In the Arena

Notes on an Elephant in Despair

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Daniel Acker/ Reuters; Scott Audette / Reuters

O.K. The nonsense of the Iowa straw poll is behind us. We’ve had another GOP debate. We have one more candidate (Rick Perry) and one fewer (Tim Pawlenty). Here are some thoughts as the nomination contest gets going:

Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy was a painful, dreadful thing to watch as he attempted to shoehorn himself into Tea Party tights. He was a moderate Midwestern executive, and may one day become one again, especially if he’s chosen for the vice presidency. Over 10 presidential campaigns, I’ve found that the surest indicator of a failed candidacy, in both the primaries and the general election, is when a politician tries to be something he or she is not. George H.W. Bush is a prime example of this. His very solid presidency was ruined by a foolish populist campaign. This should be a lesson to other candidates in the field, like …

Jon Huntsman, who made a major mistake in the debate on Aug. 11 when he joined the other candidates in refusing to accept a budget deal that included $10 in budget cuts for $1 in revenue increases. If Huntsman has any chance in this race, he must distinguish himself as the resident grownup on such issues — because if Huntsman has any chance in the race, he has to beat Romney in New Hampshire with the support of independents and moderate Democrats. His kowtowing — a Chinese reference he should understand — to the Teasies renders him invisible to his prospective audience. In fact, kowtowing to the Teasies doesn’t help …

Mitt Romney, either. The man is a mystery to me. I spent time with him in one of his former lives, when he was governor of Massachusetts, and he seemed to have major potential as a public servant. But as Ross Douthat points out in the New York Times today, Romney hasn’t taken a single courageous position in either of his runs for President. In fact, he’s done the exact opposite — changed his position so baldly on so many issues that he’s lost all credibility. When he speaks about foreign policy, he wobbles between an intense cluelessness and silly hawkery — see his opposition to the START treaty with the Russians — that seems more posturing than thinking. And yet, he may still win the nomination if his main opponent is …

Rick Perry, about whom we know very little, except that he does a frighteningly good George W. Bush impersonation. We get one or two of these latecomers every cycle: Wes Clark in 2004, Fred Thompson in 2008 … are you beginning to sense a pattern here? A presidential campaign — especially a candidate’s stump speech and rationale for entering the race — takes months and months to germinate. Perry will be entering the campaign with full glare, and he will stumble. They all do. The question is whether he has time to get his act together and emerge as someone credible (to Republicans) by December, when things begin to get really serious. Who knows? His first act will certainly be tough. He will have to fight his way through …

Michele Bachmann, the ultimate limited-upside candidate (Ron Paul is another cult figure pretending to run for President). It will be hard for her to win the nomination, but that doesn’t mean Perry will be able to push past her very easily, either. She’s running a tough little campaign — and one that is based on nonsense (especially regarding the budget) and assorted, perverse misreadings of the Bible. But that sort of thing works on the prairies and in Southern fever swamps. We’ll see if Perry can under-right her successfully.

The Others — Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain — are pretty much running vanity campaigns at this point.

One sure thing: whoever wins this nomination — as implausible as he or she may seem — will have a fighting chance to win the presidency. I still consider President Obama to be a narrow favorite, despite his low polls and high unemployment numbers. But I make no predictions — I stopped doing that after I told Jake Tapper that George W. Bush had no chance to win the nomination after he lost the New Hampshire primary. Amazing things will happen between now and the election that will turn this race upside down multiple times. Amazing things.

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