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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

Think about conditions, not candidates

By Ezra Klein

huntsmanandobama.png

The speculation over Ambassador Jon Huntsman's presidential aspirations -- and really all the potential 2012 contenders -- is too focused on candidates and not focused enough on conditions. But candidates can really only be judged in relation to the conditions of the election they run in. The idea that this candidate is strong and that candidate is weak doesn't make much sense. This candidate will only be strong in the right circumstances, and that candidate might not be weak if conditions change. And so that's where we should start.

What's the scenario in which President Obama is vulnerable in 2012? Well, it's a bad economy, mainly. It's a country in which people are angry and frustrated and waiting for a recovery that hasn't yet come. It's an election in which the GOP is coming off a big win in 2010 and has managed, since then, to block Obama and make him look progressively worse.

Does that sound like an election in which the Republican Party will be looking for a soft-spoken moderate who served the Obama administration well as ambassador to China and believes the GOP needs to stop spending so much time on social issues? Of course not. That's an election in which the question driving the Republican primary isn't just whether Obama was born here, but whether he'll be allowed, under federal law, to continue living here come January 2013. It's not an election Jon Huntsman can win.

The sort of election Huntsman could win -- and the sort of election he seemed to be preparing himself for when he took the Obama administration's offer of a job -- is a 2016 race where the retiring Obama is quite popular in the country, and the GOP is willing to make some fairly serious sacrifices to win back power. In that world, Huntsman can offer both some level of continuity and some level of change.

I don't want to go so far as to say there aren't "good" candidates and "bad" candidates. There are. But it's a question we devote too much time to given that primaries weed out most "bad" candidates. The bigger question has to do with which candidates work for which conditions. A "good" candidate -- that is to say, a disciplined campaigner who raises money effectively and seems credible and even inspirational to voters -- will be an effective candidate only if the conditions are right for his or her party and his or her combination of background, message and personal qualities. To put this somewhat more concretely, Bill Clinton was definitely a "good" candidate, but if the 1992 election had taken place in context of a serious foreign-policy crisis, it's likely that George H.W. Bush would've trounced him.

On the other hand: I do like this realpolitik theory for the speculation surrounding Huntsman.

Photo credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP.

By Ezra Klein  | January 3, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  2012 Presidential  
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Comments

Obama blocked?

Obama wasn't blocked at all. Obama and Congress of 111th were the most prolific in decades.

There is only so much one can do on the economy.

Posted by: maritza1 | January 3, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

maritza1, I think Ezra meant that the Republicans are effective in blocking the President's initiatives in the 112th Congress. As for whether the President can do anything about fixing the economy, well, that's debatable. What isn't debatable is that voters tend to blame/praise the incumbant party/President for the state of the economy regardless of what they have or haven't done.

Ezra's right, though. In a world President Obama is weak, almost any Republican nominee will present a credible challenge. In '08, almost any Dem nominee would have been likely to win against almost any Republican nominee. Similarly, we should be looking at how reality aligns for the primary campaigns and the general elections. In 2012, like in 2010, I'm very skeptical that Republicans will be looking for a candidate that appeals to the middle.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Way off target on your analysis of why Obama is vulnerable. This is your 10:43 Wake Up Call!!!

You stated "What's the scenario in which President Obama is vulnerable in 2012? Well, it's a bad economy, mainly."

It isn't mainly the economy!

-Guantanamo Bay

-troops still in Iraq and Iran

-a weak hand when it came to the oil spill

-massive budget issues because of uncontrolled spending

-getting the US's face ripped of in currency wars with China

-his extravagant travel habits

-his lip service promises to the rust belt

-his unapologetic dedication to unions and lobbyists

-his inability to end no-bid contracts above $25,000

-his lack of support to Nasa and their trips to the moon / mars

-sidestepping an immigration policy

-producing an already broken healthcare overhaul

-"the beer summit" with that Harvard Professor

-the stimulus money went to the lobbyists and wasted causes for the most part, and created no jobs.

He isn't vulnerable because the country's economy is bad, he's vulnerable because nothing he is doing is actually improving the economic outlook. The only things he can really be proud of are repealing don't ask don't tell, and ratifying a nuclear treaty with a bankrupt country that has an average life expectancy of 66 years.

The best thing the president has accomplished was to kick Rahm Emmanuel out of the administration. Because nothing said "change and bipartisan cooperation" like hiring the most bitter, radical, personal attack dog on the political stage. That was the beginning of the end.

Honestly, people put way too much weight on the economy and Obama. After all, every other word out of his mouth on the subject is "its been inherited, I didn't do it."

He ran for office, if he wanted to constantly complain about it, he should have sat this one out.

Also he treats himself like the leader of the Democratic party. There is no way he should have allowed Nancy Pelosi to walk to capital hill with the huge gavel, showboating in front of concerned Americans, to sign the healthcare legislation.

http://dc-cdn.virtacore.com/AP100321028779.jpg

We reap what we sow...

Posted by: RisingTideLiftsAllBoats | January 3, 2011 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Some will run in 2012 simply to get their name is the national spotlight so they can position themselves for a serious 2016 run.

Hey RisingTide, you forgot "bowing to arabs" and "refusing to show his birth certificate" and "pretending to be a Christian when in fact he's a muslim".

Seriously, I have plenty to beech about Obama, many of your itmes I agree with, but issues such as the beer summit are for idiots.

And the unions thing you mentioned helped get him elected and is his only chance of reelection. Obama'a Democrat not a Republican for goodness sakes.

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 3, 2011 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Ezra you are too young to remember. If Ross Perot had not run, Clinton never would have been president. Even Nixon had a higher percentage of the popular vote than Clinton 43%. Perot was settling as old score against the Bush family for some grieveance real or imagined. Whether you like him or not, Clinton was an accidental president, based on the whim of Perot.

Posted by: 54465446 | January 3, 2011 11:22 AM | Report abuse

maritza1, I think Ezra meant that the Republicans are effective in blocking the President's initiatives in the 112th Congress. As for whether the President can do anything about fixing the economy, well, that's debatable. What isn't debatable is that voters tend to blame/praise the incumbant party/President for the state of the economy regardless of what they have or haven't done.

Ezra's right, though. In a world President Obama is weak, almost any Republican nominee will present a credible challenge. In '08, almost any Dem nominee would have been likely to win against almost any Republican nominee. Similarly, we should be looking at how reality aligns for the primary campaigns and the general elections. In 2012, like in 2010, I'm very skeptical that Republicans will be looking for a candidate that appeals to the middle.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Huntsman in 2016 could be interesting. Even we blue Utahns (no, not an oxymoron) were pleased overall with how he governed the state.

Posted by: wlgiii | January 3, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Whoops, sorry for the double post.

Rising Tide, I agree with a bunch of your criticisms, but if you think literally any American who is not employed by NASA or a NASA contractor makes decisions on their vote based on the strength of the President's support for the space program, you're out of your gourd. Ditto on most of the list. Sure, there are things there that I'm not happy about, and there are other things that other people are unhappy about, but Ezra's had a ton of posts citing data that shows that electoral outcomes have a lot more to do with how the economy is trending (not necessarily if it's good or bad in absolute terms) than any other issue. If the economy is trending better, President Obama will be in a fairly strong position for reelection. If the economy is stagnating or trending worse, he'll be weaker.

54465446, I've seen polling data that shows Clinton handily beating Bush, Sr. in a head to head electoral matchup. Perot did not hand him the Presidency, though that story has persisted.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 12:10 PM | Report abuse

To further pollute this thread with my musings, Huntsman seems like the kind of guy Dems and Beltway Elite Republicans hope will get the nomination. Kind of like John McCain circa 2003. Winning the Republican Primary will either thin the herd of guys like Huntsman or force them to veer sharply to the right, a la McCain.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

mosben:

Good to chat with you again. Sorry, no one can ever scientifically prove the case either way, but remember that polling data before the election was off by at least 8-10% in the expected percentage of the vote for Perot.

