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The GOP 2012 Presidential Field

Posted by Eliot Weinstein on January 2, 2012

The first actual voting in the 2012 United States presidential campaign will take place tomorrow evening in Iowa (the immediate neighbor to the west of my home state of Illinois), which hosts the Iowa Republican Presidential Caucuses. I am long overdue for some commentary on the 2012 GOP presidential candidates, so I have written this extremely long post (helpfully divided into sections) explaining my thoughts.

After following the major media coverage of the Republican presidential candidates, and especially after watching the televised debates, I am very disappointed with and dismayed by the GOP candidates lining up for the chance to challenge President Obama in the 2012 presidential election. I don’t like any of the major candidates, and with only one exception (Jon Huntsman) I don’t like any of the minor candidates either. When I was watching a televised debate (which was held on Thursday, August 11, 2011), I tweeted that the candidates were “losers and nutcases”, by which I meant that some are losers and some are nutcases, not that all are both. I will give two rundowns on the candidates and my opinions of them, one brief, and the other more detailed.

Brief Rundown:

Mitt Romney (Businessman/former governor)– panderer, flip-flopper, inauthentic, some good policy ideas, mixed record as governor, VERDICT: competent and not crazy but an overall weak candidate

Rick Perry (Governor)–Tea Party supporter, some highly extreme comments, mixed record as governor, VERDICT: dangerously extreme and unintelligent

Michele Bachmann (Congresswoman)–Tea Party leader, many extreme comments and positions, paltry legislative record, no executive experience, VERDICT: dangerous extremist

Ron Paul (Congressman)–supporter of Austrian economics, many extreme comments, possible racist, no executive experience, VERDICT: dangerous extremist

Herman Cain (Businessman)–some extreme comments, possible racist (against Arabs & Muslims), no executive experience, VERDICT: semi-dangerous extremist

Newt Gingrich (Former Speaker of the House)–smart but not that smart, showed poor leadership during later Clinton years, very poor campaign management, VERDICT: intelligent but dangerously incompetent

Rick Santorum (Former Senator)–social conservative, many extreme comments and positions, possible homophobe, mixed legislative record, VERDICT: semi-dangerous extremist

Jon Huntsman (Former ambassador & governor)–substantial resumé, many sound domestic policy proposals, questionable foreign policy, positive record as governor, VERDICT: competent, not crazy, but not extreme enough or pandering enough to win primaries

My detailed rundown is after the break.

More Detailed Rundown:

