WHETHER the GOP turns to a familiar face or a new one, running against history-in-the-making is going to be hard, if not impossible, says Alex Massie
F Scott Fitzgerald’s quip that “there are no second acts in American lives” is often cited as though it’s true, when it should be obvious that it’s spectacularly wrong. Of course there are second acts, and American politics is stuffed with losers who became winners. Most presidents since Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960 have endured some adversity along their path to the White House. Nixon, of course, was written off after losing first to Kennedy and then, disastrously, in his bid to become governor of California.
Even Ronald Reagan’s first attempt to win the Republican party’s nomination was unsuccessful – and the same was true of George HW Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and, of course, Mitt Romney. Indeed, with the exception of Gerald Ford, the younger George Bush is the only Republican to have won the party’s nomination at the first time of asking since Barry Goldwater won the right to be trounced by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
It is, of course, unwise to make too much of such trends. The likes of Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, and Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, are hardly doomed by being debutants on the national stage. There have been so few presidential elections in the modern era that it is foolish to insist upon there being any hard and fast “rules” on who is liable to emerge as the nominee once the primaries are over. The sample size is too small for there to be compelling statistical evidence of trends.
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Nevertheless, it is also the case that a measure of familiarity with course and distance does not seem to hamper a candidate’s presidential ambitions. On the contrary, it may help – former contenders at least begin with a name recognition and familiarity advantage in the crucial early contests of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
And since running for president is not a job for anyone who lacks confidence in their own abilities, it is hardly surprising so many candidates are happy to think rejection is an misfortune of the sort that will be remedied this time around once the electorate – the swines – have come to their senses. This time, you see, they will see there’s no alternative to me.
All of which helps explain why Mitt Romney is edging towards making a third run for the presidency. He is not the only retread angling towards 2016. Rick Perry, fresh from a full 14 years in the Texas governor’s chair, has been back on the rubber chicken circuit in Iowa.
It’s commonly assumed that Perry’s appalling performances in the televised debates in 2012 caused his campaign to crash in spectacular style and it is certainly true that he went from front-runner to also-ran in near record time. His debate performances were certainly dismal, but he began to slide in the polls well before then. His mistake was to insist that he felt a Christian obligation to allow the children of illegal immigrants to receive discounted university tuition fees in Texas. Almost overnight, his credibility with conservative voters collapsed.
Like Perry four years ago, Jeb Bush is running on a platform supported by two hefty planks: credibility and electability. At least in theory, being governor of Florida gave him credibility while the Bush name is supposed to guarantee fund-raising ability and name recognition in equal measure. Nevertheless, Jeb’s own liberal – relatively speaking – record on issues such as immigration and education handicap his chances during the primary election, even as they might be an asset in the general election. But the road to the White House runs through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
You don’t need to be a staunch small-r republican to find the prospect of another Bush vs Clinton contest mildly distasteful. American politics have long been susceptible to dynastic capture, but few hearts are likely to soar at the prospect of a third President Bush. This is so even if the idea of Jeb avenging his pappy’s 1992 defeat and rehabilitating the family’s honour after his brother’s disastrous presidency has a certain macabre, Sophoclean appeal.
Despite that, the Republican party tends to flirt with extremism before settling on a more moderate candidate who is reckoned to have the best chance of winning the general election in November. In 2008, that was John McCain; in 2012, it was Mitt Romney. This, more than anything else, is the basis for Jeb Bush’s candidacy this time around and, as it happens, also the reason Romney thinks he can run again and win the nomination for the second time. Why should it be presumed that anyone else has a better chance of defeating Hillary Clinton?
Mrs Clinton will be a formidable opponent. Not simply because of her experience as former secretary of state, senator and first lady but because she has something more powerful than that on her side: history. Her candidacy is less a matter of policy than a declaration of powerful symbolism: it is time for the United States to elect a female president. This is actually made more urgent, not less, by the fact Barack Obama is the first African-American president. It is now Hillary’s turn but, more generally, the turn of all American women.
That necessarily makes the GOP’s already difficult task harder still. They will be running against history-in-the-making. As McCain and Romney know to their cost, that’s an uncomfortable experience. Couple this with the Democratic party’s demographic advantage – elderly white men forming an ever-smaller proportion of the electorate – and it is hard to avoid the thought that Clinton begins with a considerable advantage. It is not yet a decisive advantage, but it is still a real one.
What story will the eventual Republican nominee be able to tell that is more compelling than that offered by Mrs Clinton? It is not obvious, whatever their administrative strengths, that either Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney or any of the other pretenders to the Republican crown have an answer for that yet.