Sunday, April 10, 2011

Evaluating the Potential Republican Presidential Candidates

In the coming months, a slew of candidates will be officially announcing whether or not they are seeking the Republican nomination for President of the United States, and will then begin fighting it out in primary after primary across the country for the right to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. A few people have already officially announced, and many others have done so in all but name.

Let's take a look at the most prominent of these candidates and near-candidates. Many such overviews have been attempted, but as the media tends to focus on the political process rather than public policy, the question most often asked in such surveys is which candidate has the best chance of winning the nomination or beating President Obama in the general election. In attempting to steer a more responsible course, let's try to examine which candidate would best serve the country if they were to occupy the Oval Office.

1. Mitt Romney. Between 2003 and 2007, he served as Governor of Massachusetts, and before that he was a successful businessman and organized the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He essentially came in second to John McCain during the Republican presidential primary campaign in 2008. His administrative and managerial experience would perhaps serve him well as President, but that is pretty much the limit of his positive attributes.

Romney has shown himself to be untrustworthy in many ways. While serving as Governor of Massachusetts, he advocated a pro-choice position on abortion, was supportive of gay rights, and generally in favor of gun control. When he decided to seek the Republican nomination for President in 2008, he had quickly abruptly become pro-life, anti-gay rights, and anti-gun control. Although he opposed President Obama's healthcare law, calling it "an unconscionable abuse of power", it was actually based on a state law Romney himself got passed in Massachusetts while serving as the state's governor.

Romney has also repeatedly made inept statements about American foreign policy. He supported the invasion of Iraq, but said that war would have been avoided if Saddam Hussein had allowed international weapons inspectors back into the country; in fact, Hussein had already allowed inspectors back in. He also publicly opposed the New START agreement on nuclear weapons reductions with Russia, but a widely-criticized op-ed piece he wrote in the Washington Post on the subject revealed his complete lack of understanding about the issue; it is quite clear that he opposed the treaty for no other reason than that Obama supported it.

Mitt Romney is an untrustworthy person and the kind of man willing to say or do anything to achieve power. As President, he would probably craft policy designed to further his own political interests rather than the interests of the nation. He would not make a good President and should be regarded as a dangerous man.

2. Mike Huckabee. He served as Governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, and he essentially came in third place to John McCain and Mitt Romney during the Republican presidential primary campaign in 2008. Huckabee has cultivated an image of folksy charm, backed up by his status as an ordained Southern Baptist minister.

His tenure as Governor of Arkansas was solid, if not spectacular. The state's economy grew at a slightly larger rate than the national average, and welfare rolls declined. He has been stronger on environmental issues than most Republicans, supporting a cap-and-trade system to help alleviate global climate change. His policies on education, welfare reform, immigration, and tax policy have also generally been ones of common sense, although nitpicking would allow anyone to find things in them with which one would disagree.

But Huckabee's positions on certain issues raises concern. Fiscal realities and common sense dictate that we must begin reducing the American military budget, but Huckbee has proposed raising it by a full 50%. He has on record stating that the health insurance industry should not be required to cover persons with preexisting conditions. He also has only limited foreign policy experience.

While we at the Themistocles Letters are loath to even mention the religious beliefs of public figures, in Huckabee's case there is a clear case that his evangelical faith could adversely affect his performance as President of the United States. He has quite openly stated his belief that Israel has a God-given right to all land claimed by the Palestinians, and supports this belief through his own understanding of the Bible. Obviously, this would certainly make it next to impossible for Huckabee to be impartial in diplomatic actions central to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. He has also cited his religious beliefs in justifying his opposition to stem cell research and proper science education, and generally shown a willingness to move divisive social issues to the forefront of his agenda. If he continued this behavior as President, the nation would be the worse for it.

While Mike Huckabee would be far from the worst President if a selection was made from the potential Republican candidates, his apparent willingness to favor a particular slice of the American people because of shared religious beliefs causes alarm bells to go off. The President of the United States, after all, must be a civil servant answering to the whole nation and not just a particular portion of it.

