Historians will little note nor long remember what President Obama said in his jobs speech to Congress last Thursday night. For one thing, it was painfully obvious that the main job Obama was concerned to save was his own. But some may, after Obama leaves office in January 2013, recall the inspired decision by the Republican leadership to depart from recent precedent and not to bother offering a response to the Obama speech. That decision had the virtue of allowing millions of Americans to turn their attention more quickly to preparations for serious viewing of the season-opening Packers-Saints football game. But it also signaled a level of confidence on the part of Republicans that they no longer had to worry much about President Obama’s ability to frame the national debate, rally support for his proposals, or draw blood from his attacks.
That confidence is, on the whole, warranted and welcome. Of course, it shouldn’t become overconfidence. Obama still has advantages going into 2012. Incumbent presidents usually get reelected. What’s more, since the end of the Cold War the Democratic presidential nominee has outpolled the Republican in the national vote 4 out of 5 times. Third-party efforts, either from the Tea Party right or the Jon Huntsman-like center, could hurt the GOP. And Republican control of the House leaves open the possibility that Obama may succeed in assigning the GOP some part of the blame for the nation’s parlous condition. Obama clearly intends to mimic Harry Truman and run against “do-nothing” Republicans.
Still, Republican confidence is more justified than not, given the survey data regarding President Obama’s job performance and the economic data regarding the state of the nation. And such confidence will prove healthy—if it leads Republicans not to obsess about their ongoing criticism of Obama, but to devote time and effort to their own agenda for governing in 2013. And that agenda should be both politically and substantively bold. Republican presidential candidates have to understand that the way to avoid Tom Dewey’s fate in 1948 is to be more like Ronald Reagan in 1980—or, to be bipartisan about it, like Bill Clinton in 1992. Reagan and Clinton ran not only as governors with reasonably successful records but, more important, as bold reformers with clear and big agendas for the country. They were also were willing to break with their own party’s recent past and their party establishment’s orthodoxy. That’s the model for Republican success in 2012.
Which is why some of us were hoping for Paul Ryan or Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels to run for the presidency. That seems not to be in the cards. But the good news, lost in some of the back-and-forth during last Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate and the micro-analysis afterward, is that the frontrunners, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, do seem open to Reaganite boldness, not Dewey-esque caution. It’s true that they’re not quite there yet. Romney’s almost self-parodic 59-point economic plan, unveiled last week, lacks an underlying narrative and vision.
Perry’s impressively forthright general statements of policy direction so far lack enough detail. But each can correct his characteristic deficiency. And if neither shows signs of doing so by mid-October, after four more debates, then there will still be time for another candidate to move to the top tier or to enter the race.
But what’s key, surely, is to think big. Bill Bennett likes to quote Chekhov: “You will not become a saint through other people’s sins.” Of course the presidency isn’t sainthood, and you can become president partly through the incumbent’s deficiencies. But you can’t count on that. In any case the country, at this moment, deserves more. The Republican primary electorate and the American public expect more. Neither will reward a presidential candidate who tries to play it safe.
This means Republicans will have to think of 2012 as an election on the scale of 1932 and 1980. This election can be a moment when the nation endorses a major course correction in policy and governance, and not merely a reactive repudiation of a failed incumbent. The example of FDR—a governor for four years, a child of privilege with a mixed reformer-establishment pedigree who was able to bridge rifts in his own party—should give heart to those inclined to support Mitt Romney. The example of Reagan—a big-state governor with a history of risky positions and incautious statements who was able nonetheless to win over independents to a bold agenda—should give heart to those inclined to prefer Perry. The example of Clinton (a less auspicious example, to be sure), who didn’t get into the race until October 1991, can give hope to those holding out for Christie or others. But the task is to go far beyond reacting to Obama’s failed presidency, and to lay out a governing agenda suitable to the challenges of the day.
Here the frontrunners can benefit from the other candidates in the race. They can learn from Rick Santorum’s moral clarity on social issues and intellectual clarity on foreign policy; from Michele Bachmann’s steely opposition to big government and welfare-state liberalism; from Newt Gingrich’s willingness to consider big ideas from whatever source; even from Ron Paul and his critique of fiat currency, Jon Huntsman and his proposal for tax simplification, and Herman Cain and his call for citizen empowerment rather than liberal paternalism. And they can learn too from Sarah Palin’s powerful critique of corporate crony capitalism.
Just as FDR became the carrier of all sorts of progressive ideas that he didn’t originate and hadn’t been particularly identified with before 1932, just as Ronald Reagan added in 1980 to his previously more conventional conservative repertoire elements of supply-side economics and the neoconservative critique of the Great Society—so the next Republican nominee has an opportunity to speak for more than himself. He can speak for a broad movement of economic reform and political reformation. He can speak for the best in the American tradition. If he does so, victory in 2012 will be more likely, and it will be worth having.