Whoever Wins, Obama Faces a Real Challenge
The Republican race may be still be a muddle but disenchantment with the President is plain
At last, after pundits, pollsters and politicians have filled the media for months with their wisdom, tomorrow in Iowa, actual American voters begin actual voting in an actual caucus. A week later, other actual citizens vote in New Hampshire’s actual primary.
Be prepared to be surprised. Polls have fluctuated widely and voters have consistently said that they are open to changing their minds. Only one thing is clear: Republicans are united by an intense, urgent desire to oust Barack Obama from the White House before he further changes the US into a European-style social democracy. Voters now know that in 2008 they elected not only America’s most radical president, but also one of its least competent and effective.
Obama’s sheltered existence as a community organiser, academic and indecisive Illinois state legislator left him completely clueless as to how America’s free economy works, what his fellow citizens truly value, or how to protect our values and interests (including friends and allies) internationally. His wrongheaded policies are retarding recovery, and his signature “Obamacare” health programme continues to decline in popularity even though it is not yet in effect and its very constitutionality has still to be decided by the Supreme Court. Mr Obama’s managerial incompetence, indecisiveness and passive irrelevance to key legislative battles in Congress reinforce a deepening perception of leadership failure.
The volatile battle for the Republican nomination, which necessarily highlights differences among the contenders, should not obscure the strength of the anti-Obama mood. The Tea Party has injected considerable enthusiasm and energy into Republican ranks, and the Democrats have nothing comparable. Their 2008 mantra of “hope and change” now looks embarrassing.
The country is close to firing Mr Obama, but the Republicans have to avoid self-destructing. Some joke that if only we could nominate “Mr Generic Republican” we would have it made. And we would. Nonetheless, the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, in August 2012, will have to nominate someone from the competition now under way. Late entrants or a “brokered” convention are highly unlikely.
Many prospective candidates never ran, perhaps because Team Obama will wage a fierce, personal and dirty campaign, Chicago-style. The White House can’t run on its record, but no one should underestimate Mr Obama’s skills as a campaigner, which far exceed his governing capacity.
In Iowa, two conventional wisdoms will face off. The old school holds that extensive organisation in its 93 counties (“the ground game”) is crucial: candidates who do not meticulously organise down to precinct level will fail, as Hillary Clinton did in 2008. The new school contends that press coverage, the 18 candidates’ debates and the internet and social media have transformed the political landscape, creating virtual organisations to do what precinct captains and phone-banks once did.
Whatever the poll fluctuations, the one steady name has been the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He came close to beating John McCain in 2008, and, in traditional Republican fashion, many believe it is “his turn”. He is a proven business executive, a consistent, although not flashy, debater and has an apparently impeccable personal life. Nonetheless, Romney has had to fight charges of flip-flopping on issues such as abortion and gun control. Then there is “the Mormon thing”, a nomination issue among some evangelicals, and an election issue for leftist/secularists who don’t like any religion, especially Mormonism.
Previously ahead in Iowa, but now falling behind, the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is the best debater, but his Speakership was controversial and his personal life has been complicated. Mr Gingrich argues that he has matured and is ready for the presidency. Redemption has historically been a powerful and often successful paradigm in American politics, and he is the latest to test it.
Ron Paul, the most libertarian candidate, whose foreign policy views are often indistinguishable from the radical left, is reputed to have a strong Iowa organisation and could finish second or even first. Under no circumstances, however, will he win the nomination. In fact, Mr Paul may be the wild card if he runs as a quixotic third-party candidate in November, siphoning off Republican votes in key states and allowing Mr Obama to squeak through to a second term. This is the Republican nightmare.
Rick Santorum is the most recent candidate to surge in the polls, and his timing may turn out to be the best. He is competing with the Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has recovered from early debate stumbles and has a strong Iowa ground game. Mr Santorum and Mr Perry both have impressive support among “values voters” and could gain strength from Republicans who turn away from Mr Gingrich and Mr Paul.
Michele Bachmann, although an Iowa native daughter, has fallen rapidly in recent days, and Jon Huntsman is a mere blip in the state.
My guess? The Iowa result will be muddled, making New Hampshire critical, especially for Mr Romney, who must win convincingly in a state next door to Massachusetts. Primaries in South Carolina and Florida follow rapidly in January, perhaps affording the “not Romneys” a chance to compete effectively, thereby signalling a long battle all the way to the Tampa convention, along the lines of the 2008 Democratic Obama-Clinton contest.
With the exception of Mr Paul and Mr Huntsman, all the Republicans are strong advocates of a robust US national security policy, vigorously waging the war on terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. If the Republicans win in November, America’s allies can breathe a sigh of relief, and its adversaries should take note: no more bowing to foreign rulers, no more worldwide apology tours for America’s past transgressions. We will be back on track for the next American century.
John Bolton is the former US Ambassador to the United Nations. This article was originally published by the Times of London.