Scott Brown, Ron Paul, The CPAC Straw Poll and 2012

Let’s talk just a little about the 2012 presidential election. I’d like to make three related points:

(1) Nobody should be touting Scott Brown as a 2012 presidential candidate.

(2) The GOP is going to be picking from a bench that is short on candidates with the experience we need.

(3) It’s a good thing that Ron Paul won the “straw poll” of 2012 candidates at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week.

Now, as a general rule, it’s not a great time for Republicans and conservatives to be talking about the 2012 election. We have more than enough on our plates fighting the policy battles (Obamacare and otherwise) that will dominate the rest of the year, as well as the numerous elections to be contested in 2010. In fact, the Right has benefitted – much as the Left did in 2005-06 – from its lack of a single, identifiable leader; as hard as the Obama White House has tried to personalize attacks on its critics, the absence of a single leader to pick on means that voters’ attention has remained fixed on Obama’s own failures (and rightly so, given the overwhelming majorities he has in both Houses of Congress). But sometimes it’s necessary to head off problems before they develop.

Scott Brown For … Senator

Since Scott Brown’s stunning victory in the special Senate election in Massachusetts in January, he’s been the man in demand for Republicans everywhere who are looking to rub off some of the magic that allowed him to win the first GOP Senate seat in the Bay State in decades. Inevitably, there have been rumblings here and there about running Brown for president in 2012 against Obama – hey, he can win in Massachusetts, why not?

Hold on there, tiger.

First of all, analysis by following the latest shift in the wind is the worst kind of punditry. A good number of the people touting Brown, a fairly liberal but populist New England Republican, were touting conservative (and also newly-elected) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell back in November, in both cases because of the whole “shiny new toy” factor. A new candidate who hasn’t had time to accumulate baggage, make compromises and make enemies always looks appealing, because you can wishcast all sorts of things onto them. But that’s a lousy way to pick a potential president or a potential national candidate.

McDonnell, at least, is a plausible national figure, if you add in some experience and he compiles a successful track record in office – he’s already been the state Attorney General, and is embarking on a term as the state’s chief executive, the closest thing our political system offers (in some ways even moreso than the Vice Presidency) to good training to be President. And running and hopefully governing as a conservative in a “purple” state, McDonnell could conceivably build a record that makes him appealing both to Republican primary voters and the voters of his own state.

Not so for Scott Brown. One can hope that Brown’s populist campaign stands as a reminder to him, as he serves, that there are some conservative principles that are enduringly popular even in Massachusetts. But the simple reality is that the voters in Brown’s state won’t re-elect him in 2012 if he starts acting like a guy who’s thinking as a Republican presidential candidate, and Republican primary voters won’t warm to him if he votes as a Massachusetts Republican. We saw how well it worked out in 2008 for Mitt Romney, who bailed out on running for re-election in 2006 only to be rejected by GOP presidential primary voters in 2008. The most conspicuous issue on which this is the case is abortion, the subject of some of Romney’s most glaring flip-flops and a significant Achilles heel as well for serious GOP candidates like Rudy Giuliani; Brown is something of a moderate on the issue, but remains essentially pro-choice, and while there’s plenty of room in the tent for guys like that, it would be a non-starter for someone running to lead a basically pro-life party (the failure of Rudy’s campaign has largely convinced me that this is a circle that may just be impossible to square because it leaves the candidate with too little margin for error in other ways). You could pick more examples down the line of less-prominent issues.

Brown, to his credit, has mostly laughed at the idea, but for his own good, he’d be better served if he closed the door on it entirely and emphatically, and moreover resisted the temptation to let other Republican candidates drag him all over the map to campaign for them. Presidential daydreams are bad for the longeitvity of politicians who depend on their regular-guy image, and national Republican politics is hazardous to anybody who wants to get re-elected in Massachusetts.

There’s a more fundamental problem with the talkof running Brown in 2012: it suggests that some pundits and activists haven’t learned anything from Barack Obama. Brown is a legislator. He’s served a couple terms in the State Senate, and being in the minority doesn’t have a lot of accomplishments. He’s held down a part-time law practice. He’s won precisely one statewide election, and has yet to make any mark in Washington. In other words, his resume is just about exactly the same as Barack Obama’s in 2008.

We’ve seen in practice the many ways in which Obama’s total lack of any of the traditional types of experience we look for in a president – executive experience, national security experience, political and political leadership experience, military combat service, or private sector business experience – has caught up with him. He’s made one rookie mistake after another, and even his defenders at this point have to acknowledge that his struggles, especially in managing his legislative agenda, have derived from a fair number of unforced strategic errors borne of a misunderstanding of how to run a presidency – overreaching, trying to do too many things at once, ceding too much authority to Congress, promising things he couldn’t deliver. Having never run anything before, he accentuated his own weaknesses by selecting a Vice President, Cabinet and White House staff heavy on generalist legislators and Chicagoans, light on executives and people with useful specialized expertise, and almost barren of people familiar with the private sector. This, in turn, had secondary consequences (legislators and bureaucrats are more apt than your typical businessman to not bother paying their taxes). Nor is this the first time the Democrats have made this particular mistake – in 2004, they had as their Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards, whose only tenure in public office was a single term as a Senator, to which he had no realistic chance of being re-elected, prior to which he had run a small (though profitable) personal injury law practice. Like Obama, Edwards had no executive experience, no real legislative accomplishments, no experience with national security issues, no experience working in any other sort of private business and no military service record.

