What the Ideal Conservative Candidate Needs (and Who Doesn't Have It)
The current field of potential Republican presidential contenders may leave something to be desired for both conservatives and independents. But voters against the Obama agenda should be reluctant to embrace simply anyone with a shot of defeating Obama.
The fractious and uninspiring debate prior to the Iowa straw poll was overshadowed by Texas Governor Rick Perry's ten-gallon hat, brusquely tossed into the ring. Perry's announcement presages other possible late arrivals to the primary square dance, like potential candidates John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, and Sarah Palin.
President Obama must have been very pleased with all the candidates at the debate, since nearly all of them projected an emotion likely to turn off either the conservatives or the independents -- both of whom the Republican Party candidate will need to mark an end to the president's reign of error. As radicals know all too well, not only do times of crisis lead to more cries for government to "do something" (except leave things alone), but they also lead people to evaluate political options and personalities more emotionally than rationally.
That being said, debates are all about optics. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and even the shrunken Ron Paul appeared angry at times -- an unappealing trait for nervous moderates. Tim Pawlenty struck this viewer sometimes as petty and defensive (a trait he shared with Michele Bachmann), others as mealy-mouthed and evasive (except for his untethered outburst at Bachmann and lazy jabs at Romney). Indeed, this weak and feckless posture could well have contributed to Pawlenty's eventual dropping out of the presidential race. Bachmann should take careful note -- and so should John Huntsman, who himself had more than a few mealy-mouthed moments. Herman Cain and Mitt Romney showed just about the right serious and dignified stature needed to stay above the fray. Strategically, this is the right move -- unless one is trailing as much as Cain.
Mitt was the default winner because he dodged tough questions fairly well, except in the minds of scrutinizing conservatives. Newt had a good showing, but he may be approaching into strong headwinds due to an establishment record that conflicts with his anti-establishment message.
Though conservative political junkies are paying close attention to the message, at this stage in the game, it's crucial for candidates to project the right image. Conservatives are dying for hope and inspiration, which was offered up in rare doses during the debate. They are looking for a contrast with Obama -- a firebrand who can give specifics and rebut "Mr. Cold." Moderates are looking for a savvy mind that can grasp our economic situation and give wonky specifics, while drawing a contrast between himself or herself and Obama.
Although no one candidate has this Reaganesque combination, there are some possible tickets, including some possible fresh faces in the fray, whose combination could resolve this dilemma. Lacking a super-candidate, what Republicans need is a team that can deliver both the fire to face-melt the Obama agenda and the cool to quell the anxieties of moderates and independents.
Strategically, the top of the ticket should be someone with the intellect, charm, and fire to take on Obama. The contrast in optics should be the candidate's engagement on the issues, viable solutions to our problems, and the fire in the belly to take on the task of vigorously managing our situation.
In my opinion, non-candidate Chris Christie suits this role very well, although many are opposed to his environmentalist tendencies and his perceived softness on jihad. Christie should get some credit from man-made global warming skeptics, however, for declaring that he will pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
Sarah Palin has the fiery demeanor to please conservatives, though she has not hammered home enough policy specifics to ease independent anxieties about her capacity to do the job. She also doesn't have the luxury of a mainstream media complex running cover for her. In fact, most media outlets openly hate her guts and would do everything in their power to savage her relentlessly during a presidential run -- not that she would back down, or that die-hard conservatives care.
John Bolton is a possibly excellent choice to play the role of someone who can deliver policy specifics that sway both conservatives and independents. Though he is not a firebrand, Bolton does have a certain dry wit and steady demeanor about him; unfortunately, this does not draw a clear image difference with Obama. Bolton should make a run at the top of the ticket but remain flexibly amenable to accepting some other role on the ultimate Republican team.
Rudy Giuliani, once upon a time, was a clear alternative to Barack Obama. Strong on national defense with solid executive experience, inspirational at times, and withering in his critiques, Rudy could have prevented the Obama presidency to begin with had he run a solid campaign. The question now is if his time has passed. His national visibility has diminished greatly since the tragic 9/11 attacks, a moment in history in which he shone.
The current presidential contenders are leaving something wanting -- some alchemy of fire and soul that projects as resolute and self-confident. All have some admirable qualities one would desire in a candidate, but are not yet to be found yet in a single candidate. Romney and Bachmann are the closest candidates so far to have shown the potential to find that perfect mix.
Barring some unforeseen character transformation, however, Republican voters might have to be satisfied with some complementary pair of contenders who can deliver the goods to beat Obama. The top of the ticket must have some kind of charm and the stature to stand toe-to-toe with Obama and not appear out of his or her element. This will be crucial to driving independents and moderates to the polls in droves.
The danger is if conservatives, in search of the perfect candidate, fall into the trap of waiting for some imagined ideal candidate to suddenly appear to change the field; recall the fleeting fervor the tough-talking but ultimately non-cogent Donald Trump elicited. They should beware the candidate who arrives late to the game, and whose serious flaws conservatives overlook as they seek out their own version of "hope and change."
The "anyone but Obama" approach is pretty much understood on the right. But conservatives should make sure that "anyone" is not only up to the task of taking Obama's seat in the Oval Office, but also capable of doing a good job once there.