In baseball talk, the presidential campaign is in the spring training part of the season. That part of the year follows the “hot stove league,” when teams make trades and sign players while fans and reporters have fun assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each team.
We’re well past the campaign “hot stove league” now, and are instead in the equivalent of the exhibition games that ball clubs play to determine what rosters they are going to take into the regular season. In the presidential campaign, it’s the caucuses and primaries that serve that purpose.
Real voters are now in the process of picking their rosters for the general election (the “real” season) that will start later in the year, in late spring, give or take a few months, when the parties ultimately settle on their final rosters, those being the presidential tickets that will vie for the right to lead the nation for the next four years.
The Democrats, unless something highly unusual should transpire, have their team in place. They will run Barack Obama for re-election for president with Joe Biden again filling the role of next-in-line as the nominee for vice-president. In that respect they are like the major league team that has won the previous World Series and has its roster set for the coming season.
But they are an injured team, having taken any number of hits over the almost three years of their reign, and they are hardly pre-season favorites heading into the coming campaign, dragged down by an economy that is sputtering and with the equivalent of a .240 team batting average (a sub-50% national approval rating).
Team Obama is, in other words, ripe for the plucking, if the opponents can field even a reasonably competitive ticket. Such a ticket would need, first and foremost, a strong fan-base, but therein lies the rub.
The obvious pick to head the ticket, Mitt Romney, is insufficiently attractive to the party’s base, which is the dominant force in the nomination process. The concerns about him principally turn on the perception that he is not a true conservative. And that perception flows from the fact that he has been a self-declared moderate/progressive in the past and, as governor of Massachusetts, signed a health care reform act that is very much the model for the federal health care reform law that Obama and the Democrats pushed through.
The irony (one of many, actually) is that Romney’s positions then were far closer to the mainstream of what used to be the Republican base. But, oh, how times have changed.
Now, the party is where its fringe used to be, and where the base used to be is pretty close to where Obama is on many issues. Health care reform is certainly prominent among the evidence of that fact, as the Affordable Care Act that he signed into law looks very much like the plan proposed by the Republicans in 1993 when Bill and Hillary Clinton were pushing for a far more radical adjustment to the health care needs of the country.
But now, what used to be orthodoxy in the GOP is anathema to the Tea-Party dominated party of Lincoln. Not that the rest of the country, or even the bulk of those who are registered Republicans, is aligned with the anti-government views that have become the accepted dogma for the primary- and caucus-voters who are currently determining the party’s fate.
Romney has been unable to poll much above 25% of registered Republicans in almost every national poll in this cycle, and he wasn’t able to break through that barrier in his prior run in 2008. In other words, he isn’t cutting it within his own party, even though he may be the only candidate calling himself a Republican with a legitimate chance of defeating the incumbent.
Instead, the party faithful have rallied, in turn, around a succession of pretenders (in the sense that all of them are so badly limited and/or flawed as to be totally unrealistic options).
And so we have seen the likes of Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum inspected and found wanting (and, in the case of Gingrich, re-inspected a couple of times and still, ultimately, found wanting), either because their deficiencies quickly became readily apparent (Perry), their pasts caught up with them (Gingrich), or their un-electability became obvious (Cain). (Jon Huntsman was deemed “not-conservative-enough,” having committed the unforgivable sin of serving as Obama’s Ambassador to China.)
And so, amazingly, the party faces the very real possibility at this relatively early stage of the campaign season of blowing a sure thing.
Not that anything is guaranteed, but under normal circumstances, the likelihood that a sitting president would be re-elected with unemployment north of eight percent is minimal at best. The last incumbent to do it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won because he had brought the rate down from the high teens when he took office at the outset of the Great Depression.
Obama came into office just as unemployment had begun to soar, and he then made the ill-advised comment to the effect that if unemployment was still over 8 percent in three years, he would be looking at a one-term presidency. And, as might be expected, Mr. Romney is using that comment in his campaign stump speech.
It could be a line he lives to regret, assuming he does get the nomination, which, sure thing that it has appeared to be, is not a sure thing (especially after his trouncing in South Carolina). If recent trends (over the last six months) continue, the unemployment rate might well be at or a tad below eight percent by the time voters actually cast their ballots later this year.
Or, failing that possibility, it may be in the low eight-point something range, allowing Obama to make a Trumanesque anti-Congress pitch that would go something like this – “If the Republicans hadn’t been so obstreperous, we’d be doing even better at cleaning up the mess their party created in the first place.”
And so, as the exhibition games get rolling, and the Republicans continue to struggle with the ABR (Anybody-But-Romney) field, the unlikely possibility becomes ever more probable: Obama will win.