Mitch Daniels’s announcement that he’s not running for president, along with so many other plausible Republican candidates, indicates how unusual an election cycle this is. People used to crave running for president even if it was unlikely they would win. Take two races the incumbent eventually won but which looked decent for the opposition in the early going. In the 1984 race against Ronald Reagan, which began the year before as the country was stumbling out of a horrific recession, seven serious Democrats were in the running—Sens. John Glenn, Alan Simpson, Gary Hart, and Ernest Hollings, former Florida governor Ruben Askew, Jesse Jackson (who proved unexpectedly formidable), and the eventual nominee, Walter Mondale. In 1996 on the Republican side, Sen. Phil Gramm, and former governors Lamar Alexander and Pete Wilson were all serious candidates in contention against Bob Dole. The 2012 race is characterized more by those refusing to run than by those running.
So why is this happening? Simple. You’ve probably heard that the president and his team are looking to raise $1 billion to run on in 2012. They may make it; they may not. But what is that money to be spent on? He won’t have to spend it in a primary, it looks like. So that means the Obama team will have hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars to spend with one object and one object only: Destroy the eventual Republican nominee. Go after him. Drag his name through the mud. Run commercials every 15 seconds in six battleground states in which he removes wheelchairs from Medicare patients and grabs checks from Social Security recipients. And should there be a personal problem, a marial difficulty…well, Katie, bar the door. Imagine being Mitch Daniels, with your complex marital history, contemplating the onslaught of a negative campaign that cascades over you beginning in June 2012, just as you’re trying to “define” yourself to the American people. Pretty horrible to contemplate.
Everybody in America already knows and has an opinion of Obama. It will be the Obama team’s job to help everybody develop an opinion of his rival that is unabashedly hostile. And they will have the dollars to do it, though it should be said even an ad campaign in the hundreds of millions can’t in themselves cast a magic spell. But it can help.
This is the logical outcome of two things: a) the increasingly personal nature of the negativity of American politics; and b) the astonishing sums of money that can now be raised through small donations over the Internet. Tough road.