Who has ever seen an election like this one? Millions unemployed, three out of four Americans reporting the country is on the wrong track and consumer confidence 10 points below what incumbent presidents suffer, on average, when they lose the White House. Barack Obama can’t possibly win this election. Then we look at the Republican field. Can’t anybody in that orchestra play an instrument?
Barack Obama couldn’t lose if he tried. But he is trying. Agh.
A long-standing Republican activist asked me the other day, “Can’t we just leave the White House empty the next four years?” No, we can’t. This isn’t a lottery where no one guesses the lucky number. Politics is like horse racing. These candidates run against each another. Somebody is going to get elected president of this country. Before we walk up to the betting window, however, there are a few bits of tried-and-true horse sense a professional handicapper would want to consider.
1. Mitt Romney’s biggest problem isn’t his previous flexibility on issues but his current lack of passion to change Washington. Perry and others are beginning to attack Romney as a defender of the Washington status quo. As Politico noted, “The Texas governor … described a ‘choice in the race’ between the ‘tinkerers’ … ‘Some want to reform Washington with a pair of tweezers,’ he said, doubtlessly referring to Romney. ‘I’m for bringing a wrecking ball.’” Romney’s campaign only caught fire last time in New Hampshire when he took up the mantra “change Washington.” Last time, he discovered it too late. This time, will he let others steal it? Or wait too late again? Stay tuned.
2. Will Rick Perry get a second look? I’ve previously described the governor of Texas as a coffee-table book: pretty pictures, no text. The problem? No one picks up a coffee-table book twice. Rick Perry may get a second look but never again as a first-tier candidate. Does that mean he’s out of the picture? No. See point 6.
3. Have you noticed that the tough-talking, rattle-snake-mean, shoot-opponents-in-the-eyeball candidate of the first debates, Rick Perry, has disappeared? Perry the Polite, a man who can’t stop saying nice things about Gingrich, Cain and other competitors, has replaced him. The reason: Perry’s debate performances drove his negative ratings higher than his positives. In politics, we call that being “upside down.” The strategy now: Be Mr. Nice Guy. Get those positives back up … and let the TV ads get down and dirty. Good strategy. And if Perry proposes a prescription drug plan which dispenses whatever he took before his giddy New Hampshire speech, he could even roar back with seniors.
4. The news media and Republican establishment rarely share the same perspective but both believe Cain can’t win, in part because he’s not running a traditional retail campaign. Cain isn’t spending enough time or building a sufficiently robust organization in Iowa. Rick Santorum, who is only running a traditional race, however, is at the bottom of the Iowa polls. The candidate at the top? He recently spent two days in New York, not Iowa. Yet, with one Hannity appearance on Fox, he connected with 25% of the Iowa GOP. Newsflash: The Cain campaign is defying conventional wisdom and leading because primaries and caucuses don’t take place in states anymore. They occur on cable TV and talk radio. This election, the Herminator, not Halperin or Heilemann, is writing “Game Change.” Movie rights again go to HBO.
5. The rule in politics is that you need new information to alter the electorate’s relationship with a candidate. Tell voters what they know and they remain where they sit. A great deal of Mitt Romney’s lack of political consistency is already built into his stock price. That’s Romney’s good news. However, Republican voters have never been confronted with $20 million worth of TV ads in which Romney says one thing and then appears to say the opposite. The emotional power of such a barrage could still transform this contest. Last election may have been about hope and change but in this election, the world seems to be coming apart. This election is about strength and certainty. The key question of campaign 2012 now is this: Will Governor Romney survive the assaults characterizing him as an uncertain politician? If so, he will be stronger for the experience and likely become president. If not, forward to item 6.
6. No Chris Christie, no Mitch Daniels, no Bobby Jindal, no Tim Pawlenty, no Rick Perry. Mitt Romney is the only remaining top-tier candidate the Republican establishment believes can defeat Barack Obama. Will Republicans shoot a hole in their last life raft? Right now, the air bubbles inflating Romney’s campaign are Republicans who feel they have no other options. If Mitt Romney collapses, the GOP will be reduced to its second-tier choices, none of whom are seen as strong challengers to Obama. At that point, any GOP candidate can win this nomination. When bettors can’t pick a horse to win, they pick the nag who’ll put up the best fight, has the luckiest number or has the cutest name. That’s right, folks: The less likely it is the GOP will beat Obama, the more likely Republicans will pick a nominee who can’t compose a complex sentence, thinks Lexington, Massachusetts is in New Hampshire, campaigns in a natural history museum or is on a book tour. Which leads to item 7.
7. Even the Obama campaign admits that Republicans will win this election if it becomes a referendum on the president, not a choice between President Obama and his opponent. For the good of the country, I would like to suggest a change in Republican strategy. At the GOP convention in Tampa, we shouldn’t announce our nominee. Instead, we should explain that the Republican Party won’t reveal its nominee until after the general election.
Most elections, we say, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” This election, maybe we can only beat somebody with nobody. It works for Cracker Jacks. Our message: “Replace Obama in 2012. There is a surprise in every box.”
8. Can Michele Bachmann win the GOP nomination? You bet. Her best moment in the Las Vegas debate was when she distinguished herself as the only “mom” among politicians. Bachmann said, “I’m a mom. I talk to these moms. I just want to say one thing to moms all across America tonight … I will not fail you … I will turn this country around. We will turn the economy around. We will create jobs … Hold on, moms out there. It’s not too late.” Bachmann’s got a campaign there: Moms for Michele, Conservative Feminists for Economic Growth. After all, half of American voters are women — and, in my experience, they aren’t entirely without influence on the other half.
