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Six Circumstances in Search of a Candidate

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By ​WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Circumstance #1: Obama is a weak candidate for reelection. 

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Obama’s approval rating, which has been drifting down for a while, began to accelerate downward last week, as voters noticed his utter failure of leadership in dealing with the debt ceiling and the debt itself. His July 25 primetime address to the nation could well go down as his “malaise” speech​—​the moment when the country lost confidence the president knew what to do or even what he was doing. Still, it will take a credible opponent at the head of an acceptable party to beat him next year.

Circumstance #2: The Republican House isn’t much of an advertisement for Republican governance.

The near self-immolation of Republicans in the House late last week confirmed that the best that can be expected over the next year on the Hill is .  .  . not much. We can hope that the self-destructive element of the GOP caucus doesn’t do much harm, and that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell can minimize the damage to the Republican image and cause.

Circumstance #3: The gulf between the Christine O’Donnell element of the Tea Party and the GOP establishment is enormous.

Before Boehner had to modify his debt ceiling legislation last Friday, he still had the support of almost 90 percent of the House GOP conference, and about 80 percent of the conservative Republican Study Committee members. So it would be misleading to call the rebellion against Boehner a broad-based movement on the right. Still, it happened, and it did its damage. Now large numbers of Republican primary voters, and even more independent general election voters, will be wary of supporting a Republican candidate in 2012 if the party looks as if it’s in the grip of an infantile form of conservatism. On the other hand, a conventional establishment candidate will have trouble uniting the conservative coalition.

Circumstance #4: The GOP presidential field is weak.

As things now stand, the September 7 Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan library will feature, in alphabetical order, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty (if he’s still in the race), Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin (if she gets in the race), and Rick Santorum (if he’s still in the race). Almost all would be better than Obama, and one or two might surprise on the upside. Still: Picture yourself turning on your TV that evening. Feel enthusiastic about 2012?

Circumstance #5: In a moment of crisis, the GOP presidential candidates headed for the hills.

Apart from those who took silly positions (Michele Bachmann, who opposed all versions of a debt ceiling increase, even as she equivocates on Medicare reform) and those whose support is confined to the liberal media (Jon Huntsman, who supported Boehner), the Republican presidential candidates were basically nowhere to be found during the debt ceiling debate, or confined themselves to coy and cryptic comments. Not exactly profiles in leadership.

Circumstance #6: The GOP needs a winner in 2012.

Paul Ryan can’t accomplish much over the next year in the House. He should run as a candidate who’s shown leadership (the Ryan budget), who has successfully taken on Obama (at the House Republican retreat, the health care summit, and in the White House about two months ago), and who has the best chance of uniting the establishment and Tea Party wings of the GOP. If not Ryan, how about Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, or someone else who is young, sane, and unafraid?

It’s one thing for House Republicans to go through an awkward patch. It would be another thing entirely to fumble away the 2012 presidential election.

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