Eric Zorn and I hash it out over the GOP presidential field

This is one of my occasional debates with Chicago Tribune colleague and commentator Eric Zorn. It appeared today in the Tribune commentary section and in Eric's blog, The Rhubarb Patch, where comments also can be posted. 

To Dennis, from Eric:

What does it tell you that, even though the economy is apparently stuck in the doldrums and President Barack Obama’s base is dispirited and his popularity ratings underwhelming, I still confidently predict he’ll be re-elected?

Not that I’m a besotted partisan.

But that your side — I’ll lump you with the Republicans for the purposes of discussion, if that’s all right — seems almost certain to nominate a candidate whose platitudinous pronouncements appeal to the far-right wing and who’s given to utterances that are contradictory, fact-challenged or just plain wacky.

I feel your pain.

Eight years ago, incumbent Republican president George W. Bush was facing serious head winds. The war in Iraq was looking increasingly endless and misbegotten, and the U.S. had just posted a record budget deficit. In most polls he was losing to a generic Democrat by 2 to 6 percentage points, but he was beating the actual, uninspiring Democrats in every head-to-head poll.

You’ll smile to remember Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, John Edwards, and the eventual nominee, John Kerry, a stiff from Massachusetts with a good resume but a reputation as a flip-flopper.

Similarly, Obama tends to lose to generic Republicans in polls (by 8 percent in a Gallup survey last month, for instance) and almost always beats the actual, disquieting Republicans in head-to-head polls.

I’m smiling as I list them: Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain. And the likely nominee at this point, Mitt Romney, a stiff from Massachusetts with a good resume but a reputation as a flip-flopper.

How much do you fear that I’m right when I suggest history will repeat itself?

To Eric, from Dennis:

Darn, there you go, making me pay attention to a presidential campaign that I’ve been studiously ignoring for more than a year.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? The presidential campaign started the day after last year’s election and two full years before the next one. I have to admit that I am so tired of it that I have yet to watch a single GOP presidential debate. Yeah, I know, that could get my pundit’s license yanked, something that allows me to pretend that I’m all-seeing and all-knowing.

But, I feel — and I think many Americans also feel — that they have been dragged to a bloody dog fight, to watch a cavalcade of hopefuls get their butts chewed but good. Like bubbles rising from the gloomy depths (can I toss in another metaphor here?), each Republican suddenly appears on the surface, only to pop.

The latest — as of this writing and who knows when the next bubble will appear and pop — is Cain, who is done, done, done. That’s thanks in part to the media and political opponents who were there waiting with needles to make sure he’d burst.

Blame the dismal field of candidates if you must for my ennui. But I think it’s more the result of watching too many decades of this evermore dogged scrutiny given to candidates and the coarsening of their campaigns.

I’m not trying to avoid your question. You’re right, Republican chances are growing longer each day. I admire your confidence in Obama’s re-election, but that thought alone might be enough to shake me and a whole lot of Americans out of our lethargy.

To Dennis, from Eric:

I’ll be glum if Cain is already done, done, done, though each passing day now seems to make that more likely. He combines the superficiality of Sarah Palin, the gaffe-generating capability of Perry, the naivete of Paul, the malleability of Romney, the arrogance of Ross Perot and, allegedly, the randiness of Bill Clinton.

Great column material, in other words.

So I’m hoping it’s later and not sooner that GOP voters will realize Cain’s so obviously unsuited for the presidency that nominating him would be as good as conceding the election to Obama.

Because as much as Republicans would like voters to see next November’s election as an up-or-down referendum on Obama’s performance — a referendum he’d likely lose if the vote were taken today, if his sub-50 approval ratings are any guide — voters will all but certainly see it as a choice.

Will they prefer to let Obama keep trying to bring the nation out of this long and painful recession? Will they prefer to let the Republican nominee take a crack at it? Or will they prefer to stay home on Election Day, having been so dispirited by the vicious and petty campaign that they figure it doesn’t really matter who wins?

