When I learned that the first debate among 2012 Republican presidential candidates had been scheduled for next spring — yes, it's nearly that time again — I pondered these questions:
* Given the crowded field of eager prospects (by my count, at least nine), will there be enough room on that stage for everybody? Or will they have to be stacked vertically in neat rows of three, like on "The Hollywood Squares"?
* In a reprise of 2007, will we again find out how many Republican candidates believe in creationism, courtesy of a show of hands? Or will they all show up brandishing some math-challenged tea-party manifesto that requires them to erase the deficit by slashing taxes and ensuring that the government keeps its grubby hands off people's Social Security and Medicare?
* Most important, why, oh, why would anybody with an ounce of cognitive sanity want the thankless job of presiding over the intractable American cacophony as our pinata-in-chief?
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The core answer to that one is pretty obvious. It's ego. There's always the chance, however remote, of having one's face chiseled in granite for eternity, with generations of grateful Washington, D.C., tourists paying homage. Why else would Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin (x) (I'll explain the "x"), Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, John Thune, Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Jim DeMint and Rick Santorum even remotely contemplate spending the next 14 months cruising the back roads of rural Iowa?
Granted, those on that potential list would insist that they seek only to fix our problems and restore the nation's greatness. But here's the problem: President Obama's re-election prospects will markedly improve if the economy bounces back; the GOP's prospects are strongest if the economy stays in the pits.
Which means that any new Republican, by definition, is likely to be saddled with the same headaches that currently plague Obama — notably, the need to cure serious economic ills by making tough choices that are tantamount to political suicide in an ideologically polarized environment dominated by special interests and a trash-talking 24/7 cable and digital news cycle.
You think Obama has problems with his liberal base? Just imagine how the tea partiers would react if a new Republican president publicly contemplated a tax hike, as part of a broader plan to close the deficit. Many in the conservative base would assail such a move as a betrayal of Ronald Reagan (forgetting, of course, that Reagan himself signed a succession of tax hikes), and there would be heaps of denigrating snark from the identically blond anchorwomen on Fox News.
But candidates at the start of a race never foresee such a fate. Right now, the likely Republicans are too busy playing the ritual game of peekaboo (the peripatetic Romney: "I haven't made the decision"); raising scads of money (just for the opening round in Iowa and New Hampshire, a candidate will need $35 million); publishing ghostwritten books, all the while insisting that the timing has nothing to do with 2012 (Gingrich, Jindal, Perry, DeMint); and worrying about the grizzly in the room, Palin (x).
The "x" refers to the fact that nobody has a clue what she'll do. Nor, in all likelihood, does she. Right now she's making piles of money and sounding off whenever she wants on whatever. She can shape conservative minds by dropping a pungent phrase on Facebook. She can dwell happily within the friendly confines of Fox, where she is a paid contributor. (Gingrich and Huckabee are on the Fox payroll as well. Not to digress, but I do want to ask a question: If MSNBC ever had three prospective Democratic presidential candidates on its payroll, wouldn't conservatives be screaming nonstop about "liberal media bias"?)
It remains to be seen whether Palin will trade her cushy life for the rigorous accountability of a presidential campaign, during which it would again become clear how little she knows. On her new reality TV show, while grooving on Alaskan nature, she says that she would "rather be doing this than in some stuffy old political office."
Nevertheless, her prospective rivals are sufficiently spooked — by her popularity within the conservative base, by a mood surge that could propel her to early primary victories — and the Republican establishment is terrified that her cult of personality could ultimately saddle them with an unelectable nominee. Who else, on that aforementioned list, can match her celebrity? How many people on that list have you even heard of?
A new national poll reports that Palin is deemed qualified to be president by only 27 percent of the electorate, which helps explain why a few establishment Republicans are so willing to dis her with impunity. (Most are too afraid to cross her publicly, fearing a grassroots backlash.)
First prize these days goes to Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, who spoke directly to Palin in a Wall Street Journal column: "You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent. You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can't just bully them, you can't just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade. Americans don't want, as their representatives, people who seem empty or crazy."
Still, it's not too early to discern the shape of the Republican race. In one scenario, the finalists are Palin (tea-party grassroots favorite) versus the non-Palin (establishment favorite). In the other likely scenario, a Palin surrogate will face off against the establishment designate. That takes us to February 2012; by that point, perhaps the finalists will be able to explain, with specifics, how they would cut the deficit without raising anybody's taxes, and how they would tame "runaway government spending" without touching the popular entitlement programs that all citizens, conservative and otherwise, have come to take for granted.
How many of you think we'll get specifics instead of bromides? Can I see a show of hands?