By all reasonable lights, it is way to early to be lining up behind candidates for president for 2012. But American politics isn't reasonable these days. The permanent campaign is a fact of American political life. And conservatives are right to want to finally have a nominee of their own in 2012. We haven't had one since Ronald Reagan. (Neither of the Bushes, nor Bob Dole, nor John McCain, were movement conservatives; indeed, all of them actually disdained the movement.) That said, conservatives will be in a quandary unless they refuse to accept the conventional wisdom about which candidates can be successful. The list of the most prominent potential candidates is full of problems.
Mike Huckabee is a phony with ethics problems, a mean streak, a strangely ill-formed appreciation of American defense needs, and a serious lack of credibility on fiscal issues. Mitt Romney is the author of a state health-care law that is a big-government nightmare, and he adopts new political positions like a chameleon in heat. Tim Pawlenty has at times been way too fond of global warming baloney, and he's boring. Sarah Palin is disliked by 62 percent of the American public, and for all her conservative attitudinal bona fides, she still lacks depth of knowledge or experience. Mitch Daniels has vowed never to run for another office. Rick Santorum, a conservative stalwart, lost his last race in a landslide and may need to prove winnability again. Bobby Jindal has a re-election race in Louisiana in 2011, making a presidential campaign a logistical near-impossibility. Plus, he still needs seasoning. Ohio's Rob Portman and John Kasich, if they win their respective races for Senate and governor in 2010, will be extremely attractive V-P possibilities in 2012, but really can't be expected to make presidential runs so soon after taking new statewide offices. Haley Barbour is a political mastermind, but his style and his lobbying background probably won't sell nationally. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a superb governor and a great guy, lacks national notice. Newt Gingrich is a great conceptualizer, but his political drawbacks are legion -- and he may not be able to mend fences with conservatives regarding his endorsement of Dede Scozzafava in the New York special election. Dick Cheney is a great American and would make a great president, but Republicans need to get away from septuagenarians. Finally, Jeb Bush is a Bush.
But there is a potential candidate who, just possibly, might fill the bill. He bears watching, whether or not he actually has designs on the job. He was the keynote speaker at The American Spectator's annual Robert Bartley dinner last week, and in substance his speech -- reprinted here -- was everything a conservative could want. In style, my other sources tell me he could use a few more smiles and a little less tension, but I found that he certainly does know how to deliver a message in tones that are inspirational and consistently interesting.
The speaker was House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana. This passage from his speech is worth quoting at length:
The real American Revolution was a revolution of self-reliance and independence, casting off dependency on the crown, in the hearts and minds of the American people. It was a rejection of the spirit of dependence in favor of a society of free and independent people.
As Thomas Sowell wrote, "What the American Revolution did was give the common man a voice, a veto, elbow room, and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of his 'betters.'" And, I submit, it is that revolution of independence and self-reliance that liberal elites are seeking to overturn. Barney Frank recently said, "We are trying on every front to increase the role of government." Not just the size but the role.
With the role of the federal government tightening every day on our economy, our finances, our natural resources, and our everyday lives, the common American values of life, liberty and limited government are being trampled by the urgency of the moment and the judgment of people who "know better" than everyday Americans.
The late Jack Kemp said words in 1996 at the Republican National Convention that speak to our time about the politicians and the political elites here in Washington. He said: "They don't have faith in people. They're elitists. They have faith in government. They think they know better than the people, but the truth is, there is a wisdom and intelligence in ordinary men and women far superior to the greatest so-called experts."
The thing about Mike Pence is, he has fought the fight -- and continues to fight it. He's been in Washington since 2000, but shows not a single sign of being Beltwayed. He stood tall against the Medicare prescription drug boondoggle. He stood tall against all the various bailouts and handouts of the past 15 months. He provided extraordinary leadership in the August 2008 "rump Congress" fight in favor of expanded energy.
Pence has substance: He led a conservative think tank in Indiana before being elected to Congress. Think tank leaders aren't shallow. Pence has media savvy: He hosted a popular talk-radio show in Indiana. Pence has leadership skills: You don't get elected Conference chairman as an insurgent, rather than as a member of the party's go-along to get-along crowd, unless you have an extraordinary ability to make that insurgency influential.
But look up his record for yourself. It is a record or consistent conservatism, avidly and cheerfully pursued.
The obvious counter-argument, of course, is that Pence is "just" a House member. House members supposedly don't have broad enough constituencies to run for president. No House member has been successful since James Garfield. Yada yada yada.
Well, before Barack Obama, only two sitting senators -- Warren Harding and John Kennedy -- had won election to the White House. Political history can be bunk. It once was thought that nobody with so little experience as Obama should be elected president. Nobody from states with so few electoral votes as Wyoming, Hawaii, Alaska, and Delaware, or who was born in a foreign canal zone, should be on presidential tickets. The president's party always loses ground in off-year elections (disproved in 2002). Presidential parties always get re-elected when the economy is good (disproved in 2000). And so on, ad infinitum. All of these myths confuse correlation with causation. And there's no reason the "impossibility" of a House member winning the presidency can't be likewise a myth. Modern media can make superstars out of people overnight (see Sarah Palin). There's no reason it can't do the same for a House leader who plays his cards right.
For that matter, even though the elder George Bush had a tacit endorsement from Ronald Reagan after serving loyally for eight years, House Conference Chairman Jack Kemp may well have won the GOP nod in 1988 had not Pete DuPont and Pat Robertson entered the race and split the conservative votes three ways.
What Pence needs, like Kemp before him, is a galvanizing issue that becomes virtually synonymous with his name, as supply-side tax cuts (and enterprise zones) were for Kemp. Discussion of what such an issue may be will need to wait for another day (but I have several ideas). Again, though, in this age of mass media, an old spiritual song is applicable: It only takes a spark to get a fire going.
Whether it is Pence or some other conservative standard-bearer, one key test will lie in finding that issue. This is not to endorse Pence, but only to say that there is no reason why he can't emerge. And there is every reason, if he does emerge (if he is even interested), legitimately walking the conservative walk while singing the right conservative tune, for conservatives to welcome that harmonic emergence.