Also please note that Clinton received only 2% less than Dukakis did 4 years earlier, while Bush had a historic drop of nearly 18% in the popular vote. We will never convince each other perhaps, but statistically speaking that means the votes to Perot were almost certainly to have come from the Bush camp, not the Clinton side.

Posted by: 54465446 | January 3, 2011 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Exit polls showed Perot voters came equally from Bush and Clinton. The logic may not add up for you but Clinton won because he was challenging an incumbent whose approvals were in the 30s. Like Obama won against an incumbent party whose president's approvals were in the 20s. Obama's approvals are now in the mid- to high-40s. But I enjoy the theory though that even if the economy recovers, Obama will still lose because of his lack of support for a mission to Mars. What a mistake. Naturally, he would attract bipartisan support for such a proposal right now and doing so would vault his approval rating into the high 80s. (Some people just can't be pleased.)

Huntsman has no chance in 2012 and won't run. He supports efforts to cap our carbon emissions while the GOP (unlike even conservative parties in other Western countries) angrily and derisively rejects the opinion of more than 90% of climate scientists that humans are warming the planet. Only 1 Republican senate candidate in 2010 agreed we are. Other Republican congressmen cite The Bible as evidence why Global Warming cannot be real. Besides, we can't talk about it now because trying to stop global warming would distract us from our work protecting future generations, which we will accomplish by defaulting on our debt, causing a global crisis/keeping the tax rates of the richest 1% as low as possible.

Posted by: birchbeer | January 3, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

54465446, likewise. I remember reading something about this really really recently, but my five minute search on the Googles didn't job my memory as to where it was posted. You're right that we can't prove the counterfactual, but I seem to remember that whatever article I read had polling data that was confined to just Bush and Clinton, not both of them reduced by Perot's pull, and had Clinton with a comfortable lead.

Even so, if the counterfactual can't help me, it certainly can't help the argument that Clinton was an accidental president either. We can't prove that without Perot more people wouldn't have gravitated to Clinton's more populist message. It's possible that having Bush and Perot both pushing conservative ideas pulled the electorate further to the right than they might otherwise be. As you said, Perot's impact on Clinton's numbers is at best a guess, but given Clinton's charisma and Bush's multitude of problems, I think Clinton was in a pretty strong position.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 1:00 PM | Report abuse

mosben:

That's why I like you, because reasonable people may differ . . . reasonably!

Posted by: 54465446 | January 3, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

54465446, indeed! There are altogether too few folks 'round these parts that are worth responding to. I wish the comments system had a function like Ebay so we could rate comments for their usefulness/worth, or perhaps have the comments section screen out people that have a history of contributing senseless trolling with no argument, politeness, or humor.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse

EK wrote:
"and the GOP is willing to make some fairly serious sacrifices to win back power."

Using the term GOP implies there are liberal, moderate and conservatives in the party.
There is no GOP any more, it's conservative republicans only.

Most Americans do not trust conservative republicans to do the right thing for all Americans. Republicans have become the party which represents corporations, elite 2%'ers and the fools who believe they are still in the middle class.

Posted by: knjincvc | January 3, 2011 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Huntsman who?

Posted by: knjincvc | January 3, 2011 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Ambassador to China is not a great jumping-off spot for national office. It has no domestic constituency. And there is no scenario in which resentment of China is not widespread, and in which the other candidates can't suggest that the ambassador is at least partly to blame.

Being a Mormon (I'm assuming) from Utah has it's own handicaps. Look for Huntsman to be in the Senate.

Posted by: turningfool | January 3, 2011 2:42 PM | Report abuse

For another example of how being a diplomat helps you win higher office, see Bill Richardson.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 3:14 PM | Report abuse


MosBen, Yes there is a significant correlation between the economic environment and electoral decisions.

My point is that President Obama is not vulnerable mostly because of the economy, he is vulnerable because of a plethora of issues, the sum of which will influence voters. If he loses the next election, you cannot point to the economy as "the reason." Many of his initiatives, while well meaning, have backfired. He has alienated many demographics and people in the political "center."

