This is a tale of two potential front line candidates for the Republican nomination in 2012: Newt Gingrich, who may be announcing soon, and Sarah Palin, who may not announce at all. It is an illuminating story because it illustrates the current pitfalls facing the Republicans and the effect Gingrich and Palin are having on the early stages of the race by dominating news coverage of the GOP.
What it also shows is how the approach most often adopted by the Republicans is not to offer an alternative and or a compelling vision. Rather, it is behave in a way that works to the advantage of the White House incumbent.
Gingrich clearly favours going on the offense, believing that his flawed candidacy is best served by putting his negatives front and centre, and by going after Obama in a resolute and aggressive manner. His past marital woes and controversial tenure as House Speaker figure to be obstacles in Iowa and South Carolina, two key GOP contests. So he decides to deal with them in the early going. All the while, Gingrich has led the pack in fundraising and possibly news coverage as well.
For her part, Palin has curiously failed to visit the “first in the nation” primary state, New Hampshire, since 2008. Instead, she goes to India and chooses to blast Obama on foreign soil in an address about foreign policy, which is not known to be her strong suit. From there, she visits Israel, but there is no real policy message that emerges from either visit. Polls regarding a potential candidacy are sagging badly and at least one had her trailing Charlie Sheen among independent voters!
Meanwhile, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann is filling a vacuum by rapidly becoming the darling of the Tea Party and social conservatives, two natural Palin constituencies. With attacks coming from establishment Republicans, Palin’s choice of India as a venue is a strange—albeit well-paying—one indeed.
With the looming budget and debt showdown in Congress, the tragedy in Japan, and the burgeoning military conflict in Libya, Obama has his opponents in a place that puts him in a more dominant and favourable light. Judging by recent polls showing high negatives for Gingrich and Palin, the barrage of criticism coming from them often comes across as over the top and too partisan.
Recent polls show that it seems to be hurting the GOP brand and has helped make Obama look more statesmanlike. It also relegates other possible Republican candidates—possibly more threatening ones, such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels—to second-tier news coverage.
The GOP did well in November and has a decided advantage in the 2012 Senate races. It’s the White House, however, that is the big prize. Experienced Republican operatives know that winning a presidential election requires much more than transforming anger over one issue into a congressional debate. The nominee must channel dissatisfaction, but also provide a compelling vision for the future. That is how Reagan defeated Carter in 1980.
It is still early in the game but the weekend forays of both Gingrich and Palin illustrate the shortcomings of ideologically inspired candidacies in a party where there is wide diversity of views and egos, and no identifiable frontrunner. It also points to the built-in advantages of campaigning as president. Obama has to deal primarily with solving problems, giving direction to the nation and doing the nation’s business. This may help explain his lead in the polls in hypothetical matchups for 2012.