Any Republican contemplating running for president in 2012 has two formidable obstacles: November 2012 and what happens starting January 2013.
For the first obstacle: Republicans should not underestimate Barack Obama. He’s a vicious political fighter who seems to get a thrill from the campaign for power. His political team proved itself a master of media narratives in 2008, and many in the media will be willing to give Obama an assist against any Republican opponent. The president has already somewhat turned around his poll numbers from the nadir of November 2010; Republicans should keep an eye on that trend continuing. Moreover, recent polling shows him with a significant lead over a generic Republican in 2012.
Obama's approval rating may still be under 50%, but Republicans would be premature in expecting a cakewalk in 2012. One of the big lessons of 2010 is that candidate quality does matter. There were numerous statewide races in 2010 that, by many metrics, Republicans should have won---but ended up going Democratic. If a Republican candidate cannot close the deal with voters, Barack Obama could end up being reelected, even with a sub-par economy and middling approval ratings.
If a Republican does win the presidency in 2012, he or she will have a host of problems to face. A Republican president in 2013 would likely inherit the longest-running economic stagnation since the Great Depression. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have witnessed a massive expansion of the federal government; if a Republican president is serious about paring this government back, a lot of work lies ahead.
In the past, I've suggested some avenues for a rethinking of Republican policies, and what follows are some thoughts (in no particular order) about qualities a Republican candidate should possess, for both a successful campaign and a successful administration.
Articulate a vision. John McCain struggled to articulate a comprehensive vision for his campaign or a McCain presidency, a weakness Obama eagerly exploited. The "vision thing" is often crucial for successful presidential campaigns. This vision may not be enough (see Goldwater, Barry), but it is important, especially if a president wishes to build a longer-reaching legacy. There's a fine line between a vision and a mere slogan, and it was not always clear on what side of the line George W. Bush's notion of "compassionate conservatism" stood. Still, Bush was able to conjure some kind of purpose to his campaign. A successful Republican candidate in 2012 will have to do the same thing.
Take on the map. A candidate who has to reach for the "Bush" states is probably a candidate the party would be better passing by. Yes, a candidate could win with those states in the end, but those states should more be viewed as a last-ditch firewall than a goal. And it's worth noting how fragile the Bush coalition of the 2000s was: the loss of one closely contested state (Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004) would have cost Bush the White House. One of Obama's greatest electoral strengths in 2008 was his ability to open up the map for Democrats; this led to an Electoral College victory greater than any Republican has enjoyed since George HW Bush in 1988. The actual contours of the new GOP coalition might vary depending on the eventual candidate. But there's no reason to write off states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon, Minnesota, or Wisconsin. Some of these states recently elected a Republican senator in 2010. And the GOP also needs to keep its eye on states Bush barely won (or didn't even win in both elections): New Hampshire, New Mexico, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada, to name a few.
Lower the temperature of social issues. This is not the same thing as surrendering on social issues. Social conservatives are a key part of the Republican coalition; many socially conservative positions are among the more popular parts of the GOP platform. Moreover, there is, I think, an often undervalued theoretical affinity between social conservatism and fiscal conservatism. But one can argue for socially conservative positions without sneering at those who disagree with them. Dualisms like “Heartland Real Americans” vs. “Coastal Elitists/Fake Americans” (or suggestions that Republicans don't deserve the freedoms of the Constitution) are probably better left behind. A game-changing Republican presidential candidate will need to be able to show that he or she respects the views of a variety of other Americans, even if he or she doesn't always agree with them.
Remember managerial competence. Unfortunately, the challenges that face this nation cannot be dissolved with a few easy votes or executive orders. Repealing Obamacare will not be enough to stabilize the nation's health-care system; cutting earmarks will not restore the nation's fiscal health. In order to be successful, a Republican president has to have the ability to recognize and promote competent bureaucrats. The White House must be part of the "reality-based" community if it is to succeed.
Be willing to experiment. Government policy is often less about blind obedience to absolutes and more about being able to muddle through. Contrary to the wishes of some, the president---even at the peak of power---does not have a totally free hand to write policy. Various Congressional factions, public interests, and bureaucratic inertia all shape policy. Moreover, many policies can lead to effects completely unanticipated by their designers. All these facts will require an administration to be fluid, resourceful, and flexible. It's worth noting, though, that flexibility in means need not require an empty faith in political ends. One can still have deep principles and be flexible in applying them.
Fight the big battles, even if they cause you to lose the small ones. Barack Obama did not win every news cycle as a candidate in either the primary election or the general. Yet some of these daily losses led to his overall victory. Consider, for example, the flap about his willingness to meet with the leaders of countries like North Korea and Iran without preconditions during the primary battle of 2007/2008. The Clinton people hit Obama hard on this, and he endured some rocky coverage in the media, but this admission also illustrated Obama’s break with some of the rhetorical tendencies of the Democratic past, at least during that part of the campaign. This break in turn helped solidify his image as the "change" candidate in a cycle in which "change" was very hot. A candidate, Republican or Democrat, must be willing to take the heat of taking a strong stand at times. This willingness to face criticism can strengthen the image of a candidate’s inner fortitude and also can allow the candidate to push the parameters of public debate.
The political pendulum has swung fairly wildly from one party to the next in recent years. It remains to be seen how much the Republicans will be able to make good on their significant gains in 2010 for the presidential race in 2012. There is the real possibility of a major victory in November of next year, but there is also the possibility of a major disappointment---in that month and in the months after it. The GOP currently has the benefit of a wide-open field, and Republicans should welcome this opportunity for debate, trial, and exploration.