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.