3. Tim Pawlenty. He served as Governor of Minnesota from 2003 to 2011. Previously, he had worked his way up the political ladder, first as a city councilman in the town of Eagan and then as a member of the Minnesota State Legislature. He was considered a potential candidate for Vice-President on the Republican ticket with John McCain in 2008.

As Governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty did an average job. Indeed, "average" is a pretty good word to describe Pawlenty. His records on the state budget, education, law and order, and the environment display a competent but not brilliant performance. This should not necessarily disqualify him from being President, mind you. A competent President who exercises wise judgment would be much better than a brilliant President who exercises poor judgment, after all.

One area in which Pawlenty certainly deserves very high marks is that of foreign trade. As the Governor of Minnesota, he lead several delegations of business leaders on trips to foreign nations, seeking opportunities for Minnesota companies to expand their exports to those foreign markets. One of the most important responsibilities of the President of the United States is to expand American exports to foreign markets, and this is one sphere in which Pawlenty has an advantage over most of his Republican rivals.

Pawlenty has publicly declared his intention to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. At the same time, he has begun tacking back towards the political right, even declaring that he would reinstate the "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" policy of military service were he to become President. While such politicking is unsurprising, it is still regrettable. Pawlenty should run on his record as a governor.

All things considered, Republicans could do far worse than Pawlenty.

4. Sarah Palin. As is well-known, she served half a term as the Governor of Alaska (from December of 2006 until she abruptly resigned in July of 2009) and was the Vice-Presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with John McCain in 2008. Since then, she has become a favorite of the Tea Party movement, hosted a reality TV show about life in Alaska, and been a commentator on Fox News.

The Themistocles Letters strictly avoids personal attacks on public figures, but the troublesome fact about Palin is that she simply lacks the intelligence to be President of the United States. The revelations by McCain aides since the 2008 campaign of her utter lack of knowledge and understanding concerning both domestic policy and international relations are enough to chill the blood of anyone who considers the fact that she came within reasonable distance of finding herself in the Oval Office.

To the extent that her positions on policy matters can be discerned, Palin caters to the Tea Party and Religious Right wings of the Republican Party. The Tea Party is to be commended for putting the issue of the budget deficit and national debt at the forefront of the American political discourse, but its rigid adherence to ideology, its unwillingness to embrace compromise, and the acceptance by many within its ranks of discredited conspiracy theories raise grave concerns. The Religious Right, for its part, would impose its own particular view of religion and society upon the country, rather than allow its citizens to remain free to choose their own paths.

For the United States of America, a Palin Presidency would be a disaster that defies any attempt at description.

5. Newt Gingrich. As a Congressman, he was one of the most prominent political figures in the United States in the 1990s, serving as the Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1995 and 1999. In this capacity, he was the most visible individual opponent of President Bill Clinton, and masterminded the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. Long out of the public eye, Gingrich has ramped up his public persona in recent years and made little secret of his desire to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Gingrich is a highly-intelligent man and well-versed in history; indeed, he is a former university history professor. As Speaker of the House, Gingrich was willing to work with his archenemy, President Clinton, to achieve a balanced budget and for this he should be highly praised. He has also pursued common sense welfare reform and proposed innovative policies to promote such things as non-governmental space exploration.

But his positive attributes are outweighed by his negative ones. His unethical behavior both as a politician and as a man are well-known. His personal failings need not be repeated here, but it is worth noting that, in 1997, he was censured by the House of Representatives by a vote of 395 to 28 for ethical problems stemming from the political use of his university teaching post. Like Caesar's wife, the President of the United States should be above suspicion.

Since resigning his congressional seat following a Republican mid-term electoral defeat in 1998, Gingrich seems to have become increasingly extreme and irrational, opposing President Obama simply for no other reason than to oppose him. As a single example, Gingrich pushed for military action against Libya before President Obama launched Operation Odyssey Dawn, but abruptly flip-flopped into opposing military action against Libya after President Obama launched Operation Odyssey Dawn. These are not the actions of a statesman, but of a hypocritical opportunist.

