It is ridiculously early to even begin discussing the Republican field for the 2012 presidential election - hell, it's still too early to really talk about the 2010 midterms - but let's do it anyway. Why bother? Because there is a really interesting dynamic shaping up within the GOP concerning the next presidential election cycle that deserves notice, and besides, it's fun.
Many within the opinion-making pundit class of the news media have been prophesying doom for President Obama and the Democratic Party's control of Congress in 2010. As stated before, it is far too early to begin making '10 Congressional predictions, but the Democrats and Obama definitely have reasons for concern. Several Democratic congressmen have announced they will be retiring at the end of their terms, and four Democratic senators - Harry Reid, Blanche Lincoln, Arlen Specter and Michael Bennet - are looking down the barrel of almost certain defeat unless circumstances change dramatically in their favor.
Analysts like Nate Silver predict the GOP has only a slim chance of toppling the Democratic majority, but predicts an equally slim chance of the Democrats retaining the sizable majority they currently enjoy. They'll hold Congress, it seems, but not by much. The outlook could be worse for the Obama administration, given recent history. President Clinton lost control of Congress altogether after the first midterm elections of his administration, a fact that radically altered the political landscape of the day and ultimately led to his impeachment.
Whatever happens in 2010 won't be nearly as cataclysmic as the 1994 midterms were for the Democrats, barring an unforeseen political collapse of biblical proportions. Still, the loss of a substantial number of seats would be seen as a blow to the Obama administration and, like as not, be widely interpreted as a referendum on his presidency that imperils his chances of re-election. Whether or not there is any validity to the claim is moot; if the Democrats lose a bunch of seats, that is how it will be spun: Obama is in trouble in '12.
The thing is, that's almost certainly not going to be as true as the chattering classes will say it is, and for one reason: the GOP field. The best thing Obama has going for him is the crew preparing to run against him, and against each other, the next time around.
There are Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, and John Thune, senator from South Dakota, both of whom lack the resources and star power to make a splash in the primaries. Mike Pence, congressman from Indiana, suffers from similar constraints, and still may run against Evan Bayh for his Senate seat. Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich are all also maybes, and each carries his own serious baggage into any electoral arena. New York Gov. George Pataki might run, but he will likely be annihilated in the primaries by the GOP base for his support of abortion rights and gun control. A few other names are being floated around as well, but like the others, ultimately have either too many flaws, too little money or too low a profile to be considered serious contenders.
There are two other names being bandied about right now as potential candidates, and their inclusion in any GOP primary races in 2012 will highlight the other glaring problem within the Republican ranks. The first of these is Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and a candidate for president in 2008. Romney is widely considered to be the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2012, an attractive candidate for many Republicans due to his business experience and whose personal wealth will make him a formidable opponent in any primary election.
The other potential candidate being talked up these days is none other than Sarah Palin, who was recently bestowed with a veneer of legitimacy by none other than David Broder of The Washington Post ("The lady is good," saith the dean of the Washington press corps), despite the fact that Broder's own paper ran a poll recently showing 71 percent of Americans think she's dangerously unqualified for the office. Of that, only 45 percent of Republicans believe her to be qualified. These two numbers, taken together, should be enough to sound the death knell for any nascent Palin presidential campaign.
The problem here for the GOP is the very real probability that Palin will run anyway, carried on a tide of in-the-bubble devotion by the so-called "Tea Bagger" revolutionaries that now pepper the ranks of the GOP base. These 'Baggers will convince her to run no matter how stacked the odds are against her, and from that will come an electoral nightmare for the GOP, for Romney or for any other candidate who may later supplant Romney as the front-runner.
Recall the Republican primary season of 2008. The three most likely candidates to win the nomination were Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. None of the three was particularly beloved by the GOP base, whose opinion and votes are all-important in GOP primaries. As the primaries wore on, however, neither Romney or Giuliani could win enough delegates to break away from the pack, and for one reason: Mike Huckabee. Huckabee was the darling of the GOP base, and siphoned away base voters from Romney and Giuliani every time their names appeared on the ballot. Huckabee had no chance of winning himself, but stayed in the race just long enough to doom the Romney and Giuliani campaigns. In the end, McCain won almost by default.
Those Huckabee supporters of yesterday have transmogrified into today's Tea Bagger movement, which spells bad trouble for Romney if Palin does indeed decide to enter the race. She will suck up those votes away from Romney, just as Huckabee did two years ago. If Romney wins the nomination this time, he will emerge from the primaries badly damaged, facing the wrath of the GOP base for defeating their darling. If Palin upends his campaign, some other also-ran will wind up with the nomination and stand even less of a chance at winning in the general election. If the improbable happens and Palin somehow wins the thing, well, I for one will be watching that general election campaign with a big box of popcorn and a gigantic smile on my face.
It's entirely possible we will see this exact scenario play out in 2012. Romney still has trouble with the GOP base due to his flip-flop on abortion, and because much of the GOP base thinks Mormonism is a cult. He has the money and status to make a strong run, but if Palin and the 'Baggers outflank him on the right, It could easily be the Huckabee phenomenon all over again. He could tap her as his VP candidate, but only if someone duct-tapes McCain's mouth closed so he can't call Mitt to warn him against such historically established bad judgment (and a P.S. out of Massachusetts: if Palin runs, look for her to tap the newest Ken Doll Republican, Scott Brown, for the VP spot; he has to run again in two years, and the odds of surviving another bout with Massachusetts voters might be longer than he's willing to risk, making the VP slot attractive no matter who he winds up standing next to).
The 'Baggers want more than anything to shake up and "purify" the existing GOP, and would dearly love to use Palin as their vehicle to do so. If she gets into the race, Romney and the GOP had better start game-planning for how to keep her from blowing up the race and handing victory to Obama, who is, if nothing else, a consummate campaigner. If they don't figure out a way to avoid another Huckabee-esqe debacle, the Obama re-election campaign will wind up smiling their way to a second term.