PRUDEN: No grandeur yet in this old party

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Running for president is tougher than ever this year, particularly if you’re a Republican. You step up to the cameras to announce that you’re getting in, and the next morning the biggest and blackest headlines are about someone who’s getting out.

Some of the smaller headlines are about someone who got out last week, like Donald Trump, who now reserves the right to get back in. Joe Biden, the lovable old uncle in the attic where Helen Thomas keeps her kettle of newts and salamanders on the bubble, is talking about getting in five years hence, when disdain for Barack Obama should be unanimous.

Speaking of Newt — and a lot of people are saying things that can’t please the perfesser — Newt Gingrich has come up with a campaign doctrine that every politician applauds. He won’t talk about unsavory things in his past unless he brings them up first and then only he can talk about them. “All of you want to play ‘gotcha!’ ” he says. “I’ll go to the next question.”

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota whose chief claim to fame is that Sarah Palin got to play the slots with John McCain’s nickel last time, announced yesterday that he is running next year. He said it with an apology, or maybe it was a boast, that he is the poor boy’s man in the race. “We are not going to be the money champion,” he said. “Mitt Romney will be the front-runner in that regard.

“But we’ll have enough money to run a competitive campaign. It may not be the BMW or Mercedes campaign, but it will be a good Buick, or maybe toward a Cadillac, and that will be enough for us to be competitive and to win.”

Maybe so, but a candidate who drives a Caddy or a Buick (or even a BMW) when he thinks nobody is looking should have the instinct and smarts to promise a Ford or Chevy campaign. It’s no easier for a Republican to be a man of the people than for a Democrat to be responsible with the people’s money.

Herman Cain — the one-time pizza delivery man who rose to become CEO of Godfather’s Pizza — is envious of Mitt Romney’s bank vault, too. “I cannot compete with a Romney when it comes to money. He has at his disposal his own personal fortune,” Mr. Cain notes. But he insists that his grass roots is a match for Romney’s money.

Mr. Cain, like most newcomers to major-league politics, stumbles when he strays from what he knows. He should focus on pepperoni. When Chris Wallace of Fox News asked what he thought of the Palestinian “right of return,” one of the fundamental obstacles to peace in the Middle East, the prospective candidate was clearly befuddled.

“The right of return? The right of return?”

The interlocutor explained, gently, that he was talking about the off-the-table Palestinian position that refugees should have the right to return to territory lost with the establishment of Israel. Mr. Cain hesitated again, and then compounded innocent ignorance with unforgivable folly. “I don’t think [the Israelis] have a big problem with people returning,” he said. “The issue is there are some things they simply do not want to give in on.” He doesn’t have a coherent position on Afghanistan, either, he said, but he’s working on it. “I am developing more specifics on foreign policy as it relates to Afghanistan even as we speak. There are some experts, some former military generals that I am meeting with on a regular basis.”

A diet of tofu and thin soup makes anyone long for roast beef and a baked potato, and the roast beef here is someone unavailable.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana looks better now than he did before he pulled out, citing the inevitable family concerns. Some people long for Mike Huckabee. Jeb Bush had to knock down speculation once more that he could be lured into the race, now that President Barack Obama has embraced much of brother George W. Bush’s agenda. “I am flattered by everyone’s encouragement,” he said, “but my decision has not changed. I will not be a candidate for president in 2012.” This is somewhat short of “taking a Sherman,” the standard for a prospect leaving and really meaning it: “If nominated I will not run,” one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite generals, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, told Republican pleaders in 1868, “and if elected I will not serve.”

Alas, we don’t have politicians, Democrat or Republican, who any longer know how to deliver plain talk like that. But it’s still early.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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