I thought it was time to write something on presidential politics, as the Republican field shakes down and the remaining candidates, along with a few still lurking in the wings, will soon get even more attention for the things they say, the themes they pursue, the records they possess. Much of the attention, of course, will be on the horse race per se. But that is not the only element of interest here.
The presidential candidates have a different set of goals and motives than their party’s Members of Congress, and their comments, designed to further their own interests, get a lot of attention and shape the narrative and agenda.
For example, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, trying to appeal to the party’s muscular right, said repeatedly in January that Congress should not vote to increase the debt limit — instead, it should just make sure that creditors were paid first from the tax receipts coming in. The worst that could happen? You don’t pay for government. Forget the merits of a plan that would pay off the Chinese before Social Security recipients or soldiers waiting for their pay — the fact is that Pawlenty had a real effect on the dialogue, reducing the chances of a meaningful and timely deal to raise the debt ceiling.
At the same time, the candidates’ records become a template both for their candidacies and for their own visions of governance. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s record has caused him fits, as he has tried to make it conform to his party’s litmus tests without looking like a total opportunist. Of course, that record is mostly focused on Romney’s health care plan, and that in turn has had an effect on the narrative as the House continues its all-out assault on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and its striking similarities to the Romney plan, not to mention the whole idea of how (or whether) you can govern in a bipartisan fashion in a sharply divided era.
For former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the question will be primarily about his service under President Barack Obama as U.S. ambassador to China — and whether accepting the call to public service for a president of the other party will be widely acceptable to a GOP primary electorate that disdains and even despises the president. Huntsman’s memos and emails of praise for the president may cause him real problems with that primary electorate and may take away one of his most powerful themes — that he has been inside the belly of the Obama beast and knows firsthand the need for change. His relative moderation — underscore the relative — on issues such as climate change and same-sex relationships will also get to questions of what the litmus tests really are.