The NASA example comes from a campaign promise. President Obama promised an increased space program and support a trip to the moon, then when in office, cut it. I diverge, but NASA is responsible for spurring the development (or at least a better design) of many common technologies, about 1400, including the MRI, smoke detector, more recently, inflatable antennas and winglets on commercial jets. It is a real stimulus project that transfers funds to a multitude of sub contractors, who are all currently disgruntled.

The key point I'm trying to support is that the incumbent's vulnerability comes from an array of issues and incidents, and to present it as "mostly the economy" is oversimplifying the situation.

Posted by: RisingTideLiftsAllBoats | January 3, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

If Palin wants the Republican nomination it is hers for the taking. Nobody in the GOP can stop her. And a "RINO" like Huntsman stands no chance. The Republican party is determined to self-destruct in 2012, and Palin is just the ticket.

Posted by: gposner | January 3, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

RisingTide, I'm sympathetic to the argument, and trust me, as a nerd of the first order few things sadden me as much as cuts to the space program. I'm one of those people that think we should be planning a manned mission to Mars even if the only benefit is to show people that we can. Final Frontier and all that.

But Ezra's had a lot of posts with an awful lot of data over the last year or so showing that while it makes intuitive sense that this decision or that decision can gain or lose votes, the direction that the economy is moving at the time of the election basically blows them all out of the water. Basically, people vote on whether they think things are getting better or worse when they're in the booth. I wish it weren't as simple as that, but like I said, Ezra's put a fair amount of data in front of my eyes that seems to say that it is, and haven't seen any data that says differently.

Posted by: MosBen | January 3, 2011 4:56 PM | Report abuse

maritza1 ... other than save some state and municipal jobs, the Obama economic plan did nothing.

The efforts initiated during the last year of the Bush43 Administration to save the auto industry and the financial system were continued by Obama, and so far seem to have stemmed the tide. But no Obama initiative has done anything significant.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | January 3, 2011 5:04 PM | Report abuse

The R's actually tend to nominate the candidate with the best chance in the general, and as Plouffe said, that's obviously Huntsman. Look out, my fellow Dems, the race just got competitive.

Posted by: michaelh81 | January 3, 2011 8:10 PM | Report abuse

It is clear several questions need to be asked about our President?
1. Who's social security number is Obama using?? There are experts who question if it belongs to a dead man from Conneticut but was never removed from the system? It was also reported that a family connection to the board of records may have been involved???
2. Is Obama really going to stiff arm the public and keep the Hospital and delivering Doctor a secret, America will find out????? Does anyone worry that Obama has spent nearly $2 million in court to keep his real birth records locked up tight???????????
So when does the Washington Post act like a News agency and ask some tough questions of our President??????

Posted by: Richie5 | January 3, 2011 8:28 PM | Report abuse

Richie5, when are people like you going to give it up? Who the h*ll even cares whether Obama was born in this country anymore anyway? He is doing a pretty good job and that is all I ask. Noone questioned George W. Bush's credentials and we got stuck with the worst president in US history. You do acknowledge that Obama is a better president than Bush, do you not? Because only a moron would not.

Posted by: nyrunner101 | January 3, 2011 9:07 PM | Report abuse

The GOP might not want a candidate that appeals to the "middle" in 2012, but I think the public will. If the next two years are nothing more than endless blame-game battles and nothing positive gets done, voters will be fed up with traditional right-left warring and be open to reason and compromise. In fact, they will be desperate for any moves that keep creating jobs and opportunities for all. If more millions lose healthcare, lose their houses, and the rich seem to still be getting the breaks instead of the middle class, expect a demand for bipartisanship.

Posted by: jcluma | January 3, 2011 10:54 PM | Report abuse

Washington Post: Why is this child still being paid to write articles?

He was the founder of the discredited JournoList.

He has no insight to add to any discussion.

He is off the block in his views that do not deal with any reality that we are experiencing in this nation.

Stop paying him or live with the results.

Posted by: letscheck | January 4, 2011 4:27 AM | Report abuse

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