Mitt Romney–I do not trust Mitt Romney. He has been described as “robotic” and “wooden”, and is surprisingly gaffe-prone for such a successful businessman and governor. He sometimes appears to be a fabrication–someone’s (admittedly hazy) idea of the perfect Republican presidential candidate. Romney’s biggest problem is his own ideological “flexibility”. During the 2008 Republican primaries, he attempted to outflank Senator John McCain by moving sharply to the right on social and domestic policies. He failed, largely because evangelical Christians saw in former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee one of their own, while they recognized that Romney was a johnny-come-lately on most of their core issues. Romney governed the state of Massachusetts as a moderate New England Republican, and then repeatedly had to run away from his own achievements and positions. A more principled man would have stood firm, instead of trying to contort himself, pretzel-like, into the shape of the “ideal” candidate. All politicians pander, but Romney turned “flip-flopping” into an art form. An entire website, entitled Multiple-Choice Mitt, documents Romney’s unique ability to be “on every side of every issue”. In my opinion, such egregious self-contradiction indicates either someone who is either a) schizophrenic, b) stupid, or c) incredibly power-hungry. Based on his record and accomplishments, we can assume that Romney’s actions do not signify mental illness or a Sarah Palin-like lack of knowledge on the issues, so the most logical conclusion is that Romney simply craves the presidency so desperately that he is willing to tell outrageous lies, speak out of both sides of his mouth, and throw himself under the bus in order to get a shot a defeating Obama. Leaving aside what this equivocation says about Romney’s moral character, it is highly likely (although not certain) that the well-funded Obama campaign machine would eviscerate Multiple-Choice Mitt, should he be lucky enough to win the Republican nomination. And I haven’t even mentioned his Massachusetts health care plan (dubbed “Romneycare”). Romney’s opponents, both Republicans and Democrats, allege that the Massachusetts health care law he championed as governor, which included an “individual mandate” to buy health insurance, was the model for the Affordable Care Act (known as “Obamacare”). The highly-controversial Obamacare law has been the principal bête noir for the Tea Party faction of the GOP for over a year. Furthermore, Obamacare has sparked a massive legal battle. Wikipedia helpfully explains that “A total of 28 states have filed joint or individual lawsuits (including 26 states engaged in a joint action) to overturn the individual mandate portions of the law.” After some lower-court wranglings, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case concerning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. On account of the way the Supreme Court’s schedule is structured, oral arguments for that case will take place in late March, and the Court will announce its ruling in mid-2012, right in the middle of the presidential election season. The Supreme Court case will almost certainly make health care reform a national issue again, which will only weaken the Romney campaign. Inexplicably, health care reform is the only issue on which Romney has not substantially flip-flopped, in that Romney refuses to disavow Romneycare. Of course, Romney still ties himself in knots, arguing that it was the right system for Massachusetts but not, as Obama has insisted, for the entire nation. Romney vows that he will dismantle Obamacare if he is elected president, and in several televised debates Romney got into a major tiff with his opponents (especially Rick Perry) over a change that was made between the hardcover and paperback editions of Romney’s book (the omitted section argued that Massachusetts should be “a model” for the nation regarding health care reform). Romney’s connection, both purported and actual, to health care reform centered around an individual mandate is probably his greatest liability in the GOP primaries. Additionally, if Romney wins the nomination (as many still believe he will) but the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, many conservative GOP voters might choose to stay home instead of supporting their party’s nominee, who will remain in their eyes a lukewarm convert to political conservatism who originated the hateful (to them) mandate-driven health care plan. Ironically, Obama’s much-disliked health care overhaul, which cost his party many Congressional seats in the 2010 midterm elections, could secure him a second term in the White House because the large number of Republicans angry about Obamacare will be too disgusted with Romney to support the former Massachusetts governor in the 2012 presidential election. Finally, Romney’s most-repeated campaign line is some variation on the theme that his private-sector experience and his first-hand knowledge of job-creation are exactly what Americans need to get our economy back on track. As I learned from Casey Mulligan, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a noted authority on public economics (the economics of the government), “public finance is nothing like corporate finance”. In other words, running a business is not the same as running the government, and experience from the former doesn’t necessarily translate to the latter. Thus, Romney’s greatest strength, his positive record as a businessman and manager, isn’t much of a strength. Despite his many flaws, I could still (maybe) be persuaded to vote for Mitt Romney. Romney’s team of economic advisers includes Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, Dean of the Columbia University Business School R. Glenn Hubbard, and former Missouri senator Jim Talent. I respect and admire Mankiw, Hubbard, and Talent, and their endorsements may yet cause me to reconsider Mitt Romney. Furthermore, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was a rival candidate for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination until he dropped out of the race in August, has endorsed Romney and joined Romney’s campaign as a co-chair. Pawlenty was the candidate that I liked the second-most (after Huntsman), and again his endorsement raises my opinion of Romney. If Romney can demonstrate some instances of Huntsman-like political courage and McCain-like truth-telling, and if Romney continues to pick up endorsements from moderates in the Republican Party, I could imagine myself supporting him. Even if he doesn’t demonstrate these virtues or get the endorsements, the GOP nomination might come down to a two-man race between Romney and an opponent preferred by the more conservative wing of the GOP, known as the “Not-Romney” (for example, Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry). In this possible future, I would be negligent in not supporting Romney over the equally-insincere but more extreme and less economically-literate Perry, or the arrogant and insouciant Gingrich who has repeatedly shown that he can’t manage a Congressional office or a presidential campaign. Romney is an extremely flawed candidate, although he may (unfortunately) be the last, best hope of moderate Republicans.

