The 2012 GOP Field: What's Going On?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Jonathan Martin, senior political writer at Politico, analyzes the 2012 Republican presidential field and other political news.

The 'issues' issue

As possible Republican candidates align themselves for a 2012 run, their backgrounds and platforms come into focus. The recently-announced Rick Santorum, for example, is emerging as the social conservative with most appeal to the religious right.

But it's an open question as to whether or not that's enough to carry a campaign. After all, with debts and deficits taking center stage, how much will cultural issues really matter? According to Jonathan Martin, it all depends on the primaries.

The energy right now in the Republican party is over fiscal issues...this fear about America becoming more like Europe in terms of a social welfare state. That said, there are still a lot of conservatives who vote in primaries and participate in caucuses that are driven by a set of cultural issues. In a place like Iowa especially, we're talking about an electorate that is perhaps half or over half self-identified born again evangelical.

The George W. Bush model

One thing's for certain: right now, the GOP field looks thin. Nobody's a clear front-runner, and the party's rock stars (Christie, Boehner, Ryan) are staying put. Most Republican voters can't name a candidate they're excited about, and almost every one has something politically toxic in their past. In short, said Jonathan Martin, the Right is missing their "George W. Bush model."

Recall in 1999 that George W. Bush was the early favorite and remained so...Bush got out there early, collected the support of the establishment, both donors and elected officials, but also grassroots activists. He really united those wings of the party in a way nobody is doing right now.

Rand Paul: Like father, like son

Presenting oneself as electable is the name of the game for most of these Republicans. That's been a problem for Ron Paul, the most libertarian Republican hopeful, who enjoys a strong cult following but isn't seen as a threat on the national stage. He'll still run in 2012, said Martin, but the one to really watch is Ron's son, a freshman Senator from Kentucky named Rand.

I think you're going to have a Paul running every four years for as long as we can see. It's a platform to get their issues out—issues like the Fed, restraint abroad, constitutional issues. The scenario that's likely this time around is Ron gives it one last go, carries the torch into 2012, calls it a career, and then in 2016 or 2020, Rand Paul starts to run. He could be more formidable than his dad; he presents better, but he's also willing to offer their version of libertarianism in a way that's more palatable to the mainstream.

Boehner's balancing act

Whoever wins the nomination, something has to change for the Republican party before next November. Obama's approval ratings are low, but the GOP-led Congress' ratings are even worse. With Paul Ryan now introducing a budget that privatizes Medicare, candidates will almost certainly have to take a stand on the matter that could make or break them.

And in the middle of all these players, said Martin, is House Speaker John Boehner.

Boehner has to balance the demands of his freshman class while trying to accommodate the broader swath of Americans. A lot of Tea Party folks want to push further and further right, and folks in swing districts don't want to go that far. The most vivid example has been the Paul Ryan budget proposal. [Members of Congress] were going home during the recess this past week and getting questions about Medicare, why do you want to end Medicare? This is a third rail; there's a reason why Medicare is not touched, why entitlements are not touched.