As occurs immediately after every American presidential election, the campaign for the next election has already begun. The 2012 election was the Republican Party's to lose and it managed that task admirably. Everyone knew that Mitt Romney was not a strong candidate and if he had been facing a strong opponent who had been able to run on and not away from his record, the election would have been a second-term landslide like FDR's over Alfred Landon in 1936, Ike's over Adlai Stevenson in 1956, Richard Nixon's over George McGovern in 1972, and Ronald Reagan's over Walter Mondale in 1984. It was not like those and the administration campaigned by exploiting the foot-in-mouth tactics of the Republicans, who amply fulfilled philosopher John Stuart Mill's description of the conservatives as "the stupid party."
President Obama, for obvious reasons, was pretty well assured of the African-American vote. Because the Republican nominee obligingly proposed a rather unaccommodating stance opposite the under-documented immigrants, he lost almost the entire Hispanic vote to the Democrats, apart from the hard core of anti-Castro militants in Florida, without attracting any appreciable number of people who were not going to vote Republican anyway. The inept and fearful Republican response to the regime's effort to exploit the gap between the official position on contraception of the Roman Catholic Church, and the position in practice of that Church, enabled the Democrats to reap a large harvest of support from independent voters among women and young people of both sexes who bought some of the official insinuation that Romney and his party were anti-woman, anti-contraception, and anti-abortion, and that the Republican Party was infested with bigots and fuddy-duddies.
Romney managed to flounder into this fiasco without mobilizing any appreciable number of Roman Catholic or other traditionalists who were not already committed to vote for him. This is in part the consequence of nominating a candidate who had faced in all four directions on most of the issues that were allowed to dominate the debate. He had nibbled all the way around the edges on abortion, health care, same-sex marriage, and other issues that should not be among the principal criteria for choosing a president, as well as taxes, and allowed Obama to get away with an appalling economic and foreign policy performance. The African-Americans, Hispanics (who comprise almost 40 per cent of the country's Roman Catholics), moderate feminists and their sympathizers, and gays must have accorded Mr. Obama a heavy majority, probably over 80 per cent, which, with the habitual Democratic majority among the general category of average Americans undistinguishable by sect, ethnicity, region, or lifestyle, reelected a regime that did not deserve to be returned. The Republicans kept the torso of middle and upper income America, but lost all their limbs.
Not all of this can be laid at the door of Mitt Romney. Each new candidate who entered the Republican race, no matter how improbable, surged to the top of the polls of a party that had serious reservations about its front-runner. Michelle Bachmann (completely unqualified), Rick Perry (who, "Oops," jogged with a hand-gun in his belt), Herman Cain (likeable but never elected, simplistic and a serial cad), Newt Gingrich (brilliant but, as Peggy Noonan wrote, "a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, 'Watch this!'"), Rick Santorum (thoughtful but very traditional and with too narrow an appeal for the majority), all shot upwards and burst and fell like fireworks on the Fourth of July when primary voters got a serious look at them.
The Republicans didn't really want to win, as was made clear by the fact that their strongest candidates didn't make the race. If the candidates who could win don't run, their party will lose. Mitch Daniels apparently couldn't persuade his family to agree to a run. Chris Christie did not answer the call even when it came from Nancy Reagan and Henry Kissinger. Jeb Bush would not hear of it, Marco Rubio felt he was too inexperienced, and Paul Ryan, who is young and from congressman to president is a long leap that only one president has made (James A. Garfield), at least made the race as vice president. Jeb Bush presumably felt that the country was not ready for another Bush, meaning that he, as the next Bush, would not make it so he shouldn't try. All of them may have had good excuses not to run, but they were the strongest candidates and as I said, when the strongest candidates won't run, the party loses. In the terrible year of 1968, with 550,000 draftees in Vietnam, 200 to 400 coming back in body bags every week in a war that had not been explained and was not apparently being won, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and riots, over race and war, all over the country all year; Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan all, at one point, ran for president.
Of these people who did not try in 2012, the chance will not come again for some. Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie are unlikely to repeat as possible front-runners. Christie's large and vocal persona is fine for New Jersey, but he is a deficit-cutter, a talent that is likely to continue to be useful, but he is also an ex-prosecutor, a very dubious occupation in a very corrupt state, and there is no sign that he knows much about federal issues or has much applied himself to some state issues such as health care and education. It isn't clear that Mitch Daniels, a diminutive man, wishes to remain in politics, rather than returning to a Republican cabinet, where he was under George W. Bush as a successful budget director. Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan will be available, but Ryan will still, likely, be a congressman, albeit a respected and influential one. Rubio is a possibility but he will have to be less slick and facile and more substantial -- still, this may well be feasible.
The likeliest at this point is Jeb Bush. The animosity to his brother will fade and the sense of tedium at another Bush will pass. And Jeb Bush has much more of what his father called "the vision thing" than the two presidents in his family already, and is much less malapropistic than they. In a recent address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, excerpted in The Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush made the points a victorious leader of his party will have to make. He debunked the American declinists but decried profligate public spending and failing public education, and spoke from the experience of two terms as governor of the country's fifth state in population (Florida). Jeb Bush believes that the U.S. can resume its rise as a prosperous and civil nation if immigration is handled intelligently (his wife is Hispanic), and that it will be able to master the aging problem.
His program is to create a climate that admires success rather than reviling the proverbial one percent that are successful; an education system benchmarked to the best in the world and not just other failing domestic systems; a path to legitimacy for immigrants but one that does not leapfrog those who have followed the rules; and a re-emphasis of private sector solutions. He cautioned Republicans against alienating large groups of the population, both in principle, and on the mistaken tactical supposition that divisiveness brings in more votes than it alienates.
Jeb Bush sounds like a president, and if he didn't have some interest in the position, it is unlikely that he would take the trouble to sound like he does. The office is not, as far as can be discerned, seeking the man (or woman). But it does appear to be seeking someone who can do the job. The Obama interlude was an interruption after seven consecutive elections in which a Bush or Clinton or each, was nominated to national office. On April 24, the day before the opening of the George W. Bush presidential center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton will debate. It should be the first of many, building to the 2016 election.