Politicians, former officials and others take stock of the field.
Sen. John Ensign's adultery may dim his barely risen star. But sex is over. Money is back. The next class of Republican leaders must be entirely free of financial sins. No tax cheating. No spouses on the payroll. No contracts to family members. No phony jobs at hospitals for three times the going rate or unkosher relationships with people who register voters. Clean.
If Obama's economic policies prove as ideologically motivated and profligate as they seem to conservatives, the next successful Republicans will be the substance guys. GOP leaders must offer creative policies to maintain a rising standard of living; they will respect the culture of personal responsibility and understand why economic liberty is critical. And they will present this stuff without a teleprompter.
I'm watching Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who has ideas and is a fighter; Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who is thoughtful but needs zing, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is principled but needs an issue to be identified with.
Democrats' worst nightmare would be if the Republican Party nominated someone who came closest to the mixture of ideologies represented by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, which commanded the White House for 12 years from 1980 to 1992, and the "compassionate conservatism" that President George W. Bush ran on. That's the magic combination: a Republican who is a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and a progressive on entitlement programs for the elderly and the poor.
Who fits that portrait? I would say Mitt Romney -- the real Mitt Romney, who served as governor of Massachusetts, not the plastic and pliable Mitt Romney, who flip-flopped to pander to far-right social conservatives during the 2004 campaign.
After the 2008 elections, some doubted the viability of the modern Republican Party. Now, America has trillions in additional spending and debt. The party of Mollohan, Murtha, Jefferson and Dodd is beginning to look like Jim Wright's gang.
The GOP still lacks a national leader like Ronald Reagan to tackle Barack Obama. Of course, Obama isn't on the ballot in 2010, and the GOP didn't need a Reagan for congressional victories in 1966 and 1994. But assuming that the presidency will not go the way of property rights or the sanctity of contracts before 2012, Republicans should and will pick a governor who has proved to be serious about limiting spending. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, Texas' Rick Perry, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, Alaska's Sarah Palin, South Carolina's Mark Sanford and possible future governors such as Rudy Giuliani of New York, Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey recommend themselves.
As with most presidential reelection races, 2012 will mostly be a referendum on the incumbent. If Obama's stock is down, what characteristics should a GOP alternative have? Our nominee must set a good philosophical contrast with Obama, have low negatives, be likable and be good on live TV. The core of the GOP must find him or her philosophically acceptable, and libertarian independents must find the nominee credible. We should also be careful about a nominee who is unacceptable to a large bloc of the Hispanic vote.
Whom does this leave us? I'm going to resist the temptation to name names, but it is unlikely that we will have a nominee who bursts onto the scene the way Obama did. Republicans are hierarchical, and we always nominate the second-place finisher from the last nomination contest. But that's a problem for us in 2012. Who came in second to Sen. McCain? Was it Mitt Romney? Mike Huckabee? Did Sarah Palin, as the vice presidential nominee, receive an honorary second-place finish?
The entire GOP field starts in no better than fourth place. And who will emerge depends more on Obama than it does on our own candidate's circumstances or ability. So it's impossible to know if 2012 will be a real contest or if the GOP field will just be positioning for the race in 2016, when the Obama era will end for certain.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.