Republicans are united in their desire to oust President Barack Obama, but they are quite divided on how to proceed. Behind the headlines about the emerging presidential campaign, reality TV stars who might take part, and presidential birth certificates, there is internal party jostling over fundamental questions. After small-government activists helped Republicans take back the House of Representatives last November, they opened an internal debate over how far the party is willing to go to balance the books—and what political price it is willing to pay to get there. How much can Republicans cut government spending, like medical care for senior citizens and Social Security, and still remain electable? Can they cut Pentagon budgets without alienating foreign policy hawks? And are they willing to call a “truce” on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion to build broad coalitions to achieve fiscal reforms?
As congressional Republicans in Washington wrestle with the upcoming vote on raising the limit on the national debt and working out a federal budget, many of the biggest names among the presidential wannabes have been hanging back, watching. The result is a primary race that, by traditionally epic American standards, has been slow to get going. The empty stage has been filled by a cast of characters that can most charitably be described as eclectic. The first GOP candidates’ debate held last week in Greenville, S.C., included several candidates who want to legalize marijuana, the libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul, who wants to audit the Federal Reserve, and Georgia pizza magnate Herman Cain, who boasted of never having been elected to anything.
“You’ve got two or three different things going on that at least explain why candidates are not lining up this year as they have in previous years,” says Bruce Buchanan, a specialist in presidential politics at the University of Texas at Austin. “One thing is, there is turbulence inside the Republican party that is nice [for potential candidates] to be able to avoid to a certain extent.” Meanwhile, the incumbent President is presiding over an improving economy, has just killed America’s worst enemy, and is expected to break fundraising records and run the country’s first billion-dollar campaign. “The big money donors are holding back and the big feet in the party are reluctant to launch a campaign they can’t finance,” adds Buchanan.
The presumed front-runner in the race to defeat Obama is Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who has formed a committee to explore a bid. Romney has high name recognition, ran a national campaign in 2008, and has networks of supporters in early primary states. However, he is a Mormon competing in primaries heavy with evangelical Christians, and has been unable to shake a reputation for changing his views to pander to voters. His biggest obstacle may be running in a year when Republicans are seeking a repeal of Obama’s health care law, while he passed a similar universal insurance program in his state while governor.
Another familiar face is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who announced his candidacy this week. A prolific writer, historian and policy thinker, Gingrich is celebrated within the party for leading the Republican revolution in the 1990s, but is hobbled by personal baggage: he was the thin-skinned ideologue who paved the way for Bill Clinton’s re-election by shutting down the government. As well, the thrice-married politician presided over Clinton’s impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky affair, while carrying on his own dalliances; he recently blamed his extramarital affairs on working too hard out of love for his country.
Of the lesser-known potential candidates, the one being taken most seriously is Tim Pawlenty, a two-term former governor of Minnesota. A socially conservative evangelical Christian, Pawlenty makes up in sheer doggedness what he lacks in charisma. He has been out working retail politics in the early primary states, getting to know voters in their living rooms, and showed up in South Carolina to gamely debate a slate of lesser-known names. Pawlenty is moving his policy positions to the right—from opposing water-boarding as an interrogation tactic to supporting it, and arguing for a tougher policy toward Pakistan. He has also offered a full-throated apology for having once supported a cap and trade system to curb carbon emissions. “I’ve said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” Pawlenty declared at the debate.
While Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and folksy Baptist minister who won over social conservatives in the 2008 primary, contemplated a return before ultimately bowing out, another candidate moved quickly to stake out the family values turf. Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and Roman Catholic father of seven, used the debate to make his case to the party’s social conservatives with passionate speeches on moral values and a declaration that English should be made the official language of the U.S.—a position that may not play well with Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the race is whether Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, will jump in. A Daniels nomination would represent an almost single-minded focus on fiscal issues. Calling America’s ballooning government debt the “new red menace,” Daniels has urged major cuts to government spending—including defence. He has said that the “morbidly obese federal government” needs “bariatric surgery,” and has urged scaling back programs such as Social Security and Medicare after current beneficiaries “pass off the scene.” Daniels says America’s fiscal problems are so severe that Republicans should sacrifice other goals to fix them. A Presbyterian, pro-lifer and co-founder of a Christian school for poor children, Daniels has nonetheless called for “a truce on the so-called social issues” in order to get the big fiscal things done. In a preview of the kind of political price he could pay, Santorum passionately rebuked him: “Anybody that would suggest we call a truce on moral issues doesn’t understand what America is all about,” he said to applause at the South Carolina debate.
Also testing the waters is Jon Huntsman, Jr., who was a successful governor of Utah for five years before resigning to become Obama’s ambassador to China. The son of a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, he was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan and speaks fluent Mandarin. He worked in the administrations of president Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, including as a trade representative and diplomat. With square-jawed looks straight out of a Hollywood casting call for president, Huntsman is known as a moderate Republican with potential appeal to independent voters and Democrats. He has been assembling a team of seasoned political organizers—many of whom worked for John McCain in 2008.
But Huntsman is little known outside his state, and faces the liability of not just being a Mormon but of having served Obama. A conservative website, The Daily Caller, dug up a 2009 letter Huntsman wrote to Obama as he was leaving for China, in which he called the President “a remarkable leader,” and another in which he described Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “well-read, hard-working, personable and has even more charisma than her husband! It’s an honour to work with her.” The Daily Caller wrote that the letters “raise the question of why he’s not campaigning for Obama instead.” But in a commencement speech at the University of South Carolina on Saturday, Huntsman gave graduates a preview of how he would explain himself. “Serve [America], if asked. I was, by a president of a different political party. But in the end, while we might not all be of one party, we are all part of one nation,” he said, in rhetoric more reminiscent of the Obama campaign than a Republican primary fight.
And then there are the media stars. With Obama having produced his long-form birth certificate, Donald Trump will have to decide whether he has finished flirting with a potential run. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has still not declared her intentions. She has enthusiastic supporters, but must overcome high negative ratings in opinion polls and a perception that she quit her job as governor to make money off TV and speeches. However, she appears to be retooling her foreign policy views—recently parting with hawkish foreign policy advisers and adopting stances more critical of U.S. entanglements abroad. And if she doesn’t run, another mother of five with a taste for combative rhetoric, Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party darling and congresswoman from Minnesota, might.
Surveying this landscape, Buchanan, the political science professor, observed that the candidates with the best chance of winning the primaries seem to pose the least threat to the sitting President. “It’s always a problem for Republicans—the kind of people who have a chance against Obama are less likely to be appealing to the Republican party base,” he noted. “There is a delicate dance going on here.” And it’s a slow dance at that.