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Morning Jay: The "Yes...But" Republican Field

6:00 AM, Mar 9, 2011 • By JAY COST
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On Monday, Jim Geraghty offered a thought experiment about the nascent candidacy of Jon Huntsman:

[S]ome conservative bloggers [are] expressing great skepticism about the potential presidential bid of Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and soon to depart as ambassador to China. Scoff if you want, but there’s at least one way for a Huntsman bid to quickly generate a lot of buzz.

Picture it: It’s early summer 2011. Huntsman has launched his campaign to a generally “meh” reception, and now, in his first major policy address, he goes to Washington, D.C. He gives a lunch speech at the Brookings Institution or some other centrist, non-conservative foreign policy think tank — his natural base of support, really...

And then, in detail, Huntsman paints a picture of an administration that is flailing, frozen with indecision, short-sighted, often at war with itself, disorganized, and ultimately lacking any sense of what it wanted to do after Obama had finished his apology tour.

For starters, this is an excellent strategic approach -- one that the Huntsman people should seriously consider. Call it the "whistleblower candidacy;" it really could help solve his princpal problem in pursuit of the nomination, which is that he seems too close to Obama.

Geraghty's post also got me thinking more broadly about the Republican field, about which there seems to be a good bit of skepticism. In a recent column, George Will listed the major potentials: Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney. Each of them brings strengths to the table, but with all of them there seems to be a pretty substantial 'but...' Barbour is a wonky Republican with a great résumé, but he is a former lobbyist. Daniels is also wonky and serious about the deficit, but he wants a truce on social issues. Huntsman has solid credentials in thoroughly Republican Utah, but he worked for Obama. Pawlenty governed a blue state in a conservative fashion, but he lacks pizzazz. Romney's business background is an asset in these tough economic times, but Romneycare is a sticking point.

Call it the "Yes...but" field. There are good things to say about each of them, followed by a pretty substantial caveat. Is this historically unusual?

Not really. Right now there isn't a frontrunner, which is indeed rare for the Republican field, but when you look back through past nomination processes, you'll see that most non-incumbent postwar Republican candidates fall into this "Yes...but" category--even the frontrunners.

In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower wasn't really in tune with the growing conservative base of the party, and had to fend off a convention challenge from 'Mr. Republican,' Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. When Richard Nixon ran in 1968, he had to fend off the tag of a loser. Ditto Ronald Reagan in 1980, who was a two-time loser by that point. Bob Dole seemed old and not that conservative in 1996. Four years later George W. Bush had to prove that he was his own man, and not just a repackaged version of his father. John McCain seemed old and not that conservative in 2008. One would think that vice presidents are no-brainers for the nomination, but Nixon had to make a deal with Nelson Rockefeller (the so-called "Treaty of Fifth Avenue") in 1960 and George H. W. Bush finished third in Iowa behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in 1988.

The reality is, it is a very rare event that a Republican candidate is a slam dunk for the nomination. Instead, with most every candidate, somebody out there was saying 'Yes...but!' at some point. The challenge for each candidate in the modern nomination system -- with the series of primaries and caucuses -- is to prove that, in practice, their liabilities are not as bad as they seem to be in theory.

As a good example of how a candidate goes about doing that, consider Reagan's great moment at the debate in Nashua, New Hampshire. This old article from Time does a good job of tracking Reagan's transformation:

He is that crinkly and blandly familiar face from scores of old movies on afternoon TV, that two-time loser for the Republican presidential nomination who has not been elected to any public office for a decade. Ronald Reagan, 69, seemed so complacent and venerable a Republican front runner that he hardly campaigned at all in Iowa, and his jarring defeat there at the hands of peppy, preppy George Bush, 55, prompted many of his followers to wonder whether he could ever make a comeback. The most reliable public polls on the eve of the New Hampshire primary rated him no more than neck and neck with the onrushing Bush...

Then came the debates... Reagan had challenged Bush to a one-on-one debate, sponsored by the Nashua, N.H., Telegraph, then agreed to pay the tab and artfully invited in four other candidates, (John) Anderson, (Howard) Baker, (Philip) Crane and (Bob) Dole. The Telegraph refused to change the rules for the debate, despite Reagan's angry protests, and a thoroughly flustered Bush supported the newspaper. The other candidates then charged out, accusing Bush of silencing them. The absurd scene made a strong impression on New Hampshire voters to whom Bush had been trying to sell himself as "a President we won't have to train." If he could not cope with so minor a contretemps, voters wondered, how would he react in an international crisis?

Reagan, on the other hand, was masterful. At one point, when he was arguing that the other four candidates should participate, Telegraph Editor Jon Breen ordered the power in his microphone shut off. Reagan shouted, with impressive, raw anger, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green [sic]!" Said an admiring aide to Howard Baker: "There were cells in Reagan's body that hadn't seen blood for years. He was terrific!" Reagan's own judgment: "Maybe the people like to see a candidate sometimes not under control."

Reagan had to battle Bush for some time thereafter, but this was a real turning point in the race: where Reagan shook off the tag that he was too old, too tired, and too complacent to be the nominee.

This is what each of the candidates for 2012 will be chasing over the next few months. It doesn't have to be as dramatic  a moment as the Nashua debate, of course. Even so, all of them will be looking to overcome their perceived limitations, to prove that in practice they are mostly upside with very little downside.

The modern nomination system is an asburdly inefficient process. It goes on way too long. It costs far too much. It sets party allies against each other in open and often uncivil conflict. But it does have the advantage of thoroughly vetting the prospectives. Each of these candidates will have a chance to deal with their theoretical downsides.  Huntsman will have a shot to disavow Obama. Pawlenty will have a chance to generate some buzz. Romney will have a chance to answer for Romneycare. And so on. That's one thing that the seemingly interminable primary campaign is good for.

Final point. There is a chance that none of these candidates can rise above their theoretical weaknesses, that fears about all of these candidates come true. It has happened before. But it's just too early to start betting whether that's going to happen this time around. We have to see these candidates on the stump for at least a little bit before we start presuming that none of them are up to snuff. And, to cultivate that patience, we should remember that old 1980 GOP debate in Nashua, which should remind us that Reagan wasn't really Reagan until after he had won.

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