Once upon a time there was a president, wavering in popularity. He was deemed by some political pundits as “highly beatable.” He had just done his whole thing with health care, which left voters fuming, and two years before the presidential election, Republicans picked up a slew of seats in the House, taking control.
But then, the Republican Party did the unthinkable: It gave the nomination to a guy because it was essentially “his turn,” and the candidate got shellacked by the incumbent Democratic president.
That president was Bill Clinton; the “It’s His Turn” candidate was Bob Dole; the year, 1996. And 2012 is shaping up to be an awful lot like that election.
In 1994, Mr. Clinton had just tried to jam universal health care down America’s throat. He had cruised to office two years earlier, defeating an unpopular Republican, and had been on top of the world until the mid-terms.
Republicans picked up a shocking 54 House seats and took the chamber for the first time since 1954. In the Senate, they picked up nine seats, taking over that chamber for the first time in eight years. The American voter was angry, and the GOP capitalized immediately, led by a then-young congressman, Newt Gingrich, who helped craft the Contract With America.
Fast forward to 2010. A Democrat had again cruised to office, beating an unpopular (even within his own party) candidate. This time, the president was able to shove a health-care overhaul through a Congress so flush with Democrats that they held a super-majority in the Senate. But the president had over-reached, and voters once again became frustrated, pouring into town halls to vent their anger.
In the mid-term, Republicans picked up a whopping 63 seats in the House, taking control, and six in the Senate.
But back to 1996. That year, with the Republicans still glowing from the mid-terms, the very best candidates — one by one — decided to take a pass. The party was abuzz with word that former Gen. Colin Powell would jump in, but he bailed. Former Secretary of Defense and future Vice President Dick Cheney toyed with the idea, but decided against a run, as did then-former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
But the mutts were plentiful. Sens. Richard G. Lugar, Phil Gramm and Arlen Specter jumped in, as did columnist Pat Buchanan, and former Govs. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pete Wilson of California.
And, oh yeah, Mr. Dole. He won the nomination but got shellacked by 8 million votes, lost 49.2 percent to 40.7 percent, and the electoral college gap was huge — 379-159. Worse, he got just 39.1 million votes; when Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984, he pulled in 54.4 million.
Once again, skip ahead to 2012 (and keep in mind that Obama got 69.5 million votes in 2008). Two former governors, Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee, and one incumbent governor, Haley Barbour, have all bailed. Even The Donald (Trump) decided to pass. Rising stars in the party also have said “no go”: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Like ‘96, the field is littered with dim stars: Mr. Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, businessman Herman Cain — plus multitime loser Rep. Ron Paul of Texas
And, oh yeah — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who couldn’t even defeat a weak Sen. John McCain for the nomination in 2008 and who has a health-care problem the size of Texas (striking, too, how he’s also from the same state where another nominee, Democrat John F. Kerry, hailed — and he lost badly to a vulnerable president in 2004).
Despite Rush Limbaugh’s “once more into the breach” bravado that Mr. Obama is beatable (which he’s said, at last count, 9,647 times), the best candidates have walked. And don’t expect Sarah Palin to take one for the team: Her chances are far better in 2016, and any day now, she’ll also announce that she’s going to sit this one out.
Which means it’s 1996 all over again for the Republicans. They’ll nominate Mr. Romney — Motto: “Eh, It’s His Turn” — and he’ll lose in a landslide. And there doesn’t look like there’s anything — or more importantly, anyone — who can stop it.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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