Rick Perry–He called Social Security “a monstrous lie” and “a Ponzi scheme”, sentiments with which I strongly agree. Perry’s position on climate change, that it is too early and the science is too uncertain to risk a huge portion of the US (and the world) economy taking rash actions to promote “sustainability”, is very close to (but not exactly equal to) my own. I also agree with Perry on the issue of the “border fence” (building a security barrier along the entire USA-Mexico border), in that Perry opposes the border fence and I find the entire idea of such a fence abhorrent. (Bizarrely, other, seemingly more moderate candidates like Romney and Huntsman want to militarize the border while Perry does not.) That said, Perry is practically the Tea Party’s Romney, in that he panders to almost every ultra-conservative policy position, and appears to be a fabricated far-right candidate. Perry (as well as his campaign website) is maddeningly vague on economic policies, the area of policy that matters most to me. Perry has repeatedly highlighted his record creating jobs in his home state of Texas. However, as Romney has persuasively argued, Perry benefited from the low tax rates and favorable regulatory environment of Texas, which were in place long before Perry was elected governor (and were probably created by the Texas legislature and by Perry’s gubernatorial predecessor George W. Bush, and his predecessor, Ann Richards). Romney has also argued that Perry’s attacks on Social Security will unnerve senior citizens and cost the Republicans many votes in the general election against Obama. This is simply another way of saying that Perry has a tendency towards extreme and harsh rhetoric. Exhibit A is when Perry accused Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke of “treason” for contemplating further expansionary monetary policy. Perry is widely considered to be “unelectable”, or at least far less electable in a nationwide general election than Romney. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat argues that Perry is the Republican equivalent of Howard Dean, while describing Perry as “overconfident and ill-prepared”. I agree with Douthat, and I think that Perry is a weak candidate. Perry’s pandering to the Tea Party unnerves me, and he seems intent on representing the insular and backward-looking factions of the Republican Party. Despite agreeing with him on a few key issues, I can scarcely envision any circumstances in which I could support the extremist Perry.

