Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana is, according to current criteria, a moderate Republican, which is to say an authentic Reaganite. His mentors include respected centrists such as William Ruckelshaus and Richard Lugar. Now David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan want him to run for president in 2012. I'm a little confused about why fans of a more pragmatic conservatism would feel that way. Assuming an incumbent's advantage in a recovering economy, President Obama will probably be reelected. Why waste a candidate who could win in an open year?
Presidential elections aren't parlor games, I realize. Both parties should try as hard as they can to win in order to keep debates vigorous and urgent and give voters a real choice as well as be in the position to exploit the vagaries of circumstance. A young first-term senator from Illinois didn't start out expecting to beat Hillary Clinton. No one expected the September 2008 financial crisis to guarantee the election of whichever Democrat had been nominated.
No, you never know what will happen in politics. You also don't know what's going to happen when a .240 singles hitter steps to the plate, but you can make a pretty good guess. As political scientists have shown and common sense confirms, the smartest money and best candidates have a tendency to stay away from riskier races. The last year a Democratic incumbent was up was 1996, when Bill Clinton, thanks to his survivor's instinct and the ministrations of the great triangulator Dick Morris, seemed well positioned for reelection. So the GOP anointed Bob Dole, a respected warhorse about whom no one seemed especially enthusiastic.
But as the open election of 2000 approached, the drum beat for George W. Bush began two years or more before election day. In Republican circles you could feel the influence and money massing behind him. That's not happening now with any candidate because most of them (such as Daniels, I'd think) are wondering whether this is really the right time to run. All things being equal, the best nominee, whoever he or she is, will be naturally disinclined, since a better chance looms for a shift to the GOP four years later. It will be an especially tough call for Mitt Romney, who lost a strenuous bid for the nomination in 2008 and can't risk being a two-time loser.
Losing matters less to true believers such as those conservatives who, in Richard Nixon's deathless formulation, would rather be right than president. The likes of Daniels and Romney would be wise to leave 2012 to any one of the tea party's Quixotes. Assuming I've read the tea leaves correctly and Obama wins, we'd see if in 2016 the GOP wanted to try to get another pot out a used bag or come back toward the center where the voters are.