Robert Bennett: The debt ceiling and 2012 campaigns

Published: Monday, Aug. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

With the vote on the debt ceiling now completed, political discussion has shifted to its possible impact on the 2012 campaign. Will it determine who the Republican nominee will be? Will that nominee be able to use it in his/her campaign against President Barack Obama? Or will the president be able to use it to discredit the Republicans as obstructionists? The newspapers, blogs and airwaves are full of commentary on these questions. They are fleeting ones.

Political history tells us that it is highly unlikely that the debt ceiling fight will influence what happens next year. After the Gulf War in 1991, President George H. W. Bush had sky high approval ratings and every pundit thought he was unbeatable, but the war was a distant memory by the time people voted just a year later. Instead, James Carville's pronouncement that "It's the economy, stupid" held sway. Memories are short.

In the race for the Republican nomination, the current leader in the polls is Mitt Romney and the runner-up is Rick Perry. (Full disclosure — I am a Romney supporter). Each has been governor of a large state. Both claim solid economic credentials. Both have been attacked by tea party activists. Both have credible claims as budget cutters. Both have formidable skills as campaigners and fundraisers. Neither took a high profile stance during the debt ceiling fight in Washington.

Can Michelle Bachmann, who was the runner-up in the polls to Romney before Perry's name surfaced, use her staunch opposition to any increase in the debt limit to rally a significant challenge to them? Can Ron Paul? If not, where will their backers turn? A strong infusion of supporters from either Bachmann or Paul to either Romney or Perry could determine the nomination.

Even so, I doubt that the positions taken during debt limit discussion will make much difference. In the end, particularly for a party out of power, the question that dominates is, "Can he/she win?" Republican memory on the importance of this point is fresh. In Nevada in 2010, Sharon Angle won the nomination on ideological grounds, but Harry Reid won the election on practical ones; there were similar results in Delaware, Colorado and possibly Washington. Ideological primary victories in swing states may well have cost the Republicans control of the Senate.

They do not want a rerun of these high profile 2010 losses in the highest profile race of all in 2012. Perry has the advantage of being a new face, but will he remain of interest once his record and personality are fully aired? Romney has passed that hurdle; he is a known entity, and the only candidate leading Obama among likely voters in a credible poll. That is a position of strength and the reason why the Democratic National Committee is bashing him more than any other Republican, mercilessly, every day.

Looking ahead to the general election: "It's the economy, stupid," is likely to be as relevant in 2012 as it was in 1992. If we are in a dreaded "double-dip" recession in 2012 — and some economists are now predicting that — things will be bad enough that few will remember the details of the 2011 debt ceiling furor.

Even without a double dip, President Obama's skills in dealing with the economy will be tested to the utmost between now and then. As Republicans look for the right nominee to challenge him, one who can appeal to the voters as a statesman who is up to the job, they should remember what Theodore Roosevelt said: "The first duty of a statesman is to get elected."

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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