Considering the vulnerability of this administration’s record and its low standing in the polls, and the parlous condition of the country by almost any measurement, the ostentatious confidence with which the president and his entourage have kicked off their reelection campaign, and the sluggish and sometimes slapstick start of the Republicans, have been surprising. The fact that the campaigns are overtly beginning 18 months before Election Day — and are expected to cost up to $2 billion for the presidential candidates alone — is scandalous. The baneful effects of total candidate immersion in vats of money at all levels is a truism, and it would strain readers’ patience to labor it again.
I am afraid that I must, even at this early date, engage in arm-flapping concern about the standards of campaign addresses. I have seen almost all the likely challengers on television, and I object to the piling on suffered by Donald Trump as grand vizier of the still-birthers, and by Newt Gingrich as self-nominated convener of America’s thousandth National Conversation on the Deficit. My objection is rooted not in conviction that either of them was on to something, but rather in the fact that the other apparent contestants haven’t raised the bar very far above them.
Whether Mr. Obama was a U.S. citizen at birth or not is just pseudo-constitutional pettifogging, and he deserves credit for not remaining silent longer and allowing those obsessing on it to go farther out on a limb. And Newt Gingrich huffed and puffed for a decade before setting forth on his presidential journey, which seemed to strike an iceberg before it cleared the port of departure. Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich are intelligent men and it is inexplicable why they effectively cooperated with all those who wished to dismiss them as fools. Sarah Palin doesn’t seem to be a serious candidate, but that doesn’t justify her rampages around the Republican vineyard. Ronald Reagan said the eleventh commandment was “Never speak ill of a fellow Republican,” and the Gipper was the biggest vote-winner in Republican history. I am seized with nostalgia for the “Front Porch Election”: William McKinley and others, tossing aphorisms off to passers-by from their verandah rocking chairs, after the bosses had nominated them at conventions they didn’t attend after campaigns in smoke-filled rooms that probably didn’t cost $10,000.
Listening to people question whether any sane person would get up at 6 a.m. to campaign and explaining that they themselves are doing it only from love of country; that what is needed is bipartisanship, to address “the people’s business” — I even become misty-eyed remembering Richard Nixon’s Rose Garden campaign, even if it did start at the Watergate. And any candidate who tries for more than 30 seconds in any political speech to peddle the shopworn bunk about how the whole world is looking with lonely eyes to America to shed its grace on them and uplift the world, should be explicitly threatened that repetition at more frequent intervals than two weeks could lead to their tongues being plucked out with red-hot tongs as a warm-up act for the McMahon (Connecticut Senate manquée) family’s next heavyweight, world-championship, women’s groin- and shin-kicking and eye-gouging contest.
The entire world is gape-mouthed at how, as a sorbet after its brilliant and almost bloodless victory in the Cold War, the United States has run over and off the cliff of debt, been swindled by the Chinese, been played for an idiot by OPEC, carried the European and Japanese luxury-goods industries on its back like a bipartisan donkey, outsourced 40 million jobs while admitting 15 million illegal and vocationally unskilled immigrants, created the greatest financial bonfire in history by papering itself in trillions of dollars of worthless real-estate-backed debt (certified as investment grade by Wall Street and by the rating agencies that have now put the U.S. on credit watch), and immolated itself like a disgruntled Burmese monk or Tunisian dissident.
Most of the principal countries of the world are in no position to gloat, even though they took much longer to squander much less geopolitical strength; but the dyspeptic Europeans, especially, think all their decades of enviously distinguishing the great rich New World giant of America from what they caricatured as its population of obese and boastful philistines, surmounted by a minuscule elite of capable people in the main cities, have been legitimized. It is hard to find the American elites now, but the triumph of the great Menckenesque “Booboisie,” what Mad magazine used to describe 40 years ago as the unstoppable “Doltic Force” of America, is hard not to notice. Anyone who thinks the world is expecting America to lead it is hallucinating. And as for America’s allies — apart from those such as Poland and Israel, who have intimate and dangerous neighbors — the only ones that weren’t essentially self-interested pickpockets apt to flee like roaches at any loud noise were the British, Canadians, and Australians, and the British had their wobbly moments. The only countries that have allies are countries that are strong and reliable in the world, at least in their self-interest, and by this time-honored criterion, the U.S. has had failing grades for almost as long as its public-school system.
After this freshet of limited optimism, of course, the U.S. is by far the greatest country in the history of the world, if only in scale and attitude; the fact that it does not enjoy the world’s gratitude does not mean that it has not earned it (the two are not really very closely related); and the presidency of the U.S. is rivaled — in a very different sphere, obviously — only by the papacy as the greatest office in the world, which is why people go through such torture to achieve it, and there is nothing really wrong with America that leadership would not solve. This administration is an unutterable shambles, and no Republican face more than two years old in the general public view — apart from Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour, who have renounced, but might be eligible for, the vice presidency or senior cabinet positions — need apply. (There is one other exception, of whom more in a moment.) Of those who make that cut, I haven’t seen enough of Marco Rubio to have an opinion, or of Chris Christie either, though I have misgivings about a 300-pound ex-prosecutor.
That leaves Congressman Paul Ryan, very principled and intelligent, though thin outside his budgetary specialties and disconcertingly like a university student-body presidential candidate, and a long way down the totem pole. (The last person to make the jump from congressman was Gen. James A. Garfield, and he had already been selected a U.S. senator.)
That leaves former Utah governor Jon Huntsman (also an industrialist and former ambassador to China), and the exception to the first group: Gov. Jeb Bush, of the Texas, Florida, and Connecticut Bushes, who have been on the Republican national ticket in six of the last eight elections, but the best could be last. I have met both Huntsman and Bush, and they both say plausible things about deficits and energy, are experienced, have identifiable systems of political and personal belief, are not great orators like Reagan (but neither has anyone else at that level been since FDR, except, in a way, Adlai Stevenson), but they are fluent and articulate (unlike the earlier Bushes and Ford and Carter) without being (to quote Peggy Noonan) faux eloquent (like Obama and Clinton).
Huntsman would do something about the Iranian nuclear program, the litmus test of America’s unbroken continuity as a Great World Power. He has clearly considered it, and seems to think in terms of cooperation with Israel, but would not make King Lear–like threats as this administration has.
In 1968, the last election in which America faced challenges as great as these (and they were not so self-inflicted), at one time or another Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan were all running for president. All were controversial, but all were substantial political leaders. The United States is so fundamentally strong and responsive to leadership that it does not now require a Lincoln or Roosevelt (of either party), though such leaders are always welcome. The office is certainly seeking the man (i.e., a suitable occupant). Someone will win the Republican primaries and the nomination, and that person could be the one.