What it would take to defeat a president

PEDRO MOLINA
PEDRO MOLINA

Wanted: A Republican ex-governor with "music."

Posted: May 19, 2011

By Saladin M. Ambar

After the recent exits of Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, the field of potential Republican presidential candidates remained as uncertain as ever. And that was before Newt Gingrich revealed that Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare plan is a form of "right-wing social engineering."

That bizarre statement aside, how difficult is Gingrich's path to the White House? By one historical measure, his task is almost as great as that of the first African American president. Those are pretty long odds.

Having never been a governor, Gingrich would have to become the first candidate without executive government experience to unseat a sitting president since Benjamin Harrison. And even before Harrison, who defeated President Grover Cleveland in 1888, every other candidate who beat a president had some form of gubernatorial experience.

For those seeking to counter the advantages of presidential incumbency, an outsider's pedigree coupled with an executive background has been close to indispensable. And Gingrich has neither.

A new Associated Press-GfK poll found that what little strong feelings Republican voters had for the current candidates were reserved for former Govs. Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney. Romney's entry, however, was met with a chorus of groans from conservatives: He'll have a hard time selling himself to a crowd that deems his greatest political achievement - Massachusetts' universal health-care law - an embarrassment.

This explains the fascination with the possibility that New Jersey Gov. Christie or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will join the fray. Sure, Rep. Michele Bachmann has intense support among her followers, but Republican strategists know she would be a made-to-order opponent for President Obama.

So where is the Republican Party to turn? There's still time for its prospects to improve, but, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, it's getting late early out here.

Some reckon that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is the type of dark-horse candidate Abraham Lincoln was. If a candidate can be liked by enough people and least offensive to all, he can rack up lots of second-place finishes in the primaries and come out on top. This finish-second strategy isn't sexy in politics or anything else, but with an executive background, one marriage, no scandals, and Midwestern likability, Pawlenty could represent a real threat to Obama.

Pawlenty also had the good political sense to disown a part of his record that offends the base. He apologized for his onetime support of cap-and-trade legislation to address global warming, took his medicine, and moved on. But they haven't made a rug big enough to sweep universal health care under, so Pawlenty should benefit from Romney's travails on that issue.

But this is where political pedigree and personality diverge. For all of the focus-group-tested festooning of candidates with preapproved language, attire, and backdrops, a candidate still has to connect with voters. Journalist I.F. Stone once said of Jimmy Carter, "There's no music in him." Pawlenty will have to demonstrate that the same cannot be said of him. The challenge for the Republican field is that those with "music" sound good only to a narrow swath of voters.

This brings us to the president, who is shaping up to be a more commanding figure than Carter or George H.W. Bush, our most recent one-term presidents. Obama's strength at this stage is not in his poll numbers, which never seem to skyrocket or bottom out. Rather, it's a statesmanlike quality we haven't seen in the office for some time.

For all his vulnerabilities - a still-weak economy and a thousand possible foreign-policy land mines - Obama is poised, having grown into the office through low moments as much as successes. This ability to suffer losses, rebound, and reassert oneself has been a hallmark of strong presidencies.

It is this evolving relationship between the president and the American people that has to give Republicans pause. And, indeed, it has: The fire to enter the race against Obama seems to be lacking.

Obama may yet be defeated in 2012. But it will take someone of considerable stature to run against history and a presidency that seems to be hitting its stride.


Saladin M. Ambar is an assistant professor of political science at Lehigh University and the author of the forthcoming "The Hidden Prince: How Governors Helped Build the Modern Presidency" (University of Pennsylvania Press). He can be reached at sma409@lehigh.edu.

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