Just a few weeks ago, Barack Obama’s re-election bid was beginning to look like an easy downhill jog. The daring raid that the US president ordered delivered Osama bin Laden to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Economic prospects looked brighter. Perhaps most helpfully, the Republican party seemed to be indulging some kind of collective death-wish, putting Donald Trump first in the polls and Paul Ryan’s budget-cutting at the top of its legislative agenda. The GOP’s early presidential skirmishing took place in a land of conservative make-believe, where tax cuts grow on trees and the president can be described as any sort of alien – foreign-born, Muslim, collectivist – that one chooses.
Mr Obama’s spring peak came at the White House correspondents’ dinner in late April, when he jovially deflated Mr Trump, while the Navy Seals were en route to Abbottabad. But since then, the political weather has turned less favourable. Unemployment rose to a treacherous 9.1 per cent, while the Dow fell almost 1,000 points from its peak. The odds of a serious economic aftershock to the Great Recession have risen. Most alarmingly, the Republican party appears gradually to be going sane.
The GOP presidential field, while hardly dominated by political giants, appears far less outlandish than one might have predicted. At the first Republican debate in New Hampshire on Monday the seven candidates competed not for evangelical or libertarian favour, but for the status of someone plausible to compete with the president for swing voters.
Here are some of the things that did not happen in the debate. No one called Mr Obama a socialist. No one gave ambiguous encouragement to the “birther” faction. While all of the candidates oppose gay marriage, no one bashed homosexuals. With the exception of the marginal former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, no one directly endorsed the Ryan Plan. Two months ago, every Republican in the US House back this plan; now no one wants to talk about it.
There were cringe-making moments, such as the pizza executive Herman Cain’s assertion that Sharia Law is used in American courts, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s seeming call for Muslim-Americans to swear loyalty oaths, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s claim that America’s founding documents describe it as a nation “under God” (neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution uses this phrase). But overall, there was little of the usual thunder on the Right. The sometimes fiery Mr Gingrich has returned from the Greek Cruise that prompted his staff to mutiny en masse perhaps excessively rested, wondering aloud about the absence of an American encampment on the moon. Even so, the Tea Party and former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, touchstones for the populist right, seemed like phenomena from a past era.
It was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who held centre stage, literally and metaphorically. As critics have alleged, Mr Romney is something of a political weathervane. More precisely, he is a businessman, with an instinct for what product will sell at a given moment. Having evaluated the marketplace, he recognises the demand for competence rather than ideology. Thus Mr Romney now accuses Mr Obama of failure, rather than leftism. He also does not repudiate his belief that human activity is causing climate change or his support the legislation that his overhyped rival Mr Pawlenty calls “Obamneycare.”
Instead, Mr Romney takes the coherent (if somewhat silly) federalist position that healthcare reform ought to take place at the state level. Mr Gingrich and Mr Pawlenty, no more principled than Mr Romney, but with poorer political instincts, have simply boarded a train going in the wrong direction.
In the dynamic glimpsed last night, Mr Romney is now running against Mr Obama, while the other Republicans are running against Mr Romney. The most credible challenge to the Republican frontrunner is likely to come not from someone more conservative, but his coreligionist Jon Huntsman, the even more liberal former Governor of Utah who is expected to announce his candidacy within the next week. Mr Huntsman, who has in the past supported not only civil unions but Mr Obama’s stimulus spending, has expressed his intention to show “civility” not just toward his Republican rivals, but to the Democratic President he recently served as Ambassador to China.
Primaries usually pull candidates to the margin, but the GOP is now experiencing a politically healthy course correction. Until recently the most evident forces were indeed pushing them away from the centre. We are now seeing an opposite shift, away from then margin, and toward the middle. For Mr Obama, this movement, and the outbreak of Republican sanity it signals, is a worrying development indeed.
The writer is chairman of the Slate Group.
A debate that shows Republicans winning the battle of ideas
I agree with Jacob’s central point. But my sense is that this return
to seriousness has been going on for some time. While “birtherism” and Sarah Palin have drawn outsized attention, the deeper shift in conservatism has seen a renewed focus on the seemingly mundane but actually all-important question of how government works.
The recent battles in Wisconsin, for instance, in which Gov. Scott Walker proposed rolling back collective bargaining rights for public employees, was as heated and polarising a cable-news Kulturkampf as the battles over Terri Schiavo, or no-hope attempts to introduce a Federal Marriage Amendment. The difference is that the current outcome in Wisconsin actually matters for the fiscal future of state and local governments across the country.
Left-leaning Americans are inclined to see the same old fever-swamp irrationalism at work in the right’s attempts to subject bloated budgets to sustained scrutiny, but this is actually a debate that conservatives and libertarians are winning on the merits.
Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform proposal has been crucial to this revival of the right. Jacob notes that only former Senator Rick Santorum embraced the proposal in all of its particulars during the debate on Monday. That, I suspect, is exactly what Rep. Ryan would have anticipated.
For years, conservatives in Congress have railed against the size of government, yet they’ve studiously avoided talking about entitlements in any detail. President George W. Bush’s push to reform Social Security was plagued by a lack of specificity, which fueled the most paranoid interpretations of what dastardly right-wingers intended to do to a beloved programme.In truth, Rep. Ryan’s plan is not the most realistic on offer. That distinction belongs to the plan put forth by former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici, which would make for an excellent compromise between the visions of both parties.
But it is not and never was Rep. Ryan’s job to lay out a compromise proposal. Rather, it was to rally congressional Republicans behind a plan that they could bring to the negotiating table. For all the plan’s weaknesses, it represents a huge advance over what had been the do-nothing Republican status quo on entitlements.
If the next Republican presidential candidate takes Rep. Ryan’s lead and crafts a more politically palatable plan for entitlement reform, the GOP will establish itself as the grown-up party. And that will pay electoral dividends.
The writer is co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream