Obama’s hurting, but which Republican can capitalize?


American voters just tuning into the debt ceiling crisis might be asking, “What is this mess all about?” An answer one won’t hear from either party, which both castigate “Washington” despite running it, is that the nation’s potential failure to pay its bills is due in no small part to the choices that voters make. This, after all, is the government voters elected, even though it might not be performing the way some hoped it would.

A popular political question — who loses politically if the United States defaults — would seem to have a fairly obvious answer: Such an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound would stain everyone. After the dueling Monday night speeches from President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Nate Silver, the incisive New York Times political commentator, noted a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, which showed both Obama and the Republican House with very low approval ratings on economic issues. “Love the Romney + Democratic Congress parlay,” he tweeted, referring to a kind of bet in which a bettor can strike gold if two seemingly unlikely occurrences happen.

Parlays are typically losers, and this one is no exception: Since 1856 — the beginning of the modern Democratic/Republican party system — there’s never been a year when a party simultaneously lost the White House but took control of the House.

It might happen in 2012. But more than likely, economic hara-kiri will produce a clear loser. And since the president always gets too much credit or too much blame for the state of the nation, it’s not a stretch to think that Obama, not Boehner and the Republicans, would ultimately lose in the case of a default. Even if Obama wins the optics game in this specific battle, as polls seem to indicate he might, a default that wreaks havoc on an already weak economy may make it more likely he loses the electoral war.

This makes the struggle for the Republican presidential nomination all the more interesting. It’s the pillow fight that could very easily produce a president. A recent Gallup poll, for instance, noted that a “generic Republican” would beat Obama 47% to 39% nationally. Another measure of Obama’s strength 15 months before he stands for reelection, his approval rating, is at a middling 45.5% versus 49.3% disapproval, according to the poll average at RealClearPolitics.com.

The trouble with the Republican presidential contest is that there isn’t a generic Republican in the field — someone who would sweep up all the voters inclined to back President Obama’s opponent. And who gets the nomination? Everyone in the field seemingly has a crippling flaw.

Mitt Romney supported an individual health insurance mandate that Republicans regard as an affront to individual freedom. Michele Bachmann is a bomb-throwing backbencher who already is showing signs of cooling after the red-hot start to her campaign. Tim Pawlenty is bland and boring. Herman Cain has never held elective office and is more a curiosity than a candidate. Ron Paul is a libertarian, crosswise with social conservatives. Jon Huntsman is relatively moderate and worked for the man the Republicans are trying so desperately to beat. And the less said at this point about Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer and Thaddeus McCotter, the better.

Bachmann has discovered that life in the spotlight can be trying; she has faced probably unfair questions over whether her history of severe migraine headaches present an obstacle to her serving as president, as well as inquiries into her husband’s history running a therapy clinic that may or may not have tried to “cure” gay people. Whatever the merits of these questions, a presidential campaign produces a lot of din, and hers is no exception. More troubling for her are concerns, noted in a recent Politico.com analysis by Jonathan Martin, that her Iowa organization may not be strong enough to carry her across the finish line. Her party’s leaders clearly don’t want her to get the nomination, either, although they don’t come right out and say it.

Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA) recently noted that, “The history of our country shows governors have been the most successful presidents.” Other Republicans, such as Govs. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) and Scott Walker (R-WI) have expressed similar sentiments: “There is a general thought that a current or former governor will make the best candidate for the Republican Party,” McDonnell said.

It’s a convenient way of saying that they don’t support the candidacies of the non-governors, a list notably topped by Bachmann, but that also includes Cain, Paul, Gingrich, etc.

There remain muted rumblings that ex-MN Gov. Pawlenty, left for dead thanks to his insomnia-inducing performance so far, is making a comeback in Iowa, and he and fellow Minnesotan Bachmann are beginning to engage in reciprocal verbal sniping. The battle between Bachmann and Pawlenty is a zero-sum game: One benefits when the other falters, and after the Iowa caucus only one, at best, will be a convincing contender for the presidency. Pawlenty’s performance at the Iowa Straw Poll, August 13 in Ames, will indicate whether his campaign still has life; one of the troubles for Bachmann is that her new frontrunner status means that losing the straw poll, perhaps because she is out-organized by Pawlenty or Paul, would be a blow to her newfound prestige. Romney and Huntsman will be on the Ames ballot but they are not competing there.

Waiting in the wings is the Republicans’ last, best hope for a new game-changing candidate: Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, whose toe-dipping into the GOP pool may become a cannonball in the next few weeks.

Perry’s entry would also hurt Bachmann, mostly because he is arguably just as conservative, in reality and in perception, as she is. He also passes the Branstad Test: He is a governor and (other than Branstad himself) the longest serving governor in the nation.

Perry is an aggressive, swaggering conservative who assuredly would delight the right-wing of the party. He also would be the only feasible southerner in the field — sorry, Messrs. Cain, Paul, Gingrich and Roemer. South Carolina, currently slated as the fourth state in the 2012 GOP nomination process, behind the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucus, has correctly picked the Republican nominee for president in every primary election since its inception in 1980. Would Mitt Romney — who finished fourth in the Palmetto State in 2008 — really be capable of beating Perry in South Carolina? At the outset it seems highly unlikely.

Perry’s combativeness and record might hurt him in a general election; specifically, his threat in 2009 that Texas might have to secede from the nation if Washington “continues to thumb their nose at the American people.” South Carolina, where the Civil War began at Fort Sumter in 1861, might appreciate such rhetoric. Middle America and much of the North and West is a different story.

The strongest early contenders for the GOP presidential nomination — Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry (if he gets in) and Huntsman (just barely) — can be divided into two columns. In the leading column would be Romney and Huntsman, and in the other lesser column we would find Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry and Sarah Palin, if she were to enter.

While it would be tempting to call the Romney column “moderate,” and the Pawlenty-Perry-Bachmann column “conservative,” that wouldn’t be fully accurate. Remember that Romney has signed the Republicans’ “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge, and he also supports a fanciful constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Romney’s problem isn’t that he’s not vocally conservative enough; it’s that much of the base doesn’t actually believe he’s conservative. To Republicans on the right, he’s the Manchurian Candidate. The title also applies to Huntsman, Obama’s ex-ambassador to China.

Romney, unless he’s somehow toppled by Huntsman, appears to be in a good position to face the winner of the other sub-contest, Perry, Bachmann or Pawlenty. Perry might well be the early favorite to be the survivor, although one never knows what a candidate will actually be like on the campaign trail, or what additional press scrutiny will yield. Iowa and South Carolina, the more conservative early nomination states, will help sort it out.

Obama stands at the end of the convention road and will face the Republican victor. But somehow this seems to be the least pressing of the president’s predicaments right now. Unlike the debt crisis, Obama will happily kick this can down the road.