President Barack Obama’s approval rating has been drifting down for a while and is now at its lowest yet. This obviously makes him a vulnerable re-election candidate. Still, it will take a credible opponent at the head of an acceptable party to beat him next year.
The near self-immolation of Republicans in the House during the battle over the Boehner debt-ceiling package confirmed that the best that can be expected over the next year on the Hill is … not much. We can hope that the self-destructive element of the GOP caucus doesn’t do much harm, and that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell can minimize the damage to the Republican image and cause.
Before Boehner had to modify his debt-ceiling legislation, he still had the support of almost 90 percent of the House GOP conference, and about 80 percent of the conservative Republican Study Committee members. So it would be misleading to call the rebellion against Boehner a broad-based movement on the right.
Still, it happened and it did its damage. Now large numbers of Republican primary voters and even more of the independent general-election voters will be wary of supporting a Republican candidate in 2012 if the party looks as if it’s in the grip of an infantile form of conservatism. On the other hand, a conventional establishment candidate will have trouble uniting the conservative coalition.
As things now stand, the Sept. 7 Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan library will feature, in alphabetical order, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty (if he’s still in the race), Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin (if she gets in the race), and Rick Santorum (if he’s still in the race). One or two might surprise on the upside. Still: Picture yourself turning on your TV that evening. Feel enthusiastic about 2012?
Apart from those who took silly positions (Bachmann, who opposed all versions of a debt-ceiling increase, even as she equivocates on Medicare reform) and those whose support is confined to the liberal media (Huntsman, who supported Boehner), the Republican presidential candidates were basically nowhere to be found during the debt-ceiling debate, or they confined themselves to coy and cryptic comments. Not exactly profiles in leadership.
Paul Ryan can’t accomplish much over the next year in the House. He should run as a candidate who’s shown leadership (the Ryan budget), who has successfully taken on Obama (at the House Republican retreat, the health care summit, and in the White House about two months ago), and who has the best chance of uniting the establishment and tea party wings of the GOP. If not Ryan, how about Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker or someone else who is young, sane and unafraid?
It’s one thing for House Republicans to go through an awkward patch. It would be another thing entirely to fumble away the party’s chances to win the 2012 presidential election.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.