback. She’s now a regular on Fox News, she has her own television series on TLC, and she was a major influence in the 2010 congressional elections. Some see her as the person most responsible for conservatism’s resurgence. As Senator Jim DeMint (D-SC) recently stated: “. . . I believe she’s done more for the Republican Party than anyone since Ronald Reagan.”
But don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone in the mainstream media, or Charles Krauthammer, to label Palin the Comeback Kid unless and until she wins the Republican nomination for president in 2012 and goes on to defeat Obama in the general election. That truly would surprise them; and it wouldn’t be unprecedented.
As writer Mark Whittington points out, “Some have suggested that there is a historic parallel to a Palin candidacy. In late 1978, Ronald Reagan, himself a former governor and media star, was considered a has-been politician who had tried for the presidency in 1976 and had fallen short. Reagan was ridiculed, like Palin, for his alleged lack of intelligence and his alleged extremism. Yet, in 1980, Ronald Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter and became the 40th President of the United States.” Of course, Reagan (69 when he was elected in 1980) was neither a kid nor the darling of the liberal media; so it’s no surprise that they didn’t call him the Comeback Kid.
And there’s that forgotten Comeback Kid, Richard Nixon, who came back to win the White House after narrowly losing the 1960 presidential election and the1962 California gubernatorial election. In November 1962, ABC’s Howard K. Smith aired a documentary titled “The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon.” Two years out from the 1968 election, Nixon, not unlike Palin, had been written off by the media and the pundits as unelectable. Republican presidential candidates, of course, are loath to have anyone compare them to President Richard Nixon, but comparisons to Nixon the candidate in 1968 are useful in assessing Palin’s prospects.
A cacophony of voices on the right and the left tell us that Sarah Palin is unelectable. Democrats alternatively say she is unqualified for the presidency and she’s the person they most want to see win the Republican nomination because she would be the easiest for Obama to defeat. Republicans, as they begin to line up behind other candidates for their party’s 2012 nomination, increasingly seem to agree with them. And they may be right. If Palin throws her scarf in the ring for 2012, her star could burn out quickly. If, however, she surprises her critics, that’s what comeback kids are made of.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.