Commentary: Will Republicans hold the cards in the 2012 election?
WASHINGTON -- Asked three weeks ago if he would like to run for president, Mitch Daniels replied, "What sane person would like to?"
His decision against running, following Haley Barbour's and Mike Huckabee's decisions, illuminates a political asymmetry: Liberals think government, and hence politics, should be life's epicenter; conservatives do not.
Days before Daniels decided not to sacrifice his family's happiness for politics, he was asked about possible running mates. He said he would like to pick Condoleezza Rice, who happens to favor abortion rights. This quickened fears that he is indifferent to social issues important to the Republican nominating electorate, and that he might restore Bush administration persons and policies. A Daniels candidacy would have been difficult.
Daniels was mentioned, as Mitt Romney is, as the choice of the Republican "establishment." It, however, died even before its bulletin board, the New York Herald Tribune, did in 1966. The establishment was interred in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was nominated.
Today, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint is the closest approximation of a Republican kingmaker, because since 1980 the candidate who has carried his state has won the nomination, and because the tea party trusts him. In 2008, he supported Romney. Two months ago, according to what The Hill newspaper calls "a source close to DeMint," the senator would "never consider" doing so again unless Romney renounced his Massachusetts health care law as "a colossal mistake." Subsequently, Romney decided to do the opposite.
Daniels' and Romney's decisions have made May an accelerating month for Tim Pawlenty, former two-term governor of the only state to vote Democratic in nine consecutive presidential elections -- arguably the most conservative governor in Minnesota's history.
To make the most of his momentum he should stop criticizing Barack Obama's Libyan intervention as insufficiently ambitious. Sounding like a dime store Teddy Roosevelt (the real TR was bad enough), Pawlenty recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "I would tell Gaddafi he's got X number of days to get his affairs in order and go or we're going to go get him."
Such chest-thumping bluster is not presidential, and is not Pawlenty's real persona. He actually is a temperate Midwesterner, socially and fiscally conservative. He is, as were almost half the participants in the 2008 Republican nominating events, an evangelical Christian, well-positioned to inherit much of this cohort, which made Huckabee the winner of Iowa's 2008 caucuses.
The nomination is well worth winning. Alex Castellanos, an astute Republican consultant, notes (in The Daily Caller) that in 2008, Obama "held the best hand of cards" dealt to a candidate in living memory -- a discredited GOP, a too-familiar 72-year-old opponent, an economic meltdown and, especially, George W. Bush: Obama won all, but only, states where Bush's favorable rating was below 35 percent. Still, even then, when Obama was a relatively blank slate, he won only 53 percent of the popular vote. He cannot be a novelty and the nation's Rorschach test twice.
There are many paths to 270 Republican electoral votes. Of the 10 states that will lose electoral votes because of the 2010 census, Obama carried eight in 2008. The states John McCain carried then had 173 electoral votes and now have 180. A Republican nominee who holds those and adds Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia and Nevada has 272 electoral votes.
In Pennsylvania, which has voted Democratic in five consecutive presidential elections, a late-April Quinnipiac poll showed independents disapproving of Obama's job performance by a 20-point margin, 57-to-37, with a majority of Pennsylvanians saying he did not deserve re-election. If he loses Pennsylvania, where Republicans gained five House seats last year, he is unlikely to win Ohio -- Republicans also gained five seats there -- or a second term.
June will be the 762nd month since January 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began calculating the unemployment rate. And June will be the 68th month since 1948 with the rate at 8 percent or higher -- the 29th such month under Obama. So 43 percent of the most severe unemployment in the last 63 years has occurred in the last two and half years. No postwar president has sought re-election with 8 percent unemployment.
The recession ended in June 2009, yet a late-April Gallup poll showed 55 percent of Americans describing the economy as in a recession or depression. Hence 78 percent are dissatisfied with the country's direction.
In 1960, candidate John Kennedy's mantra was, "I think we can do better." In 2012, a Republican can win by re-casting that as a question: "Is this the best we can do?"
George Will's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.