2012 GOP presidential candidates confront a changing landscape

April 2, 2011

This is not an easy time for Republicans who are thinking of running for president in 2012. Whatever assumptions about the road ahead that may have existed a few months ago suddenly look more complicated, because of unfolding events here and abroad.

In the weeks after the midterm elections, a prospective GOP candidate might have assumed some or all of the following: President Obama was weakened. Republicans were ascendant. The GOP’s message had great resonance. The world was challenging, but those challenges were, for the most part, known.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

That’s not where things stand today. Prospective Republican candidates are having to rethink their assumptions at a time when they are at the mercy of other events and other people and when public opinion on many of the big issues is unsettled.

Start with the budget battles in Washington. Republicans can take some satisfaction in knowing that their midterm victories have forced the president to give ground on the issue of spending, tax cuts, debt and deficits. The debate in Washington right now is about how much or little to cut spending. So there is still resonance in the GOP’s small-government message, but there is dissonance as well.

Republicans are badly split on how to fight this battle. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is caught between the demands of tea party activists and many freshman Republicans, who want a major confrontation, and the reality that some compromise will be required to keep the government running.

Party leaders such as Boehner want substantial cuts but also want to avoid a government shutdown. Some conservative members, responding to grass-roots sentiments, say a shutdown might be necessary to make the point that spending must be cut even more dramatically. “Shut it down!” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told a tea party rally Thursday.

No one can predict the outcome of this year’s budget battles. The question this weekend is whether Republicans, Democrats and the president can reach agreement on a measure to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.

As this fight plays out, the more consequential battle will be joined. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is preparing to release a GOP budget that is expected to include big cuts in discretionary spending, entitlement reforms and other significant changes.

That will trigger a debate over the size and scope of government, spending priorities and political leadership that will probably reverberate into 2012. Will congressional Republicans smartly navigate these battles in a way that wins public support or misplay their hand in ways that damage the party’s presidential nominee in 2012?

The presidential candidates are mostly powerless to affect to how these events play out. In the meantime, they will have to decide whether to stand with those in the party who call for confrontation or those willing to try to negotiate a real agreement with Obama and the Democrats.

Republican presidential candidates have faced this problem before. In 1996, Bob Dole was hostage to the House Republicans, led by then-Speaker (and now likely 2012 candidate) Newt Gingrich, in the showdown with then-President Bill Clinton. Dole advisers watched helplessly as Gingrich helped force a government shutdown that helped boost Clinton’s standing and make the general election a foregone conclusion. Four years later, George W. Bush outlined his disagreements with House Republicans to appeal to swing voters.

The second arena where events are playing out with broad implications for 2012 is the states. Here, too, Republican presidential candidates are mostly bystanders to battles that will shape the 2012 landscape.

Republican governors and legislators are showing the public an undiluted model of conservative governance, which could come to Washington in 2013 if the GOP were to win the White House, pick up the Senate and hold the House.

Governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Rick Scott of Florida are enacting tough measures to cut spending, curb the power of public employee unions and provide business with significant tax breaks.

Christie has become a hero to many Republican activists across the country for taking on public employee unions. Overall, however, the GOP-led efforts have drawn, at best, mixed reviews in the states most affected. A number of the new governors now have negative approval ratings. There is plenty of time to turn those numbers around, but the party as a whole faces a challenge in selling its agenda to the public.

Prospective presidential candidates have applauded the governors’ actions but have little power over how effectively those state executives manage their politics. Polls show the public has greater sympathy for the position of the unions than the governors. With possible recall elections coming in Wisconsin and a possible referendum in Ohio, the battle for public opinion is far from over.

Then there is the economy, long seen as the president’s biggest vulnerability. Friday’s jobless report showed a gain of 216,000 jobs and the unemployment rate ticking down again to 8.8 percent — a full percentage point lower than at the time of the midterm elections.

There are enough potential problems on the horizon to make any forecaster cautious, but Republican candidates might have to recalibrate their perceptions of the economy and their critiques of the president as they prepare for the campaign.

Libya presents another case study of the difficulty of setting a course in the middle of a storm. Prospective Republican presidential candidates have been almost universally critical of the president’s handling of Libya while generally supportive of military action. Their own comments about dealing with a rapidly changing Middle East have been far from definitive.

If GOP candidates hope to find clear guidance about U.S. policy in Libya from the public, they may come away confused. Peyton Craighill in The Washington Post’s polling unit assembled recent survey results and found attitudes about U.S. military action varied depending on the way questions were asked or the order in which they were asked.

For example, in a Quinnipiac University poll completed the night of the president’s nationally televised speech, just 41 percent of Americans said the United States should use military force to remove Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi from power. An Associated Press-GfK poll completed the same night found 55 percent supporting “increased military action” by the United States to remove Gaddafi.

Events at home and overseas will keep changing. Republican presidential candidates have only limited control over the political environment, but they do have a choice as to which voters they try to speak to as they campaign. Will it be the party’s noisiest activists, the broader Republican electorate or the swing voters who will actually decide the election in 2012?

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