Waiting for a Republican Leader

Business Times - 18 May 2011

Waiting for a Republican Leader

Current slate of contenders, except perhaps Tim Pawlenty, will find the going tough given their real or perceived failings


A FEW nights ago, five candidates for the 2012 presidential election gathered for an early debate that touched upon domestic and foreign policy issues. Two of the five taking part in the televised debates - a member of the House of Representatives from a southern state and a former governor of a large state - argued that the time has come to bring an end to Washington's War on Drugs.

In fact, one of the two presidential candidates hoping to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama next year expressed support for legalising drugs, agreeing with the suggestion that heroin and prostitution were an 'exercise of liberty', and insisting that he would leave it to the states to make that decision on whether to de-criminalise them.

Based on these sound bites, you may have concluded that this was the first debate between the candidates running for the nomination of either the Green Party or the Libertarian Party for the 2012 presidential candidate.

It is true that many serious legal minds have argued that prohibiting the selling of drugs is one of the reasons that it has become such a profitable criminal enterprise and have been advocating that the government take steps to legalise some drugs, starting with marijuana.

But you don't have to be a political mind to predict that a candidate calling for legalising drugs, or, for that matter, prostitution, has a zero chance of winning any presidential race any time soon. That explains why the issue hasn't been raised by any Democratic or Republican presidential candidate in any of the recent election campaign. That is, until last week when two candidates taking part in the first debate among the Republican Party's five declared presidential contenders did just that. These anti-prohibition candidates - Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson - joined three other Republicans - Herman Cain, an African-American former pizza company executive and radio talk-show host; Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator; and Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor - for the gathering in South Carolina which was broadcast live on FOX News television.

That none of the five are household names, and, with the exception of Mr Pawlenty, have a good chance of even winning their party's nomination for president is a reflection of one of the major problems facing the Republican Party - which seemed to have gained huge electoral momentum after the gains it made during the 2010 mid-term Congressional election - next year.

The fact is that many of those Republican figures with name recognition and/or personal charisma and/or political following and/or financial resources don't seem to have the resolve to take on Mr Obama next year. And those who are ready to do that confront huge obstacles in trying to win the support of their party's 'base' - the axis of right-wing activists affiliated with the Tea Party and conservative Christians who are going to play a critical role in the presidential primaries - and then to beat the current White House occupant in the national election.

Indeed, Haley Barbour, the popular and relatively successful governor of Mississippi, an early presidential hopeful, has already announced that he was dropping out of the race. At the same time, two of the top favourites of the tea partiers and other members of the 'base' - former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Alaska governor and former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin seem to have concluded that they may not be able to amass the financial resources that is necessary to launch a national campaign and are more interested in keeping their lucrative jobs as FOX News pundits.

And then, there is the presumptive presidential front-runner, former Massachusetts governor and business executive Mitt Romney who enjoys the support of members of the Republican Party's political establishment, who in turn believe that he has the persona and experience and relatively moderate positions to help him win in a race against Mr Obama.

Double jeopardy

But as Massachusetts governor, Mr Romney was responsible for enacting the state's healthcare system which served as a model for the national healthcare programme that Mr Obama and the Democrats helped pass in Congress. And since the Republicans and the Tea Party regard the so-called Obamacare as a symbol of the Democratic president's 'socialist' agenda, it would be very difficult for Mr Romney to gain the support of the 'base' during the primaries. And Mr Romney is also member of the Mormon Church which is regarded as a 'sect' by many conservative Christians.

So, in these circumstances, it does make a lot of sense that the 52-year-old Mr Pawlenty, a popular and successful former governor of a Midwestern 'purple' state - one that can go either Democratic or Republican - is now considered the 'dark horse' in the race, who may have a chance in convincing the Republican 'base' during the primaries that he is conservative enough while marketing himself to the rest of the voters in November as a moderate and effective presidential contender.

More hurdles

But making Mr Pawlenty's life difficult will be not only the other four candidates that appeared in last week's Republican debate, but also billionaire and television celebrity Donald Trump who is still eyeing the Republican nomination and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who announced (on YouTube) that he was joining the race a few days after the South Carolina gathering.

While no one would question Mr Gingrich's intellectual standing or his support for conservative values, the portly and ageing politician (he will be 70 next year) who had gone through several adulterous affairs and two messy divorces is not the kind of political figure that the Republicans would want to see facing Mr Obama next year.

Indeed, Mr Gingrich and the other Republicans recognise that it has always been very difficult for any challenger to defeat an incumbent US president, especially one who presided over the killing of America's Public Enemy No 1.

But then again, no incumbent US president presiding over an economy with an unemployment rate over 7.3 per cent has ever won re-election.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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