The Republican Party was riding high in late 2010. They were just one month removed from sweeping changes in the midterm elections, including a gain of 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the largest change in any midterm since 1938. In December, President Barack Obama’s disapproval rating was at 54-percent, 12 points higher than his approval rating.
Obama’s numbers had rebounded some in January, when the new legislative class was sworn in, but the mission for the GOP was already clear: Make him a one-term president. Jimmy Carter v2.0.
And that mission is hardly a long shot. Real Clear Politics sets Obama’s job approval rating today at 52-percent. Hardly ironclad. This should be a slam dunk, right? Not if you’re playing ball like the Washington Generals.
The early rollout for the 2012 GOP field has been less than stellar. There is a large group of potential candidates that has not only lacked a clear frontrunner, but has also already seen a couple of popular candidates bail.
First to exit was Mike Huckabee, a well-known Republican who challenged for the GOP nom in ’08. The former governor of Arkansas had been polling well early, grabbing 20-percent of the votes in a Pew Research poll in early March (1 point back of Mitt Romney). Huckabee, on his TV show, called the decision a spiritual one. “All the factors say go, but my heart says no.”
He was followed out the door by Donald Trump, who – ironically – made a taped appearance on that very Huckabee show, saying:
“This might be considered by some people, not necessarily me, bad news because he is a terrific guy — and frankly I think he would be a terrific president. But a lot of people are very happy that he will not be running, especially other candidates.”
Trump is not one of those other candidates. He dropped out of the race just two days later, still convinced that he could win it all, but unwilling to give up the fantastic money he’s making in the business world.
Those actually in the race aren’t faring much better. Perennial field-filler Rick Santorum has already stepped in it, following up an average performance at the South Carolina GOP Debate with this epically ignorant statement about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and torture:
“And so this idea that we didn’t ask that question while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was being waterboarded, he (McCain) doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works. I mean, you break somebody, and after they’re broken, they become cooperative. And that’s when we got this information. And one thing led to another, and led to another, and that’s how we ended up with bin Laden.”
Santorum was responding to McCain’s speech from the Senate floor, where he made the factually-based, but GOP-unpopular, argument that torture did not lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden. So you can make the argument that Santorum is wrong on his biggest point. But that’s not the most asinine thing he said. “He doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works.” Not only does McCain understand how it works, he was an active participant in the process, on the receiving end, while he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for 5 years. As his daughter, Meghan, tweeted: “Rick Santorum telling my father doesn’t know about torture is like Carrot Top telling Lebron James he doesn’t know about basketball.”
McCain may have been broken by the Viet Cong, but he never gave up valuable information about his fellow U.S. soldiers. He made one anti-American propaganda “confession,” but suffered even more torture – two to three beatings weekly – because he wouldn’t sign additional statements.
John McCain doesn’t understand the nature of enhanced interrogation? Good luck walking this one back, Rick.
But I don’t think anybody’s had a more disastrous week than Newt Gingrich. Walking proof that everything old is new again, Gingrich announced his candidacy just over a week ago, then immediately began destroying it. His first mistake was seeming to compare the Medicare reform plan set forth by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to “right-wing social engineering,” a comment that drew immediate backlash from seemingly every corner of the Republican party.
Gingrich, acting nothing like the veteran politician he is, tried to smooth it over, but succeeded only in making himself look worse. He claimed he wasn’t referring to Ryan’s plan, then proceeded to call the Representative and apologize anyway. He also warned any future opponents against using that quote in a commercial, saying “…any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood. Because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate and I’m prepared to stand up…”
GOP voters don’t appear to be buying it, as evidenced by this exchange with a citizen in Iowa:
Oh, it gets better. Gingrich was later accosted by a gay-rights activist at a book signing in Minnesota, who encouraged him to “feel the rainbow.”
And then there’s this: The man who wants to be the nominee of the party of fiscal responsibility once owed, or may still owe, between $200 and $500K to luxury jeweler Tiffany’s. Gingrich has said he won’t address the issue, calling it “Trivial Pursuit.” Wouldn’t it be nice if all of our candidates could get away with that? And money is certainly on Gingrich’s mind now, as it seems there’s concern his donors are now backing off.
So to recap: Huckabee and Trump are out, Santorum and Gingrich are Keystone Kopping it all over the place. That leaves Romney the GOP frontrunner, with 16.6-percent of the vote according to RCP. Huckabee and Trump are still running second and third, despite the fact they’re not running at all, with Palin – who hasn’t even announced if she’s running or not – sitting fourth, at 10.6-percent, nearly three points ahead of Gingrich.
RCP has even worse news for the Republican party: Obama leads the “Generic GOP Candidate” 42.8-37.8 on average (the Republican candidate is up 2 points according to Rasmussen, but behind 15 points according to NBC and 10 points according to Pew).
All of that said, Obama still isn’t a lock for a second term. We’re sitting just under 18 months away from Election Day 2012, an eternity in the world of politics. I get the sense that there’s a good chance that the eventual GOP nominee isn’t even a blip on the radar right now. As The Daily Show with Jon Stewart pointed out, it was looking like Rudy Guliani v. Hillary Clinton at this point in 2007, while Joe Lieberman was the Democrat frontrunner in the early stages of the 2004 race, leading eventual nom Jon Kerry 23-17.
Even more incredible? In May of 1991, Bill Clinton was polling at 0 and 1-percent in California and Florida respectively, trailing both Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson. Nearly nine years later the former Arkansas governor walked out of the White House with a 60-percent approval rating after two terms in office.
And he got into that White House by unseating a president who had squandered a bump in popularity after a successful military operation in the Middle East because of a weak economy.
Sound familiar? The Republicans can find themselves on the other side of history, but there’s still a lot of work for them to do.