Suddenly, and without any sharp surge in the President's popularity, Republicans seem pessimistic about their chances of ousting him in next year's national election. Complaints are heard about a lackluster field of potential nominees remaining after several presumed contenders recently talked themselves out of running. Grumbling probably grew louder after Fox News put pressure on Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to declare whether they were going to run or not. The network has suspended both men for sixty days, within which time each must declare whether or not he'll run. They must state clearly that they won't run, or else they'll lose their jobs, which they would give up anyway as declared candidates. Republicans and outsiders alike have observed that Fox's two highest-profile papabili, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, have been put under no such pressure that anyone outside Fox knows of. Fox News flacks explain this by arguing that Gingrich and Santorum have advanced to a point where the network feels obliged to force a choice on them, while Huckabee and Palin are supposedly much less closer to declaring themselves. The decision seems too arbitrary to be a mere enforcement of appropriate journalistic ethics. It would be proper for Fox to dump any of these Republicans once he or she has declared a candidacy, but that's not the standard imposed on Gingrich and Santorum. They must decide whether to form exploratory committees within sixty days, while Palin and Huckabee, whose celebrity probably allows them to start the groundwork for a campaign much later, get to coast on the Fox News payroll for some reason.
I won't put it past Fox News to try to manipulate the GOP nomination process, but other hopefuls (or hoped-fors) have dropped out without prodding from the network. In these other cases, we may see Republicans facing the unanticipated consequences of their own ideological preferences. While certain officials may say they like their chances better in 2016 than against an eminently vulnerable incumbent, I suspect that more than the Bill Clinton scenario, in which Republican congressional victories in 1994 all but assured his re-election two years later, is weighing on their minds. I think it comes down to money. Under the rules they wanted, and which the Supreme Court gave them, many Republicans are going to find that the game is too expensive to play. The need to fundraise during a presumably competitive early primary season, followed by a still-harder push toward the general election, is probably too daunting for many people who might otherwise take a shot. While the Republican party certainly rejoiced that the Citizens United decision would assure a great flow of corporate money their way, the decision came with no guarantee that any aspirant to a Republican nomination would be flooded with funds. Citizens United empowered the party as a bureaucratic whole rather than individual Republicans and probably makes it more likely that the deck will be stacked against any Republican with insurgent or unorthodox ambitions. Meanwhile, money will most likely make its choice among Republicans long before primary voters get their turn.
Does this apparent slip in Republican morale create an opportunity for a serious challenge to Obama to come from outside the GOP? Whatever Republicans think about the incumbent's abilities as a campaigner and fundraiser, he remains profoundly unpopular among many segments of the population, as does the debt-ridden, allegedly bloated government he symbolizes. While any Republican candidate is probably assured of a large vote as the "only" alternative to Obama, the feeling already stirring that the GOP may not present an adequate alternative to Obama may surge early enough to get people seeking alternative alternatives. Regrettably, the only person currently exploiting this early dissatisfaction is the inexplicable Donald Trump, a living cartoon of wealth whose habit of firing temporary workers at scheduled televised intervals is a lumpen fantasy of leadership and little more. If anyone else hopes to make a move, now is probably the time to generate enthusiasm while the opposition to Obama seems unenthusiastic over its existing options. This is not necessarily the time to seek a leader, but now is the time to start telling people that the Republican party (or the "right" in general, for that matter) is not the only alternative to Four More Years, before the GOP regains enough confidence to insist otherwise. This is the time to start building a movement in a public way, loudly, like the Tea Partiers did, in the hope that leadership will come later -- a year or so from now -- by the people's choice.