It's time to send the raucous teenagers down to the basement, where they can make all the noise they want without bothering anybody. The grownups are arriving for the dinner party that will be the Republicans' 2012 presidential campaign.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, just back from a stint as U.S. ambassador to China, formed his “leadership political action committee” this week, which is an early step in deciding whether to plunge into the race.
Huntsman, a fiscal conservative and relative social moderate, is clearly the potential challenger who most worries President Obama. Obama has taken pains to point out Huntsman's service in the current administration, calling him an “outstanding advocate for this administration and for this country,” and noting, “I couldn't be happier with the ambassador's service.” It seems likely that White House aides are responsible for leaking correspondence in which Huntsman called his former boss a “remarkable leader.”
The idea, evidently, is that if Huntsman was willing to serve under a Democratic administration, and if he does not believe Obama has horns and carries a pitchfork, he will be unacceptable to Republican primary voters — and thus will have no chance to later court the moderates that Obama badly needs in the general election.
Such thinking is not entirely divorced from reality — each party has its dedicated core that cannot countenance any cooperation with, or respect for, the other side — but if you have to count on the opposition benching one of its best players, you aren't entering the game in a strong position to win.
Some Republicans will certainly reject Huntsman for his live-and-let-live social views, and others will abhor his service in the Obama-Clinton State Department, but I suspect many more will respect his willingness to answer a president's call to help manage one of our most important international relationships. Also, many (one would hope most) Republicans are well aware that the country's policies on spending, taxes, trade and debt are likely to be the keys to this election, and are far more important than social questions like same-sex marriage, which are losing their political resonance. Focus on the economy brought GOP success in 2010. Plenty of Republicans are eager to use the same playbook in 2012.
And Huntsman is not the only credible challenger.
Former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota are both deep into their respective campaigns, Romney coming out of his 2008 run. Pawlenty is a social conservative from the Midwest who would be acceptable to nearly all factions in the GOP. He also has the advantage of coming from the state next door to Iowa, where the real campaign kicks off in just eight months. Romney has his own baggage, not least from the health care reform enacted on his watch in Massachusetts, but he also has plenty of gravitas and a successful record in business and governance. And he comes from the state adjoining New Hampshire, another key state in the race to the nomination.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will get to sit at the adult table as well. Some Republicans are trying to coax Daniels into the race because of his track record in fixing Indiana finances. Daniels would be a formidable candidate, in the same vein as Huntsman, Pawlenty or Romney.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania could emerge as the darling of the party's social conservatives. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, held that spot until now, but he has made too many buffoonish mistakes to keep it. Santorum is not my cup of tea, but then, I don't go to tea parties. It’s clear, however, that Huckabee will be sent to the basement, where he can make noise and appear on Fox News with the other kids.
One of those kids — and Fox commentators — is Sarah Palin. Her diminishing band of supporters would love for her to run. Every Republican who is serious about capturing the White House prays that she won't. From all appearances, she will answer those prayers; it seems she actually prefers hanging out with the cool kids to listening to all that boring adult chitchat about cost containment and budget authorizations.
Newt Gingrich, the long-ago House speaker and GOP wunderkind, also gets sent downstairs. He hasn't been relevant for more than a decade, and he offers nothing that would change that today. I get the impression he really just wants to hang out with those cool kids anyway, even though he isn't cool himself.
Donald Trump is standing at the top of the basement stairs, bellowing that the party can start now that The Donald is here. Trump wanted to sit with the adults, but was banished for being developmentally underage. I don't think those kids in the basement particularly want Trump's company, either, but he has to be someplace, and he — like the other preening adolescents — wants “someplace” to have TV cameras. So downstairs he goes.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour probably loves kids, from kissable babies right up through the Palin crowd. (Okay, maybe he can't tolerate The Donald, but who can?) Barbour, however, gets to sit with the adults, despite his “good ol' boy” persona. He earned his place at the table through his calm handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill, and he cemented it by having the good grace to take his name out of the presidential sweepstakes while everyone else is still trying to get in. Imagine: a good ol' boy who knows when to trade in his six-pack of beer for a bottle of Chardonnay.
This might turn out to be a party worth attending, after all.