Republican Delusion is Obama's All-Too-Secret Weapon
When exactly did Republicans seemingly become so delusional?
The first sign that the GOP base had left the gravitational pull of the rational earth in the Obama era was when professional blowhard Donald Trump shot to the top of the presidential polls on the strength of his bogus birth certificate crusade. Fortunately, that particular problem took care of itself (at least for now), but the overall situation may have actually gotten worse. The most troubling part is that the vast majority of the party's rank and file seems to have no idea the peril its prospects of unseating President Obama are really in.
There is no doubt that Obama is very vulnerable, far more so than most observers (including me) believed likely when he was swept into office by a tidal wave of biased media coverage less than three years ago. His approval ratings are in the low forties, and in many of the battleground states he appears to be a heavy underdog. The census-induced changes in the Electoral College slice his margin of error to almost nothing, and the economy shows very little sign of improving enough to rescue him. He has also left a trail of damningly false televised statements which should make for great attack ad fodder.
And yet the Republican Party appears on the verge of making Obama's reelection about as likely as the circumstances surrounding his presidency would make possible. Consequently, this golden opportunity to help the country largely dodge the Obama bullet is on the verge of being squandered.
While the vast majority of conservatives (including many prominent commentators) would find that notion laughable, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that, thanks largely to their predilection for seeing reality through overly optimistic and star-spangled glasses, they are dangerously out of touch.
The first misunderstanding that has led to this dangerous case of Republican hubris is the nature of the polling data. When the average conservative thirsting to see Obama be a one-termer hears that his "approval rating" is in the low forties (or even lower) they seem to think this means that almost sixty percent of the voting public has decided that they are unlikely to vote for him next year, but this is far from the truth.
Plenty of people have no problem saying now that they "disapprove" of a president in 2011 and still decide not to vote him out of office in 2012. In fact, saying they "disapprove" of the president's job performance doesn't even mean that they want him replaced at the instant they are asked.
The best way to think of this may be to consider the president as the national spouse. Plenty of wives may say at any given moment (especially when the honeymoon is long over and things seem to be going poorly) that they "disapprove" of the job that their husband is doing, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily going to leave him for someone else, particularly when there is no other specific option available at the time.
Another red herring in the political data is the "Obama vs. Generic Republican" number, which could not be more deceiving. Currently, Obama regularly loses nationally to this fictitious candidate, but if anything, these numbers show just how unlikely it really is that he will actually be defeated. When a poll respondent processes that question they conjure up the image of Republican who has no major blemishes and has yet to have their entire careers picked apart by a media all too eager to destroy them.
The only thing this number really means is how high the eventual Republican candidate's vote total could be. Unfortunately, this data currently actually provides good news for Obama because while he has lost at least once to the mythical untarnished Republican, this nonexistent challenger still has yet to get over 50 percent of the vote. Currently, despite all of his recent problems, no named candidate comes close to beating Obama in an actual head to head matchup except Mitt Romney.
Of course, none of the leading or even potential Republican candidates comes close to fitting the 'generic" description either. Ironically, the one candidate who came by far the closest, Tim Pawlenty, ended up, through little fault of his own, being the very first to be knocked out of the race.
The early demise of the Pawlenty campaign tells you everything you need to know about how this delusion/ignorance regarding political realities is stunting the Republican nominating process in a way Obama should only be able to dream about. Pawlenty was the one candidate who clearly would have made the election an unambiguous referendum on Obama. That is a battle which, even with the media on his side, the president cannot win unless the economy makes an unexpected recovery.
Pawlenty's campaign was doomed by some of the very qualities which made it so attractive to those who understand how a national presidential election works in the modern age. He was seen as "boring" by a Republican electorate that is clearly looking to be highly stimulated. But in his case 'boring" also meant "electable."
He would have provided very little ammunition for the forces traditionally set to obliterate the Republican candidate. His record was strong and inoffensive, he didn't say things that the press could make sound outrageous, and he wasn't too rich, dumb, old, corrupt, crazy or racist (the usual laundry list of attack points on Republican candidates). In short, he was nearly the perfect candidate to run against Obama, and yet he barely got out of the starting gate, mostly because, as he said, the "audience" (which polls indicate believes electability is the most important quality in a nominee) was looking for something different.
Unfortunately for Pawlenty, he was either unwilling or unable to even make this argument. A couple of months ago at an event in Los Angeles attended by hundreds of conservatives in the entertainment industry (yes, they do exist), I asked Pawlenty during the Q and A how he planned to communicate the reality that he obviously had the best, and perhaps only, chance to beat Obama.
In a moment that directly foreshadowed his "Obamnycare" debate debacle, the former governor balked at the opportunity I presented him in a way that is emblematic of this issue of Republican overconfidence. Pawlenty's answer not only didn't augment the argument for his campaign, it actually destroyed it. He didn't accept the premise that he was the only candidate who could beat Obama and attacked the notion that the president was going to be particularly difficult to take down, saying that it would be a mistake to overestimate his electoral strength.
Well, even forgetting the obvious dangers of underestimating Obama, why wouldn't the base go for a "sexier" option if nearly anyone could slay this Democratic dragon? He was basically saying, "If you don't like me, go ahead and take a flyer on a riskier candidate."
That is exactly what the Republican base is in the process of doing.
As of now, there is only one current candidate who, barring a total economic collapse, has even the slightest chance of beating Obama and he (Romney) is distrusted by at least half of the Republican electorate. This is not simply a matter of opinion. The facts overwhelmingly point towards this conclusion as being patently obvious.
Even most Republicans would admit that Ron Paul (foreign policy dove/nut), Rick Santorum (just google his name and homosexuality) and Herman Cain (the Muslim issue and lack of experience) can't possibly win a general election, especially against a media darling like Obama. It also seems to be accepted wisdom that Newt Gingrich (his global warming commercial with Nancy Pelosi and his Paul Ryan comments) and Jon Huntsman (worked for and praised Obama) can't possibly win the nomination.
This of course leaves Romney along with, for now, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Regardless of what Tea Party activists will tell you, neither Bachmann nor Perry has any chance to defeat Obama unless there is an economic catastrophe or massive scandal between now and the election. This would be the case if both of these candidates didn't hold policy positions (which they do) that the media will easily be able to use to make them seem far outside the mainstream.
This argument can be made almost entirely without even looking at their politics (a factor, by the way, which is becoming increasingly overrated as the electorate becomes more ignorant and frivolous). One need only see how the basic narratives of the general election would take hold with each candidate as the nominee to see that Obama would win, probably easily.
In the case of Bachmann, she would be trying to become the first female president (ask Hillary Clinton about how tough that is just on its own) with the added burden of being seen by the media as a near clone of Sarah Palin, who herself has already been, largely wrongly, destroyed in the eyes of sixty percent of the public. Heck, Saturday Night Live already uses a Bachmann character that is just as devastating as their Palin impression was.
On top of that, she would be trying to become the first congressperson to be elected president in the modern history of the country -- during a time period when Congress is probably the most unpopular it has ever been. If that weren't enough, Bachmann leads the portion of that Congress (the Tea Party caucus) which is by far the scariest and easily demonized to non conservative portions of the country.
Heck, even if everything broke her way (which the media would never allow), the statement about her from her own former governor, Tim Pawlenty, at the last debate, where he mocked her lack of accomplishments in Congress would be played on a televised loop until Obama got over the top.
Quite simply, even if she were qualified and politically sound (two very questionable presumptions) Bachmann could never beat Obama without some sort of massive disaster hitting the country or his campaign.
The Perry problem is only slightly less definitive. At least he has been the governor of a major state for the past ten years and has a plausibly sellable record. Unfortunately, thanks to that state being Texas, the negative narrative about his candidacy almost literally writes itself. It took all of one day on the campaign trail for comedians to practically quote Perry when joking that the big difference between him and the roundly vilified George W. Bush is that the famously "stupid" former president is better educated.
Thanks to the obvious comparisons to Bush (they were even both on school cheerleading squads!) Perry will be far easier to negatively caricature than even Bachmann. His free-wheeling campaign/speaking style will provide fertile ground from which the media will inevitably reap a bounty of easily manipulated sound bites. His rant on the Federal Reserve chairman was a classic example. The fact that he was correct on the issue and said "almost treasonous" was completely (and purposely) lost in the coverage of that event.
Should Perry get the nomination, this phenomenon would only get more pronounced. While Perry would likely fight back (perhaps the one characteristic that truly separates him from Bush) and hold his own, his record of accomplishments would not be enough to sustain him against the inevitable onslaught. For one thing, Texas is in the middle of its worst drought in a generation and by election time Perry's economic stats will not look nearly as impressive as they do today, especially when put in the biased light shined on them by the pro-Obama media.
So now we are left with only Romney or a late entry into the race. There appear to still be two legitimate possible future candidates: Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin.
Since he is a congressman and a Tea Party favorite, Ryan has many of the same disadvantages in his narrative that Bachmann does, but without the attention grabber of being a woman. While he is clearly brilliant, he has the great misfortune of having already put down his plan to save the country in detailed writing. This would provide the Obama campaign team far too many attack points where the rebuttal would take more than the six seconds the tiny attention span of the media and the public would allow him to explain why electing him wouldn't really mean the end of Medicare and Social Security.
If we lived in a country where facts and details mattered and where courage and intellect were rewarded, Ryan would at least have a shot. Sadly, we don't and he doesn't.
As a legitimate Sarah Palin expert, I have written extensively (at great personal cost) about how her premature resignation as governor of Alaska completely disqualifies her as the person who should take on Obama. Even if she hadn't already been unfairly destroyed during the 2008 election, quitting her only major job, in a way that appears to have been designed for her to stay famous and get rich, would make it impossible for her to take on an incumbent president. Not surprisingly, in nearly every head-to-head poll Palin does worse against Obama than every other Republican candidate. Her fans have seemingly forgotten about the resignation, but were she ever to get the nomination the nation would be reminded of it on a daily basis.
That leaves only Mitt Romney as the last hope.
This is not to say that Romney doesn't have "issues" even in a general election, because he does as well. Being a Mormon won't help, though the media will really have to do gymnastics to justify this as an issue after the way they protected Obama on the Rev. Wright scandal in 2008. His business record as a job cutter would certainly be exploited and his personal wealth would play right into the class warfare campaign the Obama forces intend to run (which is why Pawlenty should have been the nominee). Finally, his penchant for changing positions would potentially allow him to be cast as the Republican equivalent of John Kerry.
While these circumstances are hardly ideal, against a weakened Obama they can be overcome. None of them rises to the level of a "disqualifier" and together they are still less dangerous than the negatives in any of the other candidates. Plus, Romney would have the ability to win key states like Michigan and New Hampshire which would be clearly out of reach for Bachmann or Perry. Then, of course, there is the fact that he looks and sounds more like a president than perhaps anyone else who has ever run for the office. Unfortunately, that seems to matter more than just about anything else these days.
While the evidence (both from polling and observational data) strongly indicates Romney has the best chance to beat the Obama candidacy the Republicans are most likely to face in 2012, his biggest problem appears to be that while the base claims electability is the most important quality it is looking for, it doesn't yet understand that he may be the only person with a real shot.
It is also possible that, much like a young woman on the dating scene, what the Republican base says it wants and what it really desires are two very different things. They have already discarded the "nice" guy who would have been best for them in the long run (Pawlenty) and are now enamored with the latest "bad boy" (Perry) who is exciting but who has very little "marriage" potential.
In short, Romney is in great danger of being left at the alter by a base which wrongly thinks that Obama's weakness has left them free to follow their hearts instead of their brains.
So, how it is all going to work out? Obviously, no one knows for sure, but here is my best analysis.
I continue to believe that Sarah Palin has no choice but to get in the race. While I am no longer in contact with her or her team after I came out against her running, everything I observed from the "inside" indicated to me that she was very open to running and nothing since then has changed my mind about that.
Her brand depends on her running because if she doesn't, her followers will feel let down and she will have no apparent next act. Once there are two new nominees on the 2012 ticket, she is old news with no office to change her narrative. By 2016 she would be ancient history with either a Republican president in office or with a brand new crop of highly qualified challengers ready to pounce on what should be the slam dunk of replacing a term-limited Obama.
My prediction is that she gets in and runs almost exclusively an air war intended to create the appearance of a real primary campaign without any of the hassles. She knows that her vote is pretty much set in stone and it won't be impacted much, if at all, by creating a traditional organization. If she is as smart as I think she is, her goal would be to exceed low expectations and finish a respectable second to Romney and thus use the campaign to change minds about her for the future. In a sense, she would then become a hybrid of Romney and Mike Huckabee after 2008: technically "unemployed" but well known and respected enough to sustain her viability into the future.
Weirdly, one of the reasons I am convinced Palin will get in is that there is actually a chance she could come "close" to winning the nomination. The spotlight of scrutiny is already directly on Bachmann and Perry and it is possible that one or both could either evaporate or at least wear thin in an era when two months is an eternity.
If things break her way, she could end up as the last Tea Party Star standing up against Romney (not counting Ron Paul) and it would be possible that Romney would not be popular enough with the base to reach the vote threshold needed to put her away. Still, she could not beat Romney in a protracted battle because, as Obama proved in 2008, winning a delegate battle is still all about organization, an area when Romney would dominate Palin, who frankly may not even want to actually win the nomination.
In that sense, Palin entering the race would probably be the best development the Romney campaign could hope for. She would immediately split votes from Bachmann and Perry and simultaneously raise the issue of electability to the front burner. Ironically, the fact that she probably helps Romney would be the only genuine excuse Palin could use at this point not to run.
An entry by Ryan seems less easy to predict both in likelihood and potential impact. Like Palin, he would probably hurt Bachmann most, but he could also take votes from Romney. Having him in the debates would definitely change their tenor and tone in a way that would heighten their substantive nature, but also may have negative consequences for the eventual nominee in a general election. For instance, I doubt that Romney would look forward to having to either embrace Ryan's plan on camera and hurt himself in a the general, or reject it and further turn off the base. Ryan is definitely a wild card, but my gut tells me he will not get in, especially if it becomes clear that Palin will.
As far as the potential implosions of Bachmann and Perry, this will not happen as easily as it may have in past cycles. This is where Obama's current weakness may end up as his greatest strength.
If Obama was perceived as nearly unbeatable, the Republican base would be far more sensitive towards the obvious signs that Bachmann and Perry can't play to a national audience. But now the base is so suspicious of "moderation" (especially after John McCain) that any attacks from the media/left are seen as a badge of honor by those who will be voting in the early primary states. As shown by Bachmann's victory in Ames the week of her "crazy eyes" Newsweek cover photo, the more a candidate is seen as the target of the left, the more they are instinctively trusted by the hard right, even when there is little or no logic to such support. It is also important to point out that the conservative media has shown itself extremely hesitant to strongly criticize any Republican candidate with a following (Palin being a prime example) for fear of losing their fans as customers.
If Obama were really smart (I know what you are thinking), he would spend every day ripping/mocking Bachmann and Perry and praising Romney. Doing so would single handedly make it almost impossible for Romney to win the nomination.
This is not to say that Bachmann and Perry can't fade away by the time South Carolina comes around. Bachmann will be vulnerable to a run by Palin and Perry will now have to deal with the absurdly high expectations of a frontrunner which would make anything less than a second place finish in Iowa a campaign killer. Assuming Palin gets in the race, only one of the Bachmann/Perry duo (likely the one who wins Iowa) makes it to South Carolina as a still viable candidate.
Palin, on the other hand, thanks to her celebrity, low overhead, the overwhelming desire of the news media to keep covering her, and lack of anything to lose, will be able to keep going as long as her bus doesn't break down.
This means South Carolina will likely come down to Romney, Palin, Paul and either Bachmann or Perry (probably Perry). In that scenario, if Romney finishes second (third at the very worst, which he barely did in 2008) he should be fine. Thanks to Michigan and Florida on the horizon, he should be able to outlast whoever wins South Carolina unless it is decidedly Perry. If Romney fails to meet this mark, it could create the nightmare scenario of a Perry, Palin and Paul death march to the finish, a race which would eventually be "won" by Perry.
One of the keys to the race is whether Palin catches fire in Iowa, which seems unlikely at this point. She is beloved by much of the base, but they also have grave suspicions about her electability. If she finishes third or worse in Iowa (which will happen without at least either Bachmann or Perry collapsing) the same will happen in New Hampshire and her greatest weakness will be set in stone, making it much easier for Romney to beat her in South Carolina. Again, her lack of organization and the fact that the establishment greatly fears her nomination, make it impossible for her to win a long slog, but how well she does will play a huge role in shaping the dynamic of the race.
In the end, Romney is still the favorite, but almost nothing can go wrong for him. Should he somehow lose the perception of being the most electable option, he would almost immediately be toast. He is like golfer Nick Faldo in the final round of the 1987 British Open: eighteen pars and he is the winner, but any major blunders and he will need a huge break to pull it out.
When it comes to the general election, there are two other important factors in Obama's favor that are being totally overlooked at this time. The first is that Obama will not just be running against an unpopular Congress, but rather against the even more powerful force of undivided government.
Americans have usually mistrusted too much power being in the hands of one party, but in today's toxic environment this trend is on steroids. Even in 2008, Obama benefited greatly from a massive misperception among his voters that Republicans still controlled Congress. In fact, according to two national polls I commissioned after the election, had voters been required to know that it was the Democratic Party which ruled Congress, Obama would have actually lost. Huge portions of the country had little or no idea that they would be handing one party total control of the political process.
In 2012, Obama will undoubtedly make sure that every voter knows that if he is replaced there is an excellent chance that Republicans will be in total command and that there will be nothing from keeping the Tea Party from sending the country into fiscal chaos. The debt ceiling debate will be made to work in his favor because he will be able to make it seem as if his defeat would cause the United States to default on its debt, with economic calamity certain to follow.
The "Obama as goalkeeper against the Tea Party" argument has the potential to be very powerful, especially with the media more than willing to help sell it and the president still personally popular. And yet I have yet to hear anyone even mention it.
The other unmentioned pro-Obama factor is even less likely to get any public conversation.
Thanks to the massive fragmentation of the media, the landscape of news outlets has been dramatically altered over the past decade. One of the many consequences of this reality has been that "news" organizations have been forced to make decisions base almost solely on business considerations and to become ideologically driven in order to attract and please a core audience.
The dirty little secret of this development is that it is actually economically beneficial for conservative outlets to have a Democratic president and for liberal ones to have a Republican commander in chief. In fact, about the only part of the economy that President Obama has dramatically improved is that of conservative commentary, especially that of Fox News whose ratings have never been better.
There is absolutely no doubt that conservative news/commentary outlets will have a profound self interest for Obama to remain in office. While many of them will not act on that self-interest, at least some of them undoubtedly will. I know this because a few of the most influential "conservative" sources took a dive for Obama in 2008 and have so far gotten away with it without their customers even having a clue.
Even if this problem somehow doesn't transpire, there is no doubt that the vast majority of media will be favoring Obama in 2012 almost as much as they did in 2008. If the conservative base hasn't yet learned the obvious lessons of that unprecedented display of "Media Malpractice," then perhaps they deserve to have history repeat itself.
It is not too late yet, but it is getting close.
John Ziegler is a former radio talk show host, television commentator, and author turned documentary filmmaker. His feature film, Media Malpractice...How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted was released nationwide via Video On Demand. You can find out more about that release here.