Advancing a Free Society

Christie and Ryan: Hamlet on Wry

Thursday, August 18, 2011

While Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reportedly ponder entering the Republican presidential field, let’s look at their fence-sitting from another perspective:

How long can they keep us in suspense?

It’s a fair question to ask, because the Christie/Ryan drama (not to mention Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani and anyone else dropping hints) head-butts at least two immutable rules of GOP presidential politics:

  1. Candidates enