“If he popped up in the pinch he should of made a base hit and the reason he didn't was so-and-so. And if he cracked one for three bases he ought to had a home run, only the ball wasn't lively, or the wind brought it back, or he tripped on a lump o' dirt, roundin' first base.”
— Ring Lardner, “Alibi Ike” (1915)
So the Republican nominee's campaign theme can already be written. In 1960, candidate John Kennedy's theme was: “We can do better.” In 2012, the Republican candidate should say “Is this the best we can do?”
In the contest to determine who will wield those words, there have been three important recent developments: Michele Bachmann's swift ascent into the top tier of candidates, Tim Pawlenty's perch there becoming wobbly, and Jon Huntsman's mystifying approach to securing a place there.
Bachmann has been propelled by three strengths: Her natural aptitude, honed by considerable practice, has made her formidable at the presentational side of politics. She has perfect pitch for the nominating electorate's passions. And she has substantive private- and public-sector experience, as a tax lawyer and as a legislator on, among others, the House Intelligence Committee.
But she also has a deficiency — indiscipline — that can, if not promptly corrected, vitiate her assets. Unprepared for the intense scrutiny presidential campaigns receive, she trustingly repeats things told to her (confusing Concord, Mass., with Concord, N.H., and John Wayne with the mass murderer John Wayne Gacy), and she plunges into peripheral and utterly optional subjects she has not mastered (e.g., the Founders and slavery).
Pawlenty, a more ardent than discerning admirer of John McCain, is suddenly echoing McCain's unhistorical and nonsensical canard that skepticism about nation-building in Afghanistan and opposition to the intervention in Libya's civil war constitute isolationism. “America,” Pawlenty says, astonishingly, “already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.” The Democratic Party supporting a Democratic president's plunge into Libya is devoted to “withdrawal“? If only.
Huntsman's campaign manager, John Weaver, a former McCain man, believes the GOP “is nowhere near being a national governing party” — a view usually held by people called Democrats — and that the “simple reason” is: “No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.” Many of the cranks are called: The Republican nominating electorate.
Who will carry the banner?
Announcing his candidacy near the Statue of Liberty, where Ronald Reagan began his 1980 post-convention campaign, Huntsman promised “civility” because “I don't think you need to run down someone's reputation” when running for president. Actually, you do.
You must say why your opponent deserves a reputation for inadequacy. So Reagan at that spot said Jimmy Carter's “whole sorry record” was “a litany of despair, of broken promises, of sacred trusts abandoned and forgotten.” Reagan's forthrightness was neither uncivil nor, in the electorate's November opinion, untrue.
Who will carry the “Is This the Best We Can Do?” banner? So far, the serene front-runner, Mitt Romney, has nothing to fear from Huntsman's politics of high-mindedness. Bachmann's saliency with social conservatives, and the lurchings of Pawlenty's campaign, threatens Pawlenty's all-in wager on Iowa. And the potential fragility of Bachmann's campaign turns attention to the last piece of the Republican puzzle — Texas' Gov. Rick Perry, a high-octane social and economic conservative whom nobody could confuse with Alibi Ike.