Commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
WASHINGTON - Veteran U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., minced no words when he declared recently that President Obama's 2012 reelection bid will be in trouble -- if the GOP can produce a credible candidate to run against him.
By "credible," Conyers meant a moderate, centrist Republican, who can bag the majority of independent voters. They can make or break a presidential candidate.
After all, polls and voter surveys have shown time and again that American politics flow to the center. Presidential candidates whose positions appear wild, extreme or simply untenable have virtually no chance of winning the White House.
For example, prospective candidates including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (current U.S. ambassador to China), all fare dismally in head-to-head match-ups with Obama. In six major polls conducted since January, none of them cracked the 40 percent mark against the President.
The nation’s centrist bent has been plainly evident for more than a half century, ever since the 1964 presidential election when Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., scared voters witless with his bellicose posturing toward the Soviet Union, threats to gut Social Security and forceful touting of state’s rights. All of that helped assure Lyndon Johnson a landslide win.
“Extremism in defense of liberty,” he said radically in accepting the GOP nomination, “is no vice.”
Every president since then has taken the lesson of Goldwater’s loss to heart. GOP candidates in the early stages of the campaign run to the right, only to dash back to the center as they inch toward the possibility of a nomination.
Democratic presidential candidates are a mirror image of the Republicans, running to the left in the early going, then dashing back to the center.
Obama was no different as a presidential candidate in 2008. He sounded every bit the progressive in his lambasting of the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and greedy Wall Street bankers, while touting abortion rights and hinting at a new war on poverty.
But as Obama sped toward the nomination, he moved back to the center. He moved even closer to the center after the “shellacking” his party took in the 2010 midterm election.
The problem for some in the GOP is that individuals and groups within their own party have done anything but move toward the middle. Business owners and talk show host Herman Cain, Rep. Michelle Bachman, R-Minn., and, of course, Sarah Palin supply the media with an endless stream of wisecracks, foot-in-mouth gaffes and tweets. They have turned the GOP into a bad joke among a significant number of voters, and the thought of them getting close to the nomination sends cold chills up the spines of GOP party regulars.
Actually, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., went one better than the Democrat Conyers when he said that a Palin nomination would virtually ensure Obama’s re-election.
Gregg speaks for the GOP pragmatists, who control the money, media spin and party apparatus -- those who will do everything they can to maneuver and massage the primaries and party convention to ensure that the noise being made by Palin, Cain and Bachman will die before election season begins.
But that may not happen. The media obsession with those personalities and the fervor they stir up among Tea Party leaders and activists ensure they’ll be a constant object of public fascination, once the presidential season really kicks into high gear. They simply make for news copy that’s too good to ignore.
That leaves former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
The knock against Huckabee is that his appeal is limited to religious fundamentalists. And many in the GOP consider Romney too tainted by his embrace of health care reform and not authentically conservative enough. Both will have to scratch and claw to prove to the GOP mainstream leaders that they are viable presidential contenders.
Lesser known GOP hopefuls -- governors, ex-governors and senators -- are saying they can do what Obama did and emerge from political obscurity in a relatively short time to make a serious run.
That won't wash, because Obama was not the political rags-to-riches story his detractors make him out to be. He spent four years building support in the party, raising money, writing bestselling books and honing a charismatic and timely message.
If one of the currently obscure GOP presidential hopefuls is to break from the pack, build support and garner the cash it takes to make a serious run, he'll have to convince the Tea Party throngs that they would be a better choice for the GOP presidential nomination than their heroine, Palin. That's a near impossible sale.
Conyers is not enamored of Obama. He thinks he has cut too many deals with conservatives on everything from the Afghan war to caving in on tax cuts for the wealthy. But Conyers knows that the GOP alternatives to Obama, as they stand now, are unthinkable. Barring any unforeseen political catastrophe, a majority of Americans will think the same in 2012.