An Out-of-Office Message for Republican Candidates

Published May 9, 2010
New York Times Magazine

Some 30 months from the next presidential election, the field of potential challengers to Barack Obama is like a solar system in its infancy — unformed, gaseous and lacking a dominant star. One characteristic, however, stands out. In a recent CNN poll that tested the strength of possible Republican hopefuls, only one of the seven most likely candidates (that would be Representative Ron Paul) will actually hold an elected office by the end of this year. The two leading candidates as of today, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, haven’t held a political job in more than three years. Sarah Palin gave up her governorship when the vast Alaskan frontier became too confining for her ambition, and Newt Gingrich hasn’t run for anything since the days before Google was a verb. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s governor, is leaving office at the end of the year. We’ve certainly had our share of presidents who ran as former officeholders of one kind or another: Jimmy Carter ran as an ex-governor in 1976, and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were out of office by the time they finally won the presidency. Still, you have to go back almost three decades — to the former vice president Walter Mondale in 1984 — to find a major-party candidate who didn’t hold an office on the day he clinched the nomination. Which makes it strange that a number of Republican aspirants seem to be hoping for their own version of a jobless recovery.

There are reasons both practical and ethereal that some presidential candidates today might see an advantage in putting some distance between themselves and the obligations of office. One is the evolution of the sprawling presidential process itself, which now turns even an exploratory candidacy into a full-time fund-raising and networking job. And it probably isn’t lost on anyone who is considering a presidential campaign in this political climate that all the trappings of government that have traditionally served to legitimize a lesser-known candidate — security details, official planes, press conferences held on the Capitol steps — may be about as helpful with primary voters now as a disfiguring rash. After all, in a Pew Research Center poll last month, only 22 percent of respondents said they could trust government most of the time, which is one of the lowest percentages in more than 50 years of asking the question. There has never been a worse time to be an incumbent anything.

It’s true, too, that as a society we tend to view employment as a concept differently from the way we did 20 or 30 years ago. Our parents and grandparents defined themselves wholly by their day jobs. The answer to the age-old question of “What do you do?” was that they were doctors or steelworkers, mothers or teachers. Similarly, a broadcast-age politician was his office, plain and simple, and without it he lacked an identity. In the fractured, multidimensional world of the Web, however, we may be many more things to many more people at once. A bankruptcy lawyer by day may be a celebrated blogger by night; the guy who delivers your mail may attract a following as an amateur photographer or an armchair paleontologist. Titles mean less, passions mean more. A durable political persona has more currency in the modern age than any elected office, with all the rules that come with it.

This move away from incumbency also tells us two things about the conflicts churning inside the Republican Party. The first has to do with the tides of modern conservatism, which have always surged and ebbed from a movement phase to a governing phase and back again. The Goldwater-era activists of the 1960s and ’70s wrested control of their party over a period of years, until at last Reagan translated that uprising into a fiscal and moral governing vision that persuaded the country. Similarly, Reagan’s ideological heirs mounted an assault on the more tepid Republican leadership of the late 1980s and early 1990s, building the momentum that enabled Gingrich to create his unlikely Republican majority. Now, in the moment after George W. Bush, conservatism again finds itself in the grass-roots movement phase, exiled and at war with the Washington establishment. Little wonder that those gravitating toward a 2012 race fashion themselves as free-agent leaders rather than as political insiders.

The second point is that the conservative ideology in its distilled form — that is, the virile strain that animates the so-called Tea Party uprising — is largely incompatible with the reality of governing in a recession. (This is apparent in Florida, where the governor, Charlie Crist, is on the verge of being stamped out of the party for having supported the president’s stimulus plan.) Conservative activists want government in every instance to achieve more by doing drastically less, while those entrusted with public office must grapple with the effects of cutting health care for the elderly or aid to community colleges. In that kind of environment, can anyone who actually has to run a state hope to rally the Tea Party troops in Iowa and New Hampshire? Even for former officeholders, this kind of purity test can be a problem. Romney’s candidacy is endangered because he put into effect an Obama-like health care reform in Massachusetts. Better to do like Palin, who stayed in office just long enough to earn national celebrity but not nearly long enough to have left any traceable residue of governance.

The field of Republican formers will winnow and change, of course. Gingrich and Palin may decide that being thought of as a candidate is a lot more appealing than actually being one, and Romney may get past his stammering over health care in time to emerge as a genuine front-runner, if such a thing still exists in presidential-campaign politics. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Democrats wouldn’t be pleased to meet a bunch of Republican aspirants who could easily be caricatured as sideline hecklers, rather than as elected leaders who have had to confront the same crises as the president himself.

What must worry the current occupant of the White House more, as he watches his approval ratings dip to very human levels, is that there might be a serving Republican in the land who is thinking hard about the next phase of conservative governance. Somewhere out there is a younger, sitting senator (maybe a guy like South Dakota’s John Thune) or a governor (someone like Pawlenty or Indiana’s Mitch Daniels) who may aspire to something besides appeasing the discontent of a movement. From such less-intuitive candidacies, as Obama himself well knows, less intuitive outcomes are born.

Matt Bai writes about national politics for the magazine.