GOP voters are still searching for a unifying candidate.
The fight for the Republican Presidential nomination is finally getting underway in earnest, with Texas Governor Rick Perry bull-riding his way into the race and Michele Bachmann winning Saturday’s straw poll in Iowa. Both events show how unsettled the GOP contest still is, as voters search for a candidate who can beat a vulnerable President Obama.
Mrs. Bachmann, the Minnesota Congresswoman, has emerged from cable-TV land in recent months to be a viable competitor. She is telegenic, a hard worker, and has planted herself at the front of the tea party parade in hostility to all things Washington. This posture matches the current public mood and helps to explain why she surpassed fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race yesterday despite a far better record of accomplishment as a fiscally conservative two-term Governor of a left-leaning state. Mrs. Bachmann is a canny politician.
At the same time, winning a straw poll of activists is a long way from persuading voters she has the experience and judgment to sit in the Oval Office. (Libertarian Ron Paul, who has no chance to win the nomination, finished a close second.) Mrs. Bachmann has a record of errant statements (see Battle of Lexington and Concord, history of) that are forgiven by Fox Nation but won’t be if she makes them as a GOP standard-bearer.
More substantively, her attempt to position herself at all times as the anti-establishment outsider has made her seem on occasion less principled than opportunistic. She quickly distanced herself from Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform when it came under liberal fire, even as she purports to be the scourge of uncontrolled spending. Her recent opposition to the debt-ceiling deal on grounds that GOP leaders should have insisted on first passing a balanced budget amendment, while holding only the House, was a political fantasy.
Americans are already living with the consequences of electing a President who sounded good but had achieved little as a legislator and had no executive experience. Mrs. Bachmann will have to persuade voters she isn’t the conservative version of Mr. Obama.
Mr. Perry enters the race with a far more substantial record, notably 11 years leading one of America’s most economically successful states. As a conservative Governor, he is bidding to fill the vacuum in the race left when Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Mississippi’s Haley Barbour declined to run, and by the failure of Mr. Pawlenty to gain traction.
The Dallas Federal Reserve recently found that 37% of all new net U.S. jobs since the recession ended were created in Texas. This is no small selling point on what is likely to be the dominant issue of 2012, and Mr. Perry knows how to link job growth to Texas’s policies of low taxes, spending control and tort reform.
The questions about Mr. Perry concern how well his Lone Star swagger will sell in the suburbs of Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the election is likely to be decided. He can sound more Texas than Jerry Jones, George W. Bush and Sam Houston combined, and his muscular religiosity also may not play well at a time when the economy has eclipsed culture as the main voter concern.
The emergence of Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann is nonetheless more evidence that GOP voters continue to have doubts about their candidates. Mitt Romney is a weak front-runner who has money and campaign experience and looks Presidential. But he gives little evidence that he has convictions beyond faith in his own technocratic expertise. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman is likewise running on his resume more than a philosophy of government. We would have thought that John McCain proved you can’t beat Mr. Obama on biography.
Republicans and independents are desperate to find a candidate who can appeal across the party’s disparate factions and offer a vision of how to constrain a runaway government and revive America’s once-great private economy. If the current field isn’t up to that, perhaps someone still off the field will step in and run. Now would be the time.