The Magazine

Wilson, FDR, Reagan, Clinton, . . . ?

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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To the Republicans of the states of Arizona, Michigan, Washington, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia:

Photos of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton

Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton

It is now your turn to vote in the 2012 Republican presidential contest. You will help choose the man who will bear the obligation of saving us (to repeat an earlier editorial) “from the ghastly prospect of an Obama second term, and who will then have the task of beginning to put right our listing ship of state, setting our nation on a course to restored solvency, reinvigorated liberty, and renewed greatness.”

Your choices have been narrowed by your fellow citizens in the nine states that have already voted. Four campaigns are still alive. But only two candidates have, it seems, a realistic chance of winning the Republican nomination for president—Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote for Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul—if you believe in them, if you would like them to have delegates at the convention, if you can’t vote for your preferred candidate because of ballot access problems, or if you think such a vote could help keep open the possibility of a new entrant to the fray. But the odds of that are slim, almost as slim as the chance that either Gingrich or Paul can win the nomination.

So it is likely to be Romney or Santorum. How should you decide for whom to vote?

We would repeat this counsel, from our previous editorial: “Vote for the person you think would be the best president of the United States. Ignore the proclamations of the pundits, the sophistries of the strategists, and the calculations of the handicappers. Ignore the ads, the robocalls, and the polls. Be skeptical of those who would seek, whether from national stage or local perch, cavalierly or presumptively to instruct you how to mark your ballot. That ballot is yours alone to cast.”

We would add this: Polls show no consistent difference in “electability” against President Obama between Romney and Santorum. Each probably would appeal to different swing voters, but it’s not clear which pool of reachable swing voters is larger. Furthermore, we don’t know whether Romney or Santorum would do better at surviving the assault the Obama campaign will surely mount. That campaign will paint Romney as a plutocrat and Santorum as a theocrat. It’s hard to say today which cartoonish charge will be more damaging, or which candidate will be more effective at ducking Democratic spitballs and deflecting media mudpies.

The one thing we do know is that Romney or Santorum will be running against an incumbent president seeking reelection. President Obama now has a modest (and very similar) lead in most polls over each of his Republican challengers. And incumbents usually win reelection.

Four presidents running for reelection have been defeated in the past century: William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Taft was hugely damaged by a Teddy Roosevelt third-party bid. Hoover was destroyed by the Great Depression. Carter was hurt by Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge, and not helped enough (maybe even ultimately hurt a bit) by John Anderson’s defection from the GOP to run as an independent candidate. Bush was wounded by Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge, and by Ross Perot in the general election.

The Republican running against President Obama in 2012 won’t be as fortunate as previous winning challengers. He won’t have the benefit of a primary challenge to the sitting president (as in 1980 and 1992). He most likely won’t have the aid of a third party that particularly hurts the incumbent (as in 1912 and 1992). And while we’re only slowly recovering from our Great Recession, and while we face fiscal catastrophe ahead, we’re not right now falling ever further into a Great Depression, as in 1932.

So the stars don’t seem aligned for an inevitable (so to speak) defeat of the incumbent. The Republican nominee will have to win this race. A “gotcha” campaign—as Politico has aptly characterized Mitt Romney’s primary effort so far—that destroys less well-funded primary opponents will not be enough to win the general election. An I’m-not-Romney-and-I’m-a-full-spectrum-conservative campaign that rallies the troops against Romney, but that doesn’t present a compelling governing vision for 2013 and beyond, will also not be enough.

Romney and Santorum have made it to the final bracket, as Romney was expected to do, and Santorum was not. Each now has a chance to show that he can do more than survive a Republican primary only to lose to the Democratic incumbent. Each now has a chance to articulate big ideas, to make his campaign about more than himself and his past record, to reach beyond his first and even second waves of supporters, to stand for something bigger than himself, and to make a case for his election that would be more compelling than much of what we’ve seen so far.

In the past century, four candidates defeated incumbent presidents running for reelection. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton were formidable political figures. Each was able to convey a sense that his candidacy represented not just a challenge to the incumbent’s failed policies but a break from the immediate past of his own party. And each was able to convince the voters that his presidency would come to grips with new and daunting national challenges.

Whatever one thinks of their subsequent policies, Wilson, FDR, Reagan, and Clinton won the Oval Office. Will the GOP nominee this year? In choosing between Romney and Santorum, you, the Republican primary voters, will have to decide which one, as general election candidate, will be able to make the broadest and deepest case for replacing the incumbent, and which one, as president, can reverse the dangerous trajectory of the Obama era.

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