9. Why is Jon Huntsman running for president? No one knows, not because he has offered no reason but because he has given too many. As Napoleon once said, “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” Huntsman has yet to focus his campaign and clarify why he and he alone is indispensably needed to lead this country out of its morass and make America better than it has ever been.
Huntsman has a story to tell but his problem isn’t only message. It’s money. He can’t catch on until he spends TV money but he can’t raise TV money until he catches on. He has decided, however, not to use any of his own or his family’s wealth in this contest. He wants to earn his success, not buy it. That’s a noble thing. It’s a principled thing. It’s the wrong thing. Over the years, I’ve urged contenders to take a different view. I’d tell this candidate: “Jon Huntsman, this campaign isn’t about you. It’s about your country. If you believe your country is in trouble and your leadership is essential, and that’s why you are running for president, then it’s not only your privilege, but your obligation to give it everything you’ve got. It’s your responsibility to invest your heart, soul, wallet, home, kitchen sink and family, including the motorcycle and the dog. Others have given much more for their country, including their lives. So give this presidential campaign everything or nothing.” There are no silver medals in presidential politics. No country is worth fighting for more than this one.
10. The Cain scandal creates a short-term problem for Herman Cain: It will soon kill him or make him stronger. My experience: When a campaign with an intense base of support like Cain’s is rocked by charges, its supporters rarely abandon the candidate immediately. Instead, they freeze in their tracks, as if a bucket of cold water was dumped on them. Stunned, they look around, evaluate incoming information and watch how their peers react. If subsequent events establish a pattern of behavior revealing a profound flaw in the character of the candidate, then a stampede for the exits begins. However, if the initial scandal is left unresolved and no subsequent events establish a pattern, then supporters, who have rallied to the wound like antibodies, cling to their candidate with greater passion. The antibodies boost the candidate’s resistance, protecting him from future attacks. Today, Herman Cain has the largest and most passionate corps of supporters in this contest. If the sexual harassment story fades from the news, he’ll end up with an army that walks through fire for him.
11. Years ago, in a presidential campaign in Panama, I started asking a question on political surveys: Which campaign is having the most fun? It was the campaign that was winning. In politics, as in all forums of leadership, joy expresses confidence, optimism and strength. Voters can sense it: Joy smells like victory. Today, when voters have so little to believe in, Americans want to be part of an exultant cause. They want to feel optimistic about their campaign and full of hope for the battles to follow. Herman Cain still has many tests to pass. But Ronald Reagan was a lot more fun than Jimmy Carter. Everybody in America was more fun than Michael Dukakis. Bill Clinton was more joyous than Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush was more fun than either Al Gore or John Kerry, at least until Kerry ordered a dry, white wine with his cheesesteak. Rush Limbaugh and The Great One, Mark Levin, make the battle for America’s future fun and as a result have built audiences in the mega-millions. No candidate since Ronald Reagan has made the combat of politics more fun than Herman Cain. Watch out, establishment. He who laughs last … is president.
12. President Obama has previewed his line of attack against Mitt Romney. Romney, David Plouffe recently alleged, “has no core.” This comes from an administration that has been on both sides of so many issues, it has alienated both liberals and conservatives, an accomplishment previously thought unachievable.
Obama, remember, was the candidate who supported “pay-as-you-go budgeting,” yet is on track to create more debt than any other president in history. He supports American energy independence while he limits American energy production. He shuns earmarks while embracing thousands of them. He said, “Lobbyists will not find a job in my White House,” until they looked and they did.
Obama pledged he wouldn’t raise money from lobbyists and has raised millions from lobbyists. He reviled the Bush tax cuts and the “tired and cynical philosophy” behind them. He then extended the Bush tax cuts, though at last check, he again opposes them. He said Gadhafi must go while the chairman of his Joint Chiefs of Staff clarified that wasn’t the president’s objective. He won the primary against Hillary Clinton by pounding her plan to mandate health insurance coverage, and the general election against John McCain, attacking McCain’s tax on Cadillac health plans. Our president has since proposed both of those things. Obama has said, “Democrats are not for a bigger government,” while he’s proposed bigger government and praised its virtues. In the same breath he urges deficit reduction and 10 straight years of deficits. He bemoans the urgency of his jobs bill, legislation he waited to introduce for nearly a thousand days.
But perhaps Obama’s biggest flip-flop isn’t his reversal of policy but of character. The candidate who was elected promising no red or blue America, no liberal or conservative America, “just one America,” has built his re-election on the opposing premise.
These days, the president who says, “We can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of government without questioning each other’s love for this country” is also the man who goes around the country declaring that Republicans refuse to “put country ahead of party.”
Obama has lost the middle. Independents have become Republicans. To win them back, this president has chosen to polarize the country along every conceivable fault line, pitting poor against rich, teachers against parents, job makers against workers, Americans against Americans. He hurls the young against Wall Street, though it is his Justice Department that, for three years, has prosecuted no one. If he can’t win the middle, Barack Obama will polarize the country until there is no middle left. Now, we are on the edge of violence in our streets.
The soaring orator who warned, “Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us” has made dividing us his political mission. What cores does a president have when he weighs everything and believes in nothing except his own re-election? Barack Obama’s biggest problem isn’t the economy. It’s that he has become what he came to Washington to change.
That’s today’s tip-sheet, racing fans. But also remember this: Campaigns don’t pick candidates, they make candidates. Somewhere on this muddy track, there’s a candidate who will rise to this troubled moment. Our next president is out there. Put your money down. I’m betting he will become the great president we need.
Alex Castellanos is a Republican media consultant and co-founder of Purple Strategies.