Jay Cost loves the horserace, and so now that the 2012 presidential race is here, with a few Republican candidates having officially launched exploratory committees — and others exploring exploration — NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez checked in with Cost, a staff writer for The Weekly Standard.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What the heck is this Donald Trump stuff about?
Jay Cost: His show is on NBC right now. So it might just be about publicity. “The Donald” is a master self-promoter, after all.
Lopez: Is John Boehner in a good political position post–spending deal? Given all the criticism within his caucus, on talk radio?
Cost: I think he is in a good position. This was an impressive win. The 111th Congress failed to pass a budget, and the 112th comes in, basically finishes up the Democrats’ work, and gets a decent amount of spending cuts.
Lopez: Is Planned Parenthood in a better or worse position?
Cost: Its fate hangs on the 2012 election.
Lopez: What happens with the debt ceiling?
Cost: They push it through, but conservatives in the Congress extract something for the vote.
Lopez: Can Paul Ryan push his plan and save the seats of members who stand with him?
Cost: It won’t be up to Paul Ryan. Instead, it will be about the 2012 Republican nominee, who will be the one to make the case for the need for major changes.
An important point to keep in mind: Right now, 14 percent of all Americans are on food stamps. Nearly two out of every ten personal income dollars are coming from the government. Republicans cannot just run on entitlement reform. They have to run that as part of a package, one that emphasizes getting the private economy working better. Paul Ryan, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, is not in a position to convey that broader message.
But the GOP nominee will be. That’s where the whole game is.
Lopez: Could Paul Ryan be that nominee?
Cost: He could. The last House member elected to the White House was James A. Garfield in 1880. He was a dark-horse candidate to emerge out of a protracted struggle between the Stalwart (who wanted to nominate Ulysses S. Grant for a third term) and Half-Breed (who didn’t) factions in the GOP. So it is very rare. But I think the key limitation for House members seeking the White House — lack of a national profile — does not apply to Ryan.
Of course, another limitation does. By the time a House member acquires that kind of national profile, he or she also probably possesses one of the major power positions in the institution, meaning that staying in the House is an attractive option. Chairman of the Budget Committee is one such position. Does Paul Ryan really want to leave that post to go campaign for the next 20 months? The upside is that he could be president. The downside is that he might wind up with nothing. And if he doesn’t run, he’s bound to be a player in 2013 and beyond — the Republicans are likely to hold the House, meaning that he’ll be integral to the discussion moving forward, regardless of what happens in the presidential election.
If I were in his shoes, I’d stay put.
Lopez: Is the Republican Study Committee budget a gift to Democrat ad-makers?
Cost: No, for the same reason.
Lopez: Is Barack Obama beatable?
Lopez: Where’s your money on Michele Bachmann for Republican presidential nominee?
Cost: Bachmann’s main problem is a version of Huckabee’s in 2008. Where does she go after Iowa, which is dominated by the most conservative of voters? She’ll have to go to the South, but Huckabee did the same thing in 2008 and it wasn’t enough.
Lopez: How about Newt?
Cost: Gingrich has the same problem as Bachmann.
Lopez: Is there anyone being talked about seriously who simply can’t win the general election in your mind?
Cost: Well, I think you have to say never say never. JFK, LBJ, Carter, Clinton, and Obama have all won general-election victories in the last 50 years. They were all unlikely. Meanwhile, Nixon was tagged as a loser after 1960 and 1972 turned out to be one of the biggest victories of all time.
Lopez: Mitt Romney seems fairly regularly considered the frontrunner for the Republican primary. Do you agree? Does that make any sense given his health-care issues?
Cost: Romney’s frontrunner status is an artifact of his relatively high name recognition. This is driving his first place standing in the national polls, much as Rudy and Hillary were in first place for most of 2007.
However, I’d bet dollars to donuts that most voters don’t know about Romneycare at this point. But they will. Unfortunately for Romney, he’s going to have a big target on his back in the debates. Watch Gingrich in particular go after him.
Lopez: Should Romney’s health-care record be a liability?
Cost: At the least, I think Romney has to fashion a compelling explanation for it. One of the important things about the GOP nominee is, if he wins, he becomes a steward of the party and the ideological beliefs that animate it. Romneycare speaks to that.
Lopez: Does it surprise you Tim Pawlenty would hire such a young campaign manager?
Cost: I think it is a good sign.
Lopez: Who is your favorite governor at the moment and why? You can’t answer Chris Christie.
Cost: I like Mitch Daniels.
Lopez: But about Christie: Does he walk back his suicide comments and run?
Cost: He could. There has long been a coquettish quality to the pursuit of the presidency: Men chase it with burning ambition while feigning that they are totally ambivalent.
Christie in particular could run a version of the Fred Thompson campaign. Wait until the summer (or even the fall), see how the party is reacting to the field, then toss in late, riding the momentum of his good name recognition to a victory in New Hampshire.
Not saying this will happen, but it could.
Lopez: Even when Sarah Palin isn’t making news, she makes news. MSNBC asked Tuesday, Where is she? What is it about her that gets so much attention? What is it about her that attracts such passionate reactions, for and against?
Cost: It’s all about symbolism. If Barack Obama represents everything that the Left aspires for this country to be like, Sarah Palin is the opposite. Many on the right have an inverse reaction.
It’s like Obama’s comment about rural Pennsylvania. Lots of people were deeply offended by that. Lots of people agreed with it.
Lopez: Do you think she does or should run?
Cost: I think she does not run.
Lopez: What’s the political story no one is talking about today that they should be?
Cost: The weakness of the economy. I think it is a huge political liability for the president, but the media focuses far too much on the inflection points. It masks the fact that this recovery has been terrible, and the president is going to catch the blame for it unless things substantially pick up by next year.
For instance, 216,000 jobs were reported to be gained in March, but this is (a) not enough to really change the situation for the average person without a job, (b) still a relatively weak number for this point in a recovery, (c) far below where most people thought we’d be at this point.
Lopez: What’s going to be your favorite Senate primary to watch?
Cost: None. Primaries for me are like the hibernation period for a bear. Just wake me up when they’re over, and I’ll deal with it then!
Lopez: Who is your favorite newcomer in Congress?
Cost: I don’t really have one yet. My feeling is that the newcomers should be in the background, learning how the process works. We shouldn’t know who they are yet.
Lopez: What’s a likely political headline a year from today?
Cost: Still no clear winner in the GOP nomination battle. The grand poobahs of the party are getting worried . . .
Lopez: It’s early, but what are your surprise predictions for 2012?
Cost: GOP 2012 nomination looks a lot like the Dem 2008 nomination. Deep division, no clear victor. A drag on the party’s ticket for the fall. Hopefully, it will prompt some sensible reforms of the system.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.