Don’t Get Cocky, GOP

Obama is weak, but it is always difficult to defeat a sitting president.

It has been a brutal month for President Obama. The historic electoral rebuke delivered to his party was followed at the G-20 meeting by a public rebuff of the Federal Reserve’s QE2 program and the administration’s handling of the China currency issue.

The president arrived home to find House Democrats intent on keeping Nancy Pelosi as leader, New York Congressman Charles Rangel judged guilty by a House ethics panel of 11 violations, and a lame duck session of Congress fraught with battles over taxes, the New Start treaty and more. This has Republicans feeling cocky about 2012.

Opinion surveys give some support for GOP optimism. This month’s Associated Press-GfK poll shows only 39% of Americans believe Mr. Obama deserves re-election, while 54% believe he deserves to be voted out of office. In a late October CNN poll, Mr. Obama trailed both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee nationally. And in polls taken in battleground states by Public Policy Polling, Mr. Obama lost to a generic unnamed Republican in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Colorado.

Mr. Obama can’t count on a strong economy to improve his fortunes. President Ronald Reagan’s policies produced 4.5% and 7.2% growth in the two years before his 1984 re-election. But the University of Michigan Economic Forecast projects only 2.3% and 3.2% growth in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and 9% unemployment at the next election.

Still, Republicans should sober up. It is always difficult to defeat a sitting president. Since World War II, three have been defeated for re-election and two decided not to run again. But five have sought and won second terms.

Moreover, the GOP lacks a clear frontrunner. Gallup found this week that no potential Republican candidate draws more than 19% support for nomination: Four contenders are essentially tied.

This shows how unusual the GOP presidential contest will be. Historically, the Republican faithful have displayed an almost genetic predisposition to settle early on a favorite who, by dint of previous service or campaigning, has a claim on their hearts and minds. Not this time. The dozen or so potential Republican candidates will all come out of the blocks from essentially the same starting line, ensuring a wide-open and unpredictable contest.

The contest will gel late in 2011, with the stronger candidates being those who do better at three essential tasks. The first is to create a compelling narrative for why Mr. Obama deserves to be replaced, why voters should pick him or her as the replacement, and where he or she seeks to lead the country.

Passion and authenticity will matter a great deal. Republicans spent 2010 focused on this year’s contests—and while they are now pondering who should be their party’s standard-bearer in 2012, I sense a desire to wait and observe before committing.

The second task for each candidate is to demonstrate the strength, values, decision-making capacity and leadership to take on the responsibilities of the world’s most powerful and important job. Voters need to be able to visualize someone in the Oval Office before they will give them their support.

For the most part, this task cannot be achieved directly. Confidence is built by handling the unanticipated question or the unannounced test.

Finally, the candidate who ultimately wins the nomination is likely to be the one who shows the greatest ability to unite the party and draw others into the GOP fold. This was one of Ronald Reagan’s great strengths. No candidate in the GOP field possesses Reagan’s political gifts. But they should seek to emulate his appeal to both committed Republicans and to disaffected Democrats and independents in a principled and optimistic manner.

It will be a long, hard slog. Both parties have wisely pushed back the Iowa caucuses to the first week of February. (In 2008, they were on Jan. 3. Some caucus-goers still suffered from New Year’s hangovers.) The Internet’s power for fund-raising and organization could mean even more frequent twists and turns in the race than we’re used to.

But done right, a long and competitive primary season could be very healthy for the GOP, drawing the country’s interest, boosting Republican registrations, recruiting volunteers, and sharpening its message.

Mr. Obama is extremely weak right now. It’s an open question whether he possesses the political skills that allowed other presidents (like Bill Clinton) to recover. The results of his policies may prevent his recovery, not enable it, as with Reagan. Republicans should not count on Mr. Obama imploding but assume the race ahead will be difficult. If history is any guide, it will be.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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