I don’t think that the mainstream media are off entirely in considering the field of Republican presidential contenders wanting. The entry of Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman really brought it home to me. Who is their constituency? Huntsman is the perfect Republican candidate — of the Washington Post, perhaps. The Wall Street Journal article on Huntsman’s announcement asserted that independents were his target, which may be the case. The guy all but offers an explicitly muted trumpet. As for Newt, we remain grateful for his insight and his historic achievement. But didn’t we all have enough by 1996 or so? There is no constituency for his candidacy.
I think I’m a mainstream conservative Republican. In 1976 I went out on a cold February night in St. Paul to support Ronald Reagan against Gerald Ford in the Republican state caucuses, and have supported the rightwardmost viable candidate in the Republican field ever since. But if Tim Pawlenty is my second choice this year, to take one candidate I would be happy to support if he were the nominee, I don’t have a first choice.
The only Republican with an obvious constituency is Sarah Palin, and her constituency is diminishing. Her constituency is essentially the Tea Party movement. In her absence from the field, Michele Bachmann seeks to fill the Tea Party space. Bachmann is right to see the opening and she has given some evidence of being able to fill it.
The emergence of the Tea Party movement is the most hopeful political conservative development since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It has raised the question of limited constitutional government in a way that has been missing from presidential politics since Reagan departed the scene. We badly need a candidate who can capture the essence of the Tea Party movement.
I look at the field in terms of the space each candidate seeks to occupy. Last time around, Romney sought to occupy the conservative space. That’s the right space to occupy in the field of contenders on the Republican side, but Romney turned out to be a tough sell as a conservative. He’s still a tough sell on that score, and he has the increasing weight of Romneycare tied to his ankles.
Like a smart businessman, Romney seems to have adjusted his marketing this time around. This year, ironically, he’s John McCain — the McCain of 2008, the successor in waiting from the last time around. Tim Pawlenty is Romney of 2008. He seeks to occupy the conservative space in the field.
Barack Obama has created additional space for a Republican presidential candidate. Who can take the argument to Obama? Who can go toe to toe with him and put him on the defensive? Who can make the case for the restoration of limited government? I think those are the questions in the minds of a lot of Republican voters like me. They are the questions that create space for a candidate such as Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and Rick Perry, each in his own way. I think that each of the serious Republican candidates would make a far better president than Barack Obama, but there is a vacant space in the current field.
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