What’s the case for replacing Obama? That he’s not worked a miracle with the disastrous economy he inherited from Bush? That he insufficiently trusts the tender mercies of Wall Street and corporate America to take good care of working people and environment? That he still believes in universal health care coverage, progressive taxation and the necessity of government to smooth out the road, particularly in such bumpy times?

OK. So what’s the case for the most likely GOP candidate?

To Eric, from Dennis:

Ha, I see what you’re trying to make me do: predict the candidate GOP voters will pick as their nominee and then say why I think he or she should be elected. And I’m supposed to base my choice on whom I think can best “fix” the economy.

I’m not biting. As far back as President Ronald Reagan, I have consistently said it is wrongheaded to expect that one person, even the president of the United States with all his powers, can fix the economy. Decades of political campaigns and media exaggerations have drilled this nonsense into the heads of too many voters. The economy is fashioned by trillions of decisions that American consumers and businesses make each year, as well as increasingly complex global forces beyond our control. To suggest that one person, even with the help of Congress and every government agency, extant or imagined, can direct in a matter of four or eight years the course of a $15-trillion economy, the world's largest, is to endow god-like powers on a mere mortal.

But a president can make matters worse, as you would have it for Bush. His grotesque financial and automaker bailouts were not in the country’s long-term interests.

So, if I, like so many other Americans, have not made up my mind, what do I look for in a Republican presidential candidate? Roman playwright Terence nailed it: “Moderation in all things.” A president who understands that effective change is incremental; that grand solutions are naive. Someone who has a vision of where he wants to lead the nation, but a vision that is proportional to reality.

To Dennis, from Eric:

Good luck with that.

The Republican electorate doesn’t seem to be in a particularly moderate mood these days For the most part, the primary contenders have been elbowing their way to the far right, trying to outdo one another on their opposition to compromising with the Democrats on tax rates, to stimulus spending by the government, to gay rights, abortion and financial regulation, to a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and to the nearly unanimous agreement among climate scientists that human activity contributes to global warming.

Meanwhile, they’re unable to utter a gracious word about Obama, even though he’s been incorporating so many Republican ideas into his economic proposals that a plagiarism scandal appears imminent. Romney, former GOP Sen. Bob Dole and the estate of President Richard Nixon could sue Obama for copyright infringement based on the health care reform law Republicans now liken to socialism.

By nearly every measure, and to the disappointment of many in his left-wing base, Obama has governed as a moderate Democrat.

A year from now, Americans are likely to still be unhappy with the economy and inclined — unfairly, I agree — to give most of the blame to the president. They’ll be open to voting for a solid, moderate Republican.

But I doubt they’ll find one on the ballot.

To Eric, from Dennis:

A moderate Democrat? Now I know you’re kidding. The very idea — it was Obama’s as I recall — that a Department of Health and Human Services and some obscure committees can effectively and efficiently run about 15 percent of the economy belies a mind that hardly can be described as moderate.

Yes, conventional wisdom among liberal Democrats, their media attendants and the goofy Occupiers who hilariously claim to speak for 99 percent of Americans is that Obama betrayed them and their lefty ideals. But Obama is arguably the most liberal president since, well, ever. You talk about Republican candidates moving to the right, but Obama’s latest rhetoric incorporates the eat-the-rich bombast of the radical left.

Blame George W. Bush as much as you want for the ballooning national debt, but left unchecked, Obama’s yearning for more budget-busting economic stimuli is hair-raising. Only the Obama administration could concoct a control-the-economy-by-an-unelected bureaucracy scheme like his Environmental Protection Agency’s rules to regulate carbon dioxide. How about his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board knifing Boeing for daring to create thousands of jobs by building an assembly plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state?

I agree that Republicans have a challenge in finding an electable candidate who can beat Obama while representing the party’s best ideals. Perhaps one of those in the current field will emerge as that candidate. At least there’s a chance of it happening.

But as for finding a solid, moderate on the Democratic ballot, I know that won’t happen.



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