A cocktail at the home of Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain’s envoy to Washington, with most of this town’s political scribes on hand, seemed a decent place to gauge sentiment toward the emerging Republican presidential field. Some points of consensus fizzed from the champagne chit-chat, but not many.
Mess and consternation were the overriding themes, particularly after the hot-off-the-press news that Mitt Romney, the nominee in 2012 and failed primary candidate in 2008, is suddenly scurrying to inform donors and party grandees that he intends to try for the White House one more time. No one in our crowd seemed to have seen that one coming. Some thought it a terrible idea, others not so much.
Their scholarship has barely begun. Some had bags packed for the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in San Diego tomorrow, where a few of the hopefuls will speak. They – we – may also trek to Iowa later this month for the so-called Freedom Forum also seen as an early auditioning opportunity. Still, some early instincts stood out: Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, is too brusque and scandal-damaged to progress, while Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, deserves a closer look.
That the Republican field is so wide open is, for us, not a little thrilling. More boringly, the Democrats seem to have settled on their nominee already, even if caucus and primary voting is still a full year away. That Hillary Clinton will in fact run gets more obvious by the day. The latest exhibit: reports that top White House aide John Podesta has agreed to move over to her putative campaign some time next month.
But sifting through the aspirant Republicans promises to be an entirely more suspenseful business. It’s possible that when the first GOP debate is held some time this autumn there will be 20 people lined up on stage all trying to get their oar in. Maybe even more than that. Did I say mess already?
They expose themselves to near certain humiliation for a gamut of reasons. Some want to use a presidential race to promote a book or fuel up a gig on Fox News. Several may simply be deluded. Former New York Governor George Pataki is among the latest to announce an interest in running. (Honestly? We hardly noticed him even when he was in office.) Some believe they really can win.
Let’s not forget that whoever does snag the nomination will have a serious chance of being president. For one, history says so. The last time one party held on to the White House for more than two consecutive terms was when George HW Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1988. Otherwise, you have to go back to Harry Truman to see one party keep the keys to the mansion for more than eight years.
And if there is one thing that unites the Republicans (and not much does) it is the belief that Mrs Clinton is beatable. Indeed, there is no reason to think her path to becoming America’s first female president would be an easy one. She also has a record of trying and failing. Like Mr Romney does.
As for the consternation, two reasons surface. First, there is the speed at which battle has commenced. For that we have Jeb Bush to thank. We long knew he was toying with running, but thought in the end he’d demur because of his name. Our Bush memories are mixed. Then, last month, he said he was serious and began building the necessary apparatus and donor base pell-mell. The second is Mitt. Really? Again?
The Jeb-Mitt axis, we can assume, is now one of downright enmity. Mr Bush was surely calculating that the 2012 nominee would remain on the sidelines. But it was precisely his aggressive push to make himself the early frontrunner that has forced the one-time Governor of Massachusetts to tip his hand with equal force now. If he really is to run – and I still wonder – he can’t afford to let Mr Bush eat away at his coalition of erstwhile backers or have his pick of the limited pool of Republican campaign talent.
It would be easy to place Mr Romney in the deluded category. He is a horrible campaigner. I’ve seen that first hand. His last bid was predicated largely on the lousiness of the economic recovery, a backdrop that has changed. He promised then to cut unemployment to six per cent in four years; we have got there in just two. And in 2012 he had scant credible competition for the nomination; that won’t be so now.
Yet the wiser of my reporting colleagues are wary of writing Mr Romney off. “He knows where all the sand traps are like no other,” noted one. He would not, for example, be in the business this time of making off-hand comments about the 47 per cent of “moochers” who won’t vote Republican, come what may, as he did at a private donors’ dinner in 2012. Eric Fehrnstrom, his longtime spokesman, reminded us of something else this week: Mr Reagan only won the White House on his third attempt. (He tried but failed to win the GOP nomination in 1968 and 1976 before being elected in 1980.)
So welcome to the (very crowded) circus, where there will be spills aplenty. And the surprises have only just begun.