There are fewer than 1,230 days until the next presidential election in 2012. That’s 3 1/3 years, or 41 months, or 175 weeks. Anyway you break it down, it’s quite a while.
And in campaign politics, it’s nothing short of a lifetime. News breaks in seconds these days, and the era of buckling down in anticipation of that single, inevitable campaign game-changer has been replaced by a new one, in which game-changers occur over and over and over again, frustrating and exhausting the campaign managers, press secretaries, publicists, strategists, spin doctors, and reporters for whom campaigns are more than mere soap opera. They are life.
For the regular folk, it means that politics is just as entertaining as any tawdry, profanity-laced morning show. Can’t you just imagine Jerry Springer covering the John Edwards scandal in his own inimitable way, with an episode called “My Husband Boinked His Employee While I Recovered From Cancer!” Springer reveals the results of the paternity test, chairs are thrown, the studio audience howls and jeers, and we are left with nothing but an urge to shower and Jerry’s “Final Thought.”
And now no one knows just how entertaining politics can be better than Governor Mark Sanford, whose bizarre disappearance sparked the kind of whispers, rumors, speculation and suspicion that should be safely relegated to a Peyton Place or Wisteria Lane. And the drama’s end – his bizarre, rambling and overly detailed admission of an exotic Argentinean affair – was just as salacious as any in pop culture. Is Brad leaving Angelina? Are Jon & Kate divorcing? Who’s fooling around on “Gossip Girl?” Who cares – the Governor of South Carolina just disappeared for a week to tango with his mistress in Buenos Aires on Father’s Day.
And what 21st century sex scandal would be complete without embarrassing emails? Sanford’s wife Jenny lives not only with the knowledge that he cheated on her, but with vivid accompanying descriptions of “gentle kisses” and the cupping of various body parts. J. Edgar Hoover may have been a cross-dresser, but luckily for him FDR didn’t Twitter about it, and the pictures didn’t end up on someone’s MySpace page.
There are countless lessons to be learned from this latest – and may I just say, disappointingly predictable and unoriginal – scandal. There are lessons about love and faith and family, of course. There are lessons about responsibility to God and country. And there are lessons about prudence: “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” is a really bad cover-up.
But for the GOP, there is one lesson that should be heeded with particular discipline: It is way too early to start naming 2012 presidential candidates.
The moment Barack Obama was elected president, the GOP scrambled to locate the new face of the party. Since then, it’s been everyone from Sarah Palin to Rush Limbaugh, Michael Steele to Bobby Jindal. And in recent months, it was Mark Sanford.
Paul Bedard named Sanford one of his four to watch for 2012 in US News & World Report.
The Cato Institute’s Robert Levy went on record with his support of Sanford, calling him “principled and intellectually honest.”
Michael Steele has said he’s a leader to watch for 2012, as have Congressman Ron Paul, Republican strategist Floyd Brown and the Club For Growth.
And on June 11, just a couple weeks ago, the Republican Liberty Caucus released a statement urging Sanford to run for president. In three years.
What’s the hurry? I understand that the GOP is feeling bruised, and that Obama’s election has left it more eager than ever to reclaim the White House. But the earlier it trots out its star contenders for 2012, the more time there is for catastrophic and fatal game-changers to cut them off at the knees.
First, it gives the left more time to find (or create) weaknesses in the candidate. Democrats railed against Bobby Jindal’s televised response to President Obama’s speech, calling it a “disaster,” and for Jindal’s mere ineloquence, plunged a stake into the heart of a potential 2012 run. This, after Republicans unwisely puffed up the speech as Jindal’s “coming out party.”
It also gives meat-seeking talking heads more time to perform lengthy and multimedia hatchet jobs on the candidate. Sarah Palin has been effectively painted by Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and the rest of MSNBC’s poet laureates as a moose-killing, god-crazy simpleton who doesn’t have the political bona fides (or preferred East coast pedigree) to be credible in 2012.
And of course it gives the candidate more time to self-implode. Just as problematic as Governor Sanford’s affair was his seeming recent unraveling, which had many insiders around him concerned that he was crumbling under the pressure of being “the 2012 guy.” When left-leaning “Newsweek” ran a feature story on the South Carolina governor called “The Last of the True Believers” in April, which touted his potential to lead the party to the next election, it may have been the beginning of the end for Sanford.
We shouldn’t baby our politicians, nor should we insulate them from life. You don’t give a political candidate child-proof scissors so he can’t cut himself – you just hope he doesn’t cut himself in public. But the alacrity of the GOP to pinpoint and announce its leaders is making the job of actually coming up with credible ones that much more difficult. Whether it’s real weaknesses in Mark Sanford or John Ensign, or imagined ones in Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin, every time the right decrees someone “the future of the party” it slaps a bull’s-eye on their back for the left.
And because of that enthusiasm, we now face dozens of gleeful stories about the clearing out of the Republican bench. It’s not just that the Republicans are falling; it’s that our so-called “best” Republicans are falling.
For Democrats, who are of course no stranger to sex scandal and in fact claim some of the more creative ones, Sanford, like Ensign, is proof that there is no dog left in the GOP fight. We prop up our leaders, and the country watches them fall. As Henry Kissinger said of the fight between Iran and Iraq, it’s “too bad they can’t both lose.” Democrats feel the same way about Republicans, and they’re more than happy to let instability between the GOP and its many “futures of the party” destroy themselves.
Some of the lessons from the Sanford scandal are obvious: Don’t cheat on your spouse, don’t lie to your staff, and don’t skip town if you have a state to run. But another might be less clear, and more important if you’re a struggling GOP: When you’re too quick to the pick, the pick gets picked off. So let’s wait a while before announcing our new face of the party. There’s more than three years left, and that’s a whole lot of game-changers.
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