Republicans are supposed to know better. The absolute last thing the GOP should be doing in 2012 is letting Obama off the hook – or running the risk of electing a candidate who puts America through the same thing – by nominating somebody who suffers the same weaknesses, however good a Senate candidate he may be or however good a Senator he may become.

A Time For Leadership

I have not picked a horse yet for 2012, and would caution anyone against doing so before the 2010 elections are over. That being said, I do know what I want: I want a candidate who can bring the kind of proven leadership experience to the table that we lack in our current president, ideally over some length of time. I want a candidate who has some record of having and standing for principles against adversity. And in light of the ugly record of the McCain, Dole, Kerry, McGovern and Goldwater campaigns, among others, I’d really rather not run a Senator, or someone else whose public career is largely or wholly as a legislator. The presidency is still an executive job, after all.

I’m realistic that we may have less than ideal choices – every presidential election season requires settling for the best of what you have in front of you, and even the best candidates have their drawbacks. As of now, we appear to have only two candidates (Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney) who seem certain to run, though many others are possibles. A number of members of the Senate and House are reportedly thinking of running, several of whom are smart, principled people, excellent at the jobs they now do. Two of our potentially leading contenders (Romney and Sarah Palin) are one-term Governors, in Palin’s case a term she resigned before completing. Both are undoubtedly more experienced than Obama – besides being state-level chief executives, Romney had a long and successful career as a business executive, Palin spent the better part of 17 years in a variety of offices including being a mayor and heading the state oil and gas commission, and both had already accomplished more by 2008 than Obama ever had – but are nonetheless a good deal lighter on experience than I’d like to see. (Long-time readers know my issues with Romney; I haven’t ruled out supporting Palin in the primaries but really will take a long look at the alternatives first). Several of the party’s possible brightest stars in the Governor’s mansions – Bobby Jindal, McDonnell, Chris Christie – will not be scheduled to complete their first terms until 2011 or 2013.

Part of the problem is the shortage of GOP Governors elected or re-elected in 2006 or re-elected in 2008, the cycles when you’d look to be getting people ready to make the next step. There are at present only 15 sitting GOP Governors who have been re-elected at least once, and that’s the pool you would ordinarily look to; there’s only a few others up to be elected for a second time in 2010. One of the 15 is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s legally ineligible for the presidency. One is Mark Sanford, who took himself out of the running with personal scandal. Others are plainly too liberal to run as GOP standard-bearers: Linda Lingle, Jodi Rell, Jim Douglas. Jon Hoeven is running for the Senate, as is Charlie Crist, who’d otherwise be up for re-election in 2010. Jon Hunstmann left office to pursue an ambassadorship to China. That leaves an eight-man bench:

Bob Riley-AL
Sonny Perdue-GA
Mitch Daniels-IN
Tim Pawlenty-MN
Haley Barbour-MS
Dave Heineman-NE
Mike Rounds-SD
Rick Perry-TX

You can add Mike Huckabee as a guy with a decade’s experience as a governor who may run. We’ll leave the pros and cons of this group – Pawlenty’s running, and Daniels, Barbour and Perry all might – for another day. Because before we get too comfortable with any one candidate, we come to my third point.

CPAC Chooses None of the Above

The media has tried out various angles on the news that Ron Paul won the 2012 straw poll at this year’s CPAC, winning around 740 votes out of the 2,395 people who voted in the poll, itself a subset of the 10,000+ attendees. Some might take it as a sign of some vitality for Paul-ism, or whatever. To me, what it says is this: yes, Ron Paul’s people remain organized and energized in their own way, but the real story is that (1) nobody else has either a naturally strong enough constituency among conservative activists to beat Paul without trying (and straw polls are all about trying) and (2) nobody else was willing to put resources into winning a poll of this nature before the 2010 elections.

That’s good news all around. Good news for the candidates because people like Romney, Pawlenty, Palin, Mike Huckabee and others are still prioritizing the 2010 races and policy battles, trying to get other Republicans elected and defeat bad legislation. That’s a lesson we Republicans and conservatives want them all to get. And good news for the movement that people are willing to send those candidates, and any other prospective 2012 aspirants, a message: you still have a lot to prove to us. For a movement that has regained its momentum mostly from the ground up over the past year, and that faces lingering doubts as to how well its current and future leaders have learned the lessons of past mistakes, that’s maybe the best news of all.