Obama versus whom?

This is a much-expanded version of my Sunday print column. I'm also scheduled today for a live chat on philly.com, at 1 p.m.


If you trust in the predictions of Dick Cheney – and hey, who doesn’t? – then clearly you believe that a Republican restoration is imminent.

The crowd went wild at a recent conservative confab when Cheney confidently decreed that "Barack Obama is a one-term president," but I’d suggest that such giddiness is woefully premature, and that forecasts of an Obama defeat may well prove to be as credible as the seer’s old saw about how our troops in Iraq would be welcomed as liberators.

First, some recent historical perspective - the kind that's typically overlooked in our obsession with the here and now. Ronald Reagan, two years away from his re-election race, was deemed highly beatable; in part because the jobless rate was roughly 10 percent in 1982, his job-approval rating was lower than Obama's today. And Bill Clinton, two years into his first term, was thought to be toast. After he lost both congressional chambers to the Republicans, he was reduced to insisting, at a press conference, that "the president is relevant." But Reagan looked better when he was ultimately matched against Walter Mondale (who promised to raise taxes), and Clinton won in a breeze when matched against Bob Dole's grumpy old man.

Granted, the current polls report that President Obama is vulnerable when matched against a generic Republican candidate. According to a new Gallup poll, 50 percent of registered voters currently believe that Obama doesn't deserve a second term. In reality, however, Obama will be matched against an actual Republican candidate. And all actual candidates are burdened with actual baggage – not to mention the inevitable wounds and scars that any Republican will suffer during a primary season that promises to be downright Darwinian.

Even if one of these Republicans manage to unite all the various overlapping factions – the tea-partiers, the religious conservatives, the deficit hawks, the antiwar libertarians, the pro-business country clubbers, the Wall Street types, the neoconservative warriors – will he or she be sufficiently financed and talented to knock off a charismatic incumbent who’s likely to be sitting on $1 billion in campaign funds?

And speaking of talent, have you actually looked at the current crop of Republican propects? Suffice it so say that one of the front-runners is a guy who once embarked on a family road trip by strapping the family dog to the roof of the car.

OK, dog lovers might give Mitt Romney a pass on that one. But his baggage is heavy regardless. He may have deep pockets and great hair, but his Mormon faith is still anathema to many Christian conservatives, and that faction is dominant in the crucial early primaries. Indeed, he is already widely distrusted, within his own party, as a policy flip-flopper whose Olympian acrobatics conjur memories of Olga Korbut.

In the ’08 primaries, he veered rightward on abortion and gay marriage, distancing himself from his moderate stint as a Massachusetts governor – but his current backflip is far more breathtaking. In ’06, he signed a statewide health care reform law, complete with a requirement that all Bay State citizens buy coverage. You see the problem. He can’t remake himself as a pitchfork populist standing tall with GOP conservatives against the alleged tyranny of ObamaCare, not unless he somehow convinces them that RomneyCare is, in his words, "entirely different."

Which it isn’t. Which is why Obama delights in citing the similarities. Which is why Philip Klein, a blogger at the conservative American Spectator, wrote on Friday, "Romney would not be able to credibly campaign against the national health care law." Which is why Fox News recently sliced Romney to ribbons on this issue – host Chris Wallace told Romney, "we got a lot of email from conservatives this week who said that you are the wrong man" to carry the party banner on health care – and I’ll simply note that any Republican scolded in this fashion by Fox News might as well be riding on the roof with the family dog.

The latest CNN poll of Republican voters puts Romney in second place for the nomination. First place goes to Mike Huckabee. It speaks volumes about the quality of the GOP field that the front-runner du jour is an evangelical pastor who compares gay civil unions to drug use, incest, and polygamy. And assuming he even runs, I wonder whether conservative primary voters will warm to his "soft on crime" credentials, given the fact that, as Arkansas governor, he freed a rapist who later suffocated a mother of three; and that he helped free a serial criminal who, this past November, killed four cops in Washington state as they ate breakfast.

Huckabee may well opt to stick with his broadcast gigs, wisely so. Sarah Palin may do the same, rather than expose herself to the daily indignities of demonstrating how little she knows. She seems far more tempted by the perks of being a well-paid personality; in her current incarnation, she insulates herself from spontaneous questions, the kind that might require her to expound beyond the slogans etched on her palm. (She insists these days that all audience queries be pre-screened. She'd find it tough to give that up.) Indeed, Fred Malek, a longtime GOP operative and Palin adviser, told MSNBC on Friday that she's not doing the requisite preparations for a presidential bid; instead, "she's carved out a different career for herself at this point."

Not even Palin's fans believe she is electable; although she wowed the crowd at last weekend’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference, she drew only 18 percent of the straw poll voters. The conservative base apparently fears that she’d be chewed up by "the liberal media," but I sense that her fatal flaw is her sarcasm. Swing voters in a general election typically gravitate to sunny optimism – what Palin dismisses as "hopey, changey."

In that straw poll, the former half-term governor wound up in a tie with Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker. Gingrich is teasing us about a presidential bid, just as he did prior to the ’08 festivities. I’m underwhelmed. He peaked as a power figure way back in 1995, around the time he was threatening to shut down the government. He made good on his threat, but lost the PR battle when President Clinton successfully tagged him as an obstructionist. Two years after that, he was nearly dumped as speaker by an in-house coup, led by conservatives who thought he was too easy on Democrats. Anyway, Gingrich showed up at last weekend’s party conference with a bright idea, a back-to-the-future kind of thing: Republicans should win back the Congress in November - and then shut down the government again! Naturally the crowd roared, but the truth is, a lot of conservatives view Gingrich merely as a retread who talks big.

At least he has stump charisma – unlike Tim Pawlenty, who would appear to be a major player, at least on paper. Pawlenty, the lame duck Minnesota governor, has assembled a crack team of campaign veterans, but his big problem – aside from the fact that he lacks a signature achievement as governor – is that he’s more soporific than Ambien. A couple months back, he did a mad-as-heck bit for the tea party faction, voicing his desire to "take a nine iron and smash the window out of big government," but it was akin to watching Woody Allen lock and load.

All told, the public is hip to the GOP’s candidate deficit. Obama’s job-approval numbers are tepid these days – but he looks robust when matched against actual Republican challengers. A new CNN poll shows that, if the election was held today, Obama would crush all likely rivals, by as many as 13 percentage points. That’s the spread with Palin on the ballot.

Republicans can console themselves with the thought that ’12 is a long way off, but the time window for new candidates is rapidly closing. How about Jeb Bush? Toxic name. John Thune, South Dakota senator? He's an unknown who's doing almost nothing to get himself known. Scott Brown? Not a chance; the tea partiers' winter hero supports Roe v. Wade, which would doom him in the Republican primaries.
How about Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi? That’s an idea. He once ran the national party, he knows Washington, he was a well-wired lobbyist, he's reportedly weighing the idea of running...but wait, he’s also the guy who insists that Virginia’s failure to mention slavery, in its celebration of Confederate History Month, "doesn’t amount to diddly." No surprise there, since Barbour himself has proclaimed April to be Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi - and he too omitted any mention of slavery.

Barbour's stance would undoubtedly please the overwhelmingly white tea-partiers, 52 percent of whom (according to a new national poll) believe that blacks get too much attention these days. But that kind of attitude wouldn't go down well with the burgeoning minority electorate that already boycotts the GOP in presidential contests. The GOP is already a virtually all-white party; it might be wise to find a nominee who might actually put some color on the palette.

In short, Barach Obama may be beatable - on paper. But you can’t beat something with nothing.