As personalities, the syntax-mangling Ike and the self-consciously intellectual David Petraeus don’t have much in common. But politically, they’re in a parallel position. Today’s GOP has a right-wing base that can damage Obama, but none of its favorites have a prayer of winning the White House. The reason is that just like the Republican right of the early 1950s, which kept insisting that the New Deal constituted socialism (or fascism), today’s conservative activists have not accommodated themselves to some basic shifts in public mood. Over the past couple of decades, the American people have grown more pro-environment, more culturally tolerant, and more suspicious of the unregulated free market, and yet the Republican Party has responded with a series of litmus tests for its presidential candidates that represent the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling “la la la, I can’t hear you.”…
Like McCain in 2008, Petraeus could largely skip the Iowa caucuses, which evangelicals dominate, and instead focus on New Hampshire, where independents can vote. In both 2000 and 2008, it was New Hampshire that boosted McCain, and New Hampshire, as it turns out, is the closest thing Petraeus has to a home state. From there it would be on to South Carolina, where military pedigrees go a long way.
All this is wildly speculative, of course. But there’s a political logic to it: Parties that have grown narrow and extreme tend to spiral downward until they nominate someone who is not beholden to their narrow, extreme base. That person has to be so popular that he or she can defy the normal rules about how candidates get nominated. Right now, David Petraeus is the only Republican who fits the bill. In the weeks ahead, McChrystal may become a conservative folk hero for opposing Obama on Afghanistan. But for Democrats looking toward 2012 and 2016, it’s Petraeus who represents the real threat.
We’ve been over this before. He gave a Sherman statement to Chris Wallace back in 2007. Even if he was inclined to renege, it’s hard to believe he’d do it to challenge his own commander-in-chief in 2012. If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen in 2016, and that’ll require another crushing GOP defeat against The One.
That said, Beinart’s larger point is well taken. Among the major Republican candidates, the only one who truly excites the base is Palin, yet she’s sufficiently poisonous to moderates at the moment that Bob McDonnell won’t even take her up on her offer to campaign for him in Virginia while sitting on a nine-point lead. Petraeus is the only person on the landscape, it seems, capable of intriguing the base and centrists. His problem is that, for the foreseeable future, the country’s problems don’t play to his strengths. Ike was an easy choice for post-war America because he epitomized strength and victory at a moment when the red menace was top priority; our own top priority for most of the next decade, I imagine, will be unemployment and debt unless Iran or North Korea does something astoundingly nutty. Why look to a general to deal with that? Like Beinart says, a serious look at Petraeus would require another Republican flameout in 2012, driving the party to such desperation that they’ll practically be forced to look outside the box. He’ll only be 64 in 2016. Why not?