In every presidential election since 1940, the GOP has nominated a nationally known political leader. The closest the GOP came to deviating from the rule was Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George W. Bush in 2000 – and that was not very close. Goldwater’s views were famous even if he was not well known personally. George W. Bush was the massively re-elected governor of the nation’s second biggest state.
By contrast, the Democrats have repeatedly turned to less well known people. John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992, Barack Obama in 2008 had nothing like the clear record and national fame of a Richard Nixon, a Ronald Reagan, or a John McCain. Kennedy, Carter, Clinton and Obama could be packaged and sold to meet the fluctuating requirements of the political market.
If past patterns hold, the Republicans would nominate in 2012 somebody with a large national reputation: a Newt Gingrich or a Sarah Palin. Mitt Romney is trying to be both a national front-runner and also a shape-shifter, in the manner of the 1968 vintage Nixon.
But suppose one of those three frontrunners stumbles, as seems very possible. Then … who?
Bob Shrum has long argued that the obvious solution for the Republicans in 2012 is Jeb Bush. Jeb could raise millions from a standing start, unite the establishment and Tea Party Republicans, carry a must-win purple state and appeal to Hispanic voters. If he were willing to run – and if he had a different last name – he’d be perfect.
I’d definitely place a side-bet on the Jeb Bush contingency. But two “ifs” is a lot of “ifs.” So, another possible solution is that the GOP will do something it has not done since 1940: nominate a true national unknown. This is the role that might be filled by a Mitch Daniels or a Tim Pawlenty. But if you really want to do the dark horse thing, who is darker than John Thune?
Handsome and athletic, Thune manages to combine a perfectly orthodox voting record (ACU rating 100) with an almost equally perfect absence of dangerously memorable utterance or action. His major accomplishment in the Senate: defeating a Department of Defense decision to close Ellsworth Air Force base in South Dakota. You can sculpt him into almost anything. In that respect, he’s the opposite of a Haley Barbour - and a candidate to watch.