Defeated at nearly every level in the 2008 elections, Republicans were supposed to be using the current four-year stretch in purgatory to rethink the issues, redefine themselves as a party, and (most of all) select a charismatic leader to get them back in the game. Turns out, it's not taking too long to winnow the field.
As the dust cleared in 2009, there was no shortage of prospective saviors. Would it be Sarah Palin, the gorgeous and polarizing lightning rod from Alaska, who overshadowed running mate John McCain in the general election? What about Mike Huckabee, the glib, guitar-playing preacher and former Arkansas governor who combined populist foreign policy instincts with a down-home faith that even his detractors conceded was genuine?
There is also Tim Pawlenty, the conservative Minnesota governor with working-class roots, and everyman sensibilities, who has earned a reputation for competence and comity in a reliably Democratic state. Another rising star was said to be Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a man with little national following, but tremendous respect among veterans in both political parties. And if you liked attractive long shots, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina was beginning to attract interest, while Sen. John Ensign of Nevada was making presidential contending noises of his own.
And if Republicans didn't want to break the mold -- if they wanted to do what they almost always do, which is give the nomination to the man who was next in line -- there was Mitt Romney. The brainy Mormon millionaire, with his chiseled jaw and photogenic family, boasts a record of turning around troubled companies, political parties, Olympic committees, and even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Yes, Romney was the one who finished second to McCain in the 2008 GOP primary derby and he is the one whom many wise-guy Republicans in Washington believe their party should have nominated last time.
Now, Romney is known to be a square who doesn't cat around, drink, or even cuss. So what, you might wonder, is he doing with voodoo dolls of all his rivals? Okay, Politics Daily doesn't really have the evidence of such sorcery, but really, what else explains it?
First, Huntsman accepted President Obama's offer to serve as ambassador to China. The posting made sense: He is fluent in Mandarin from his days as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan and he and his wife have an adopted a Chinese daughter. Still, practically joining the Obama administration essentially took Huntsman out of the competition to unseat Obama.
Then, Ensign and Sanford: They removed themselves from consideration with their dueling soap operas. These men didn't just have extramarital affairs -- gosh, that wouldn't nearly disqualify a guy in this day and age -- but Sanford took the governorship on the lam (to Argentina, no less) then returned to tearfully and publicly confess all manner of unmanly sins, not the least of which was bewilderment. Ensign had the good sense to refrain from a weepy public confession, but when his love letters surfaced, along with reports of a payoff – his lover was the wife of a close friend and aide – his dreams of national office were kaput.
Soon thereafter, Sarah Palin decided that just 30 months as governor of Alaska was sufficient. That move, which may have made sense for her family, stamped Palin as a quitter to many GOP activists while simultaneously eviscerating her own, already tenuous claim to have the requisite executive experience to be president. Then, this week, Huckabee inexplicably announced during a tour of Israel that a two-state solution would never work in the Middle East because all that land belongs rightfully to Israel.
"The question is should the Palestinians have a place to call their own?" Huckabee said. "Yes, I have no problem with that. Should it be in the middle of the Jewish homeland? That's what I think has to be assessed as virtually unrealistic."
This odd remark -- I mean, who asked his opinion in the first place? -- put The Huck at odds with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, along with the expressly stated policy of the United States and every other civilized nation in the world. (The uncivilized
nations also don't believe in a two-state solution: They want Israel destroyed.) More to the point, this particular off-the-cuff diplomacy probably ended Huckabee's hopes, however faint, for his party's future presidential nomination. "What the hell is he going for -- the Manhattan vote?" asked former Bush and McCain adviser Mark McKinnon. "Bizarre."
So who is helped by all this self-destructive behavior? The most obvious answer is a certain former governor of Massachusetts.
"In the first half of '09, Romney has done the best of all the 2012 prospects," said former Bush White House aide Pete Wehner. "He hasn't made any errors, he's smart, solid, and reliable – and conservatives have grown to like him." Wehner added quickly, however, that Tim Pawlenty is also "an important voice" in the Republican Party.
That might spell trouble. Does it mean that Pawlenty is the likely next victim of the Curse of Mitt? "I certainly hope Pawlenty isn't," quipped Hoover Institution senior fellow Peter Berkowitz. "That would leave just about nobody."