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updated: 7/13/2011 4:57 AM

Warming up for Alibi Ike

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"If he popped up in the pinch he should of made a base hit and the reason he didn't was so-and-so. And if he cracked one for three bases he ought to had a home run, only the ball wasn't lively, or the wind brought it back, or he tripped on a lump o' dirt, roundin' first base."

-- Ring Lardner, "Alibi Ike" (1915)

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The Republicans' 2012 presidential nominee will run against Alibi Ike. Lardner, a Chicago sports writer, created that character ("His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for 'Excuse me.'") who resembles Chicagoan Barack Obama. After blaming his predecessor for this and that, and after firing all the arrows in liberalism's quiver -- the stimulus, cash for clunkers, etc. -- Obama seems poised to blame the recovery's anemia on Republican resistance to simultaneously raising the debt ceiling and taxes.

So the Republican nominee's campaign theme can already be written. In 1960, candidate John Kennedy's theme was: "We can do better." In 2012, the Republican candidate should say "Is this the best we can do?"

In the contest to determine who will wield those words, there have been three important recent developments: Michele Bachmann's swift ascent into the top tier of candidates, Tim Pawlenty's perch there becoming wobbly, and Jon Huntsman's mystifying approach to securing a place there.

Bachmann has been propelled by three strengths: Her natural aptitude, honed by considerable practice, has made her formidable at the presentational side of politics. She has perfect pitch for the nominating electorate's passions. And she has substantive private- and public-sector experience, as a tax lawyer and as a legislator on, among others, the House Intelligence Committee.

But she also has a deficiency -- indiscipline -- that can, if not promptly corrected, vitiate her assets. Unprepared for the intense scrutiny presidential campaigns receive, she trustingly repeats things told to her (confusing Concord, Mass., with Concord, N.H., and John Wayne with the mass murderer John Wayne Gacy), and she plunges into peripheral and utterly optional subjects she has not mastered (e.g., the Founders and slavery). Her staff, which is not ready for prime time, is not serving as a filter to protect her from eager but misinformed supporters, and from herself.

Pawlenty, a more ardent than discerning admirer of John McCain, is suddenly echoing McCain's unhistorical and nonsensical canard that skepticism about nation-building in Afghanistan and opposition to the intervention in Libya's civil war constitute isolationism. "America," Pawlenty says, astonishingly, "already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal. It does not need a second one." The Democratic Party supporting a Democratic president's plunge into Libya is devoted to "withdrawal"? If only.

Occasionally there are Democratic presidential candidates who appeal to people who really do not like Democrats (e.g., former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt in 1988), and Republicans who appeal to people who think Republicans are among nature's mistakes (e.g., Illinois Rep. John Anderson in 1980). Huntsman seems to be auditioning for this role, which is puzzling, because such people are not nominated.

Huntsman's campaign manager, John Weaver, a former McCain man, believes the Republican Party "is nowhere near being a national governing party" -- a view usually held by people called Democrats -- and that the "simple reason" is: "No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks." Many of the cranks are called: The Republican nominating electorate.

Announcing his candidacy near the Statue of Liberty, where Ronald Reagan began his 1980 post-convention campaign, Huntsman promised "civility" because "I don't think you need to run down someone's reputation" when running for president. Actually, you do.

You must say why your opponent deserves a reputation for inadequacy. So Reagan at that spot said Jimmy Carter's "whole sorry record" was "a litany of despair, of broken promises, of sacred trusts abandoned and forgotten." Reagan said Carter's "cynical" proposals had produced "human tragedy, human misery, the crushing of the human spirit." Reagan's forthrightness was neither uncivil nor, in the electorate's November opinion, untrue.

Who will carry the "Is This the Best We Can Do?" banner? So far, the serene front-runner, Mitt Romney, has nothing to fear from Huntsman's politics of high-mindedness. Bachmann's saliency with social conservatives, and the lurchings of Pawlenty's campaign, threatens Pawlenty's all-in wager on Iowa. And the potential fragility of Bachmann's campaign turns attention to the last piece of the Republican puzzle -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a high-octane social and economic conservative whom nobody could confuse with Alibi Ike.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011, Washington Post Writers Group $PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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