With the nation transfixed by the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the first GOP presidential debate transpired last week with relatively little notice. For Republicans, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that for those who did pay attention, the debate brought to mind — and I’m just trying to be honest here, folks — the famous bar scene from “Star Wars.” At times the dialogue sounded like a faltering attempt at interplanetary communication. Can anyone seriously imagine Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul or Gary Johnson as president? Will anyone forgive Tim Pawlenty for joining such a motley crew?
Back on Earth, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the elimination of bin Laden was good not only for national security, the interest of justice and the public mood, but for President Obama’s political prospects as well. He’s not unbeatable in 2012, but at the moment you’ve got to like his chances.
Indeed, the bounce in Obama’s poll numbers was immediate — and, for potential opponents, daunting. A Washington Post-Pew Research Center survey saw the president’s approval numbers jump nine points, from 47 percent in April to 56 percent last week. A New York Times-CBS News poll found an even larger 11-point jump in approval, while Gallup measured the bounce at six points.
Sure, if you look more closely at the numbers, it’s clear that voters remain dissatisfied with Obama’s handling of the economy. Despite the news that nearly 270,000 private-sector jobs were added in April — the best monthly number in five years — the unemployment rate is an unacceptable 9 percent. For the president, this is an obvious vulnerability.
Rather, it should be a vulnerability. Exploiting it would require a capable, electable candidate. If such a Republican exists, he or she apparently didn’t make it to Greenville, S.C., in time for Thursday’s debate.
Among pundits, there were two schools of thought about the encounter. One was that Cain — a Tea Party activist who was the chairman and chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza — emerged as the clear winner. Cain is also an experienced talk-radio host, and he knows how to craft a distinctive sound bite. He dismissed the bin Laden killing with a memorable line: “One good decision doth not a presidency make.”
Cain is also distinguished by being the only African American in the Republican field. But he has the public profile of, well, a pizza box. And his anti-government rhetoric sounded a bit jejune in a week when Navy SEALs, CIA analysts and others on the federal payroll demonstrated just how skillful and irreplaceable government employees can be.
Meanwhile, Paul and Johnson tried to out-libertarian each other. Santorum, by contrast, touted his credentials as a social conservative, kind of an anti-libertarian. And Pawlenty? Well, his performance brings me to the other school of thought about the debate, which is that he battled to a draw with Mitt Romney — who wasn’t there.
T-Paw acknowledged that he once supported cap-and-trade energy legislation — which should be no surprise, since cap-and-trade once was popular with Republicans, before the party picked up and moved to the far-right fringe. Now such apostasy — even if fully disavowed and loudly lamented, as Pawlenty did Thursday night — may be a disqualifier. You know, such as the fact that Romney invented Obamacare.
Besides Romney, others who skipped the debate included Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Jon Huntsman and Mitch Daniels. That’s a relief, because if they had all showed up, debate organizers would have had to put them on risers. Opening and closing statements would take so long, there wouldn’t be time for any questions.
All right, I’m being facetious. I know that the GOP will come up with a candidate, eventually. I know that Obama had better find a way to talk about jobs that connects with voters. And I know that events — such as the one that took place in Abbottabad, Pakistan — have the potential to change everything.
But I also know that Obama, practically overnight, has dispelled the fog of ambiguity with which his opponents have tried to cloak him — the vague suspicion that there was something effete, passive, not quite fully American about him.
On “60 Minutes” Sunday, Obama’s usual caution with words seemed like disciplined reserve. His broad smile seemed fortified with steel. We like a bit of Clint Eastwood in our presidents. Come on, Republicans, make Obama’s day.
Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.