What's More Important Than Being Electable? Being Able To Govern

The shine is off. Recent tracking polls have shown the president’s popularity trending downwards under 50%. And both Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen show President Obama in tight races with Republican front-runners, and even with some non-Republican front-runners.

The most striking notes: Sarah Palin, the woman who many allege absolutely could not beat Obama, comes within three points in the Rasmussen poll and eight in the Public Policy Polling poll. And even more surprising, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) comes within eight points on Public Policy Polling.

Yes, the 75-year-old Texas congressman is nearly as close to Obama as John McCain was in 2008. This suggests a growing number of Americans, as of this moment, would vote for anyone over Barack Obama.

A year ago, it was very different for Obama, who couldn’t wait to actually get sworn in before giving regular addresses to the nation. Obama was a great campaigner, a well-polished speaker, and a youth celebrity figure who inspired a best-selling song that became a YouTube sensation (and one of Obama’s favorite songs). A year later, if Rasmussen is to be believed, the Democrats are on the verge of a political cataclysm, with the GOP having built a 7-point lead on the generic ballot.

Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) is expressing his frustration, saying he’s tired of “covering Obama’s can,” and has some pointed advice: “The president could take a few pages from Lyndon Johnson's book ... and start knocking heads together.”

Conyers is wrong -- the president can’t. During his four years in the U.S. Senate (which he spent running for president), Obama didn’t acquire the legislative “skills” Lyndon Johnson did during ten years as a member of the Senate leadership. If the Democrats had wanted someone who would be effective moving legislation, they picked the wrong guy. They picked a solid candidate who could excite crowds and raise money. They didn’t choose someone who could make good decisions and move bills.

What’s the lesson for Republicans in 2012? Simply put, the goal of the nominating process is not to pick a good candidate; it’s to pick a good president. The problem with political folks is we tend to imagine the presidential campaign as the Super Bowl of politics, when it isn't even opening day.

Much time is spent fretting over whether a candidate can win. Every major GOP presidential candidate has several people who swear that candidate can win, and others who will solemnly promise they won’t support candidate X.

However, history indicates the choice of the presidential nominee has little impact on how people vote. Allan Lichtman’s 13 keys have correctly predicted the outcome of the popular vote in every election since 1984, and retroactively account for the winners of every election since 1860. The keys are based on the performance of the administration in power and how the nation’s economy and foreign policy are doing. The average American doesn’t care about the topics that enthrall the political aficionados. Sorry, but Christopher Buckley’s endorsement of Obama didn’t carry a lot of weight. The average voter is far more concerned with one basic question: what is the state of the nation?

Given the state of the economy, the Katrina bungle, and the foreign policy blunders in the pre-surge Iraq strategy, any of the Democratic candidates could have beaten John McCain, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). In 2012, if all is going well in the nation, Obama will be re-elected in a landslide. If the nation is in serious trouble, most of the divisions in the conservative movement will unite and the American electorate will turn Obama out of office.

There are three basic questions conservatives should ask themselves:

Does the candidate have a coherent agenda that will make the country better?

Obama was afraid of the American people knowing his true colors, so he ran on a campaign of platitudes. He decided to let Congress craft the agenda.

A president who runs on a clear platform can, at the very least, claim to have a mandate for it. However, if you go around quoting platitudes of “hope” and “change” and leave the heavy lifting to Congress, you end up with a mess.

Does the candidate have the necessary skills to get his agenda passed?

Anybody can have good ideas, but it’s the ability to connect with the public and to reach out to the Congress to get the job done that matters. Say what you want about Ron Paul’s ideas, he would be a bad president because he could not get his ideas passed through Congress. He’s been in Congress for more than twenty years casting quixotic votes.

Does the candidate have the ability to make executive decisions?

If the Obama administration shows anything, it is the importance of executive decision-making, particularly on matters of war and peace. The problem with electing a legislator as president is that the only thing he’s ever run is his own mouth. In Obama’s case, he also ran a foundation that was supposed to improve Chicago schools and failed to do so. We should look for governors and mayors, maybe a general, to serve as the party’s nominee, not congressmen or senators.

Conservatives have to look for the candidate who will be able to hold the Republican coalition together. A Republican presidency that betrayed the core principles of the people who brought it to power is responsible for the lingering divisions within the GOP. However, thanks to opponents that took the wrong lessons from the Bush years, Republicans could be given another chance in 2012.

This time, let’s get it right.