In his opposition to the proposed Islamic community center in southern Manhattan, Gingrich has made public comments that essentially label Islam as a force of evil. In a newsletter to his supporters, he made claims about Islamic history which, as a former history professor, he had to have known were completely false. Can we expect a person who attacks Islam in this manner to be able, as President of the United States, to sit down with the leader of an Islamic nation and negotiate a trade treaty or military agreement? Of course not.

Despite his clear intelligence, Gingrich has proven to be too untrustworthy, ideological, and just plain irrational to be President of the United States.

6. Haley Barbour. After a long career as a high-powered lobbyist in Washington D.C. and a stint as head of the Republican National Committee, he has served as Governor of Mississippi since being elected in 2003.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Barbour was like a mighty oak in the storm. His leadership helped Mississippi get through the crisis at a time when the federal government and the Louisiana state government seemed utterly incapable of dealing with the emergency. For his response to Hurricane Katrina, Governor Barbour is to be held in very high regard, indeed.

That being said, other aspects of Barbour's record set off alarm bells. His long record as a high-powered lobbyist in Washington is a manifestation of exactly the kinds of practices that the country needs to be rejecting with maximum prejudice (especially as his lobbying firm happily worked on behalf of foreign governments). Fundamental reform of political lobbying is an urgent national necessity, and Governor Barbour is certainly not the man to lead this charge.

Barbour has endorsed government interventions in the free market which would seem to enrich wealthy Americans at the expense of ordinary citizens, including farm subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare. Many of his public statements seem to indicate a lackadaisical attitude towards segregation and racial equality, which certainly would be unacceptable in any President of the United States.

Despite his effective leadership during the crisis of Hurricane Katrina, Barbour exhibits too many undesirable qualities to make an effective President of the United States. Republicans would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

7. Mitch Daniels. He was formerly the director of the federal Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, and has served as the Governor of Indiana since being elected to the position in 2004. Daniels is among the most attractive candidates among the potential Republicans seeking the presidential nomination.

As Governor of Indiana, he has a sterling record of achievement, balancing the budget through effective management, while minimizing service cuts and preventing tax increases. He has displayed common sense in many areas of public policy, including education, healthcare, and foreign trade. Throughout his tenure, he has displayed excellent management skills, a highly competent grasp of the issues, and an unassuming style of leadership.

His role in the Bush administration certainly raises eyebrows. Furthermore, his call for a "truce" on social issues has generated enormous opposition from many elements within the Republican Party. In truth, though, his call for a truce on social issues actually demonstrates sound common sense on the part of Daniels. With the country facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis and other serious challenges, getting bogged down in disputes over abortion and other emotional social issues is only going to distract the nation and hinder it from solving its problems.

At this crucial point in American history, we need competent leadership, not necessarily charismatic leadership. Is Mitch Daniels the man to provide it? Maybe.

8. Jon Hunstman. He served as Governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009, and as President Obama's Ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011. Born into wealth, he also has had numerous roles in his family's varied businesses.

Huntsman ran Utah exceptionally well during his tenure as the state's governor, earning many plaudits from various observers for efficiency and effective management. Bucking the trend among many Republican politicians, he has recognized the dangers of global climate change and pursued policies to help tackle the problem. He also sought to simplify the state tax code, demonstrating a willingness to address complicated issues that many other officials would just as soon avoid.

Many were surprised by Obama's decision to appoint Huntsman as the Ambassador to China, and some have contended that it was a political ploy to hinder Huntsman from seeking the presidency. Perhaps so, but it cannot be denied that Huntsman was well-qualified for the post. As a state governor, he was well-versed on issues of foreign trade, a critical attribute for anyone dealing with Sino-American relations. Furthermore, Huntsman is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and highly knowledgable of Chinese history and culture, having spent many years in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary.

Huntsman is certainly among the better choices Republicans could make for their presidential nominee. His administrative experience as a state governor is solid, and his time in China would be highly useful to any President, as the Sino-American relationship is the single most important bilaterial relationship in American foreign policy.

9. Michelle Bachmann. She has served as member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota since 2007. Despite her comparatively brief tenure, she has made a name for herself as a darling of the Tea Party movement and a regular media commentator.

Bachmann has pushed some useful legislation aimed at reducing frivilous lawsuits, but otherwise her contributions have been almost wholly negative. A healthy suspicion of governmental power is useful and necessary, but Bachmann is so driven by ideology that her views have become extreme and irrational. She has opposed sound governmental policies, such as a gradual ban on incandescent light bulbs, and has publicly stated her belief that global climate change is not real.

Bachmann has also demonstrated a massive inability to work constructively with others. She regularly derides anyone who disagrees with her as "anti-American". She offends her fellow Republicans as often as the Democrats, and even bucked her own party by delivering her own response to President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address. Bachmann displays no qualities that would be desireable in a President, and many qualities that no President should ever have.

She would make a horrible President.

10. John Bolton. A career diplomat and fixture within neoconservative circles, he served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration. Tellingly, President Bush had to use a recess appointment to get him the job, as the Senate had refused to confirm him.

Bolton is a highly intelligent and well-educated man, but his views on American foreign policy are so disturbing that it becomes immediately clear that he would make a horrible President of the United States. Although he served as Ambassador to the United Nations, he has never made any secret of his distrust and hatred of the institution. Many sources within the UN and foreign countries have described Bolton as rude and abrasive, unwilling to compromise and uncaring about the concerns of others. This certainly is not the behavior of an effective diplomat, and it would not be the behavior of an effective President.

More specifically, Bolton has disdained multilateralism in favor of unilaterial American action throughout the world. He has opposed American involvement in global institutions like the International Criminal Court, and seems to believe that military action is a cure-all for every problem in foreign policy. This attitude is what got us bogged down in Iraq for so many years, leading to the deaths of more than 4,000 American soldiers. Bolton has called for a second act, repeatedly stressing his belief that the United States should launch a military attack on Iran. His cavalier attitude towards launching America into war should cause alarm bells to go off.

Bolton would be a horrible President of the United States. His election generate distrust of our country on the part of our allies. Every rational foreign policy should stress the need to avoid war unless absolutely necessary, and Bolton's clear willingness to use force at the drop of a hat is deeply troubling.

11. Rick Santorum. He served as a senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007, and has made a name for himself as one of the most conservative politicians in America.

While not as abrasive as some social conservatives, Santorum has made his political name by his strict opposition to abortion and gay rights, his general disdain for the separation of church and state, and other issues designed to cater to the Religious Right wing of the Republican Party. While the Themistocles Letters takes no particular position on most of these issues, the fact that Santorum fixates on them to such an extent makes one worry that he would ignore the more pressing issues facing the nation, including the fiscal crisis and our foreign policy challenges.

As he has never demonstrated any particular ability or knowledge of the most important issues facing the country, Santorum is not an attractive candidate for President of the United States.

12. Donald Trump. The very fact that I have to include this reality television star in this list is a sign of just how low American politics is sinking. Nevertheless, recent polling shows that Donald Trump is competitive in the Republican primary and he may declare himself a candidate.

Trump has been cultivating the bizarre wing of the Republican Party that is obsessed with the conspiracy theory which maintains that President Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible to be President. Shockingly large numbers of Republicans believe that this conspiracy theory is actually valid (to be fair, shockingly large numbers of Democrats believed the equally absurd theory that President Bush masterminded the 9/11 attacks himself).

The fact that Trump might actually be competitive in the Republican primary is a symbol of much that is wrong with the modern Republican Party. Serious Republicans should reject him with maximum prejudice.

All in all, the Republican field has a lot of bad names (Palin, Romney, Bachmann, Bolton, Trump, Gingrich, Barbour, Santorum), a few potentially acceptable names (Pawlenty, Huckabee), and a few good names (Daniels, Huntsman). It will be interesting to see the Republican primary season unfold, and we can only hope that the Republicans make the right choice, because whomever they choose has a fairly decent shot at becoming the next President of the United States.

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