Newt Gingrich–I am somewhat shocked that as I am writing this, Newt Gingrich is considered by some to be the “frontrunner” in the GOP presidential contest. Many GOP insiders are surprised as well. As I have alluded to earlier, Gingrich does not impress me with his managerial abilities. Although he racked up several impressive achievements in the 1990s, (most notably: leading the Republicans to their first House of Representatives majority in 40 years, and working with then-president Bill Clinton to balance the federal budget and reform welfare) his personal and political blunders led to him being forced to resign by his own GOP members of Congress. In this respect, Gingrich is the polar opposite of President Obama: Obama had a relatively short career as a legislator, but he demonstrated notable leadership skill by running what was widely considered to be the most efficient and well-managed presidential campaign in US history; Gingrich had a very long career as a legislator with all the attendant baggage, and he has so far run one of the most chaotic and poorly-managed presidential campaigns in US history. To quote Wikipedia, “On June 9, 2011, Gingrich’s campaign manager, his press secretary, and senior aides in early primary states had resigned from his campaign en masse, leading to questions about the viability of the campaign.” While the doubts about Gingrich’s viability as a candidate have been put to rest by his subsequent surge in the polls, that incident underscores the widespread belief that Gingrich is a poor leader. Many of his former congressional colleagues, of whom it can rightly be said he was the leader during his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, have flatly refused to back his presidential campaign. (Included in this group is then-Congressman but now-Senator Tom Coburn, an influential non-mainstream Republican.) Gingrich made a few very bad key decisions late in his Speaker-ship. Most notably, Gingrich got into a row with Bill Clinton over where he (Newt) was seated on Air Force One, and then let that dispute poison important budget negotiations. Even more inexplicably, Gingrich led the Republicans on a (in hindsight) misguided attempt to remove Clinton from office over Clinton’s lies regarding the president’s extramarital sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, while Gingrich was simultaneously engaging in an extramarital affair of his own with a Congressional staffer. That Gingrich is currently married to that staffer does not diminish the sheer hypocrisy and idiocy of his actions during Clinton’s presidency. Gingrich also managed to become the first Speaker of the House to be sanctioned by Congress for ethics violations. Amazingly, there is much more I can say that speaks to Newt’s lack of qualification for the presidency. Gingrich has changed his positions on major issues almost as much as Romney has, and Gingrich seems to have less to show for it, in that Romney used his formerly liberal views to win a governor’s race in the Democrat-controlled state of Massachusetts. Since leaving the House of Representatives in 1999, Gingrich has done little with his flexible viewpoints, except to personally enrich himself. By far the best example of this is Gingrich’s eight years of having troubled mortgage entity Freddie Mac as a client of his consulting firm. For those of you who have been living “on Mars for the past decade, in a cave with [your] eyes shut, and [your] fingers in [your] ears” (to quote The Simpsons), Freddie Mac is a government-sponsored entity whose actions had either a moderate amount or a large amount (depending on who you ask) to do with the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, principally through its participation in programs to encourage the vast proliferation of subprime mortgage lending to under-qualified borrowers. Along with its “sibling” Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac was placed in conservatorship by the US government in late 2008. Gingrich’s consulting firm earned approximately $1.6 million from its work with Freddie Mac, a point that his Republican opponents have repeatedly raised. Gingrich has also demonstrated a tendency to make joint appearances with prominent leftists, such as when he teamed up with Al Sharpton in 2009 to promote education reform, and even more notably in his now-infamous joint TV spot with Democratic Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi about global warming. Gingrich now calls that ad “one of the dumbest things I’ve done in recent years” and seems to have done a complete 180-degree turn regarding global warming. Finally, there are Newt’s personal indiscretions. He is on his third marriage, and in both of his previous divorces, he was cheating on his previous wife with his soon-to-be next wife. While I don’t care too much about this sort of thing, many voters (and Newt’s GOP rivals) espouse (no pun intended) the belief that someone who cheats on his spouse is more likely to abuse his office or break the public trust. When Gingrich was sanctioned by the House of Representatives for ethics violations, the vote was 395 to 28 in favor of sanctioning him. Although all but one of the ethics charges against him were eventually dropped, to quote Wikipedia again, “Special Counsel James M. Cole concluded that Gingrich violated federal tax law and had lied to the ethics panel…” Newt’s ethics violations may be somewhat overstated by his opponents, but it is clear that he did not emerge from Congress untainted by scandal. While these varied incidents should not, prima facie, render Gingrich ineligible for the presidency, they do all demonstrate poor judgment, of the political, professional and personal varieties. It is rare to find such an established, veteran politician who is so clearly not qualified to be president. I cannot, in good conscience, support a man who has embodied bad decision-making on so many occasions; I cannot overlook the flaws of someone who seeks the highest office in the land but by all accounts does not possess the capacity to even manage himself. If Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, I will be even more dismayed than I am now, and I may be forced by my own personal standards to oppose his presidential bid. Many Republicans seem to be backing Gingrich because they want someone who is a stark contrast to Obama (or who at least offers a clearer alternative to the current president than does Romney). As I argued above, Republicans who support Newt Gingrich may get the “polar opposite of Obama”, but not in the way they expected.

Herman Cain–The “Cain Train” has officially derailed itself. Until the allegations of sexual harassment and extramarital affairs began to appear, Herman Cain seemed like a nice enough fellow. However, to me, he always seemed dangerously under-prepared for running his own presidential campaign, let alone actually holding the nation’s highest office. Like many pundits, I believed that Cain was more interested in touring to promote his book (helpfully titled This Is Herman Cain!) than in actually campaigning for president. Now that question is largely academic. Nevertheless, I want to be on the record condemning Herman Cain’s intolerance towards Muslims and Muslim-Americans, and expressing my belief that Herman Cain’s famous “9-9-9” tax plan is utter nonsense.

Michele Bachmann–Her claim that she, as president, could keep gasoline below $2.00 per gallon is ignorant and (if she actually believes it) insane. This is emblematic of her candidacy more broadly, in that it leaves her in a strange limbo of pointless extremism. Does anyone actually believe that she could deliver cheap gas? Does her shrill, impractical intransigence even matter anymore with (the equally-extreme but more influential) Perry in the race?

Ron Paul–I have already written one post criticizing Texas US Congressman Ron Paul, so I will expand on those sentiments only briefly. Ron Paul is not a conservative. There is nothing “conservative” about dismantling more than two-thirds of all federal government agencies or abandoning our military alliances and defense cooperation with such laudable partners as the UK, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Fortunately (for him), Ron Paul doesn’t claim to be a conservative. Rather, he claims to be a libertarian. However, as Will Wilkinson explained quite eloquently, Ron Paul picks and chooses only some parts of libertarian belief, and ignores other parts (especially the parts I like about how increasing liberty can help the poor and the downtrodden, by freeing them from, say, welfare dependency or rescuing their children from crumbling inner-city public schools). Paul is keener to trumpet his opposition to the landmark 1964 Civil Right Act than to discuss America’s failing public education system, which is probably the “civil rights” issue of our time. (For good measure, Paul could mention how poor minority children are being victimized by the teachers’ unions, but even so, he rarely discusses this issue. To the extent that he does offer education policy suggestions, Paul heavily emphasizes homeschooling, and not a more relevant policy such as school vouchers or teacher merit pay.) As Wilkinson puts it, “…libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that theirs is a uselessly abstract ideology of privilege for socially obtuse adolescent white guys. Ron Paul sure isn’t helping.” Do read Wilkinson’s entire article if you haven’t already. Wilkinson barely touches on Ron Paul’s association with some newsletters that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, published highly racist statements, or Paul’s repeated assertions (disturbingly common among Austrian economists, elderly southern men, and paleo-libertarians) that Abraham Lincoln was a big-government, freedom-crushing despot who unjustly (!) waged war on the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Even if Ron Paul were the exemplar of libertarian beliefs that his followers claim he is (and that Wilkinson demonstrates that he is not), Paul’s inadequately explained connections to racist newsletters and pro-Confederate sentiments make him an incredibly imperfect messenger for political liberty. But anyways, I agree with Wilkinson, and I contend that Ron Paul is a pernicious force within the Republican party, the libertarian movement, and American politics as a whole.

Rick Santorum–I don’t have much to say about Santorum, except that he couldn’t even win his own Senate re-election battle in 2006. In that year’s elections, Santorum lost his Pennsylvania US Senate seat to Bob Casey, Jr., 41% to 59%, “the largest margin of defeat ever for an incumbent Republican Senator in Pennsylvania” according to Wikipedia. Santorum also seems to have a problem with gay people, or at least what they do in the bedroom. Despite picking up the endorsement of an influential and controversial Iowa conservative leader, Santorum is essentially a failed candidate. Even if this were not true (and the signs of a “Santorum surge” in Iowa may yet make me eat my words) I could not support such an inept and hate-filled politician, and I do not wish to write about him any further.

Jon Huntsman–He has a few quirky policy positions, and is often (unfairly) dismissed as a less-polished but more substantive version of Romney. Huntsman and Romney are probably the least extreme candidates in the current race, although Romney pandered shamelessly to evangelical Christians in the 2008 primaries, and Huntsman was somewhat less of a centrist when he was governor of Utah. Huntsman shares with Romney the Mormon faith, which is viewed with suspicion by many Americans, despite the fact that it is essentially just another form of Christianity (no longer embracing controversial tenets such as polygamy or the exclusion of blacks). Jon Huntsman has made several arguments with which I strongly agree. For example, Huntsman is right that more legal immigration is a “rising tide that lifts all boats”. At the Reagan Library debate this past September, Huntsman stood up to defend the importance of not rejecting science (on evolution and climate change). Alone among the top Republicans candidates, he has expressed a desire to move the GOP in the direction of greater LGBT rights, specifically by supporting civil unions and by calling the treatment of gays and lesbians an issue of “equality and fairness”. Huntsman astutely points to American’s “twin deficits”, the obvious economic one, and the rarely-mentioned deficit of the people’s trust in our government. Huntsman’s plan to close the trust deficit contains many sensible reforms, including eliminating subsidies and tax loopholes, and ending “too big to fail”. Regarding the latter, Huntsman’s well-thought-out plan to break up the “too big to fail” banks is probably the second-most economically sound solution to the developed world’s banking problems, losing out only to the somewhat more drastic reform known as “limited-purpose banking“. There is probably only one issue on which I substantively disagree with Huntsman, but it is a big one: the military deployments in the Middle East and Central Asia (specifically Afghanistan), which Huntsman claims he wants to end (or severely curtail) immediately to focus on “nation-building here at home”. Even here, I give him points for courage, as only Ron Paul (who wants to end all foreign military deployments, forever and permanently) has argued for anything like this on the Republican side. I suspect that Huntsman may know (or think he knows) something that I don’t about China and the potential threat that nation poses to the United States, and consequently Huntsman believes that we shouldn’t be focusing on fighting brush-fires in the Middle East and Central Asia, but instead preparing ourselves to better compete with China. On this issue, I am willing to give Huntsman the benefit of the doubt. The Concord Monitor, an influential New Hampshire newspaper, recently published an endorsement of Huntsman with which I agree completely. If Huntsman were to become a top-tier candidate with a reasonable chance of besting more well-known candidates like Romney, Gingrich, and Perry in the primaries, I would support Huntsman without reservations.

Closing Thoughts–Several influential conservative or right-leaning commentators have deliberately avoided endorsing one of the leading GOP candidates. George Will, an intellectual leader of the American conservative movement who, because he denounced the worst excesses of the George W. Bush administration, lost very little credibility at a time when right-wing politics as a whole lost a great deal of credibility, denounced Romney and critiqued the seemingly-inevitable result of either Romney or Gingrich becoming the nominee. Even more notably, prominent bloggers Andrew Sullivan and E.D. Kain have both endorsed Ron Paul, for reasons of protest and of substance. Equally-prominent pundit David Frum tersely argues that dissatisfied conservatives should not endorse Ron Paul. Although I find Frum’s argument here somewhat lacking, I have already established plenty of reasons not to support Ron Paul. If Romney wins the nomination, I could potentially be persuaded to support him. If, in contrast, Gingrich, Perry, Paul, Bachmann, or Santorum wins the nomination, I would not be able to support them, and I would be practically compelled to vote for a third-party candidate or not vote at all. For those who share my political inclinations as well as my trepidations about most of the GOP candidates, I can offer a recommendation. If you want to cast what is essentially a protest vote, don’t cast it for Ron Paul. Instead, either support Jon Huntsman in the GOP primaries, or vote for Gary Johnson, who may end up as the presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party. Huntsman, while he has little chance of winning any primaries (and if he does win New Hampshire it will most likely only serve to hand the GOP nomination to a “Not-Romney” like Gingrich) and has a low standing in the national polls, is the candidate that I would be the most likely to support if I were forced to choose. Johnson, who even during the time I was writing this post has decided to exit the GOP primaries to seek the Libertarian Party nomination instead, is a libertarian-leaning former governor of New Mexico and essentially is, as my former college classmate Noah Kristula-Green writes, “…Ron Paul but without the racist newsletters.” Both Huntsman and Johnson appear to be honorable men (coming from me, that is pretty much the highest compliment a politician can receive) whose ideas could transform the United States of America for the better, if only they were given a fair hearing.

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