The 2012 Presidential Race: On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

The Republican 2012 contenders are keeping their powder dry -- sort of. The public doesn’t seem anxious to endure another presidential campaign stretching over multiple years. And we learned that spending millions and jumping out to a lead in polls a year or more before the first primary vote is no guarantee of success. Still, there is a fair amount of political throat-clearing and jostling as the contenders vie to stay in the public view and establish their standing as credible challengers to the president.

Last week, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney appeared at the Foreign Policy Initiative conference to lay out their case against the president’s approach to foreign policy and align themselves with a forward-leaning, free-trading, and American values-based foreign policy vision. Tim Pawlenty has been throwing some shots at Romney over his Massachusetts health care plan (Romney hasn’t bothered to respond) and Mike Huckabee is everywhere -- in Israel and on Fox News most visibly. Sarah Palin pushed “death panels” into the public debate, both horrifying her opponents and cementing the attachment of her fans. And in Hong Kong she too talked foreign policy last week, taking issue with the president's defense cuts and emphasizing the importance of free trade and human rights as part of America's international agenda.

It is far from clear who will actually jump into the 2012 race, but we are getting a sense of the opening lines of the campaign. There are four of them already in circulation.

First: “It turns out experience matters.” Obama ran with inexperience as a badge of honor and “change” as his message. The result is a mound of debt, a confused and erratic foreign policy, and a campaign-obsessed and governance-challenged president. Maybe it is time, the contenders will argue, for someone who has done something, built something, or run something before getting to the White House. Competency matters and executive leadership skills which go beyond speechifying make all the difference between failure and success.

Second: “The American people were had.” Conservatives early on sniffed out Obama as an ultra-liberal with a big government agenda, but it took an entire campaign and the better part of a year in office for most Americans to figure it out. It may not be an effective ploy to run through the list of broken campaign pledges -- candidates are expected by many cynical voters to lie about what they will do. But they aren’t expected to lie about their political identity and overarching vision for governance. Obama isn’t moderate, doesn’t like the free market, and isn’t interested in waging a robust war on Islamic fundamentalists. The 2012 contenders will no doubt argue that he is not simply a far-left liberal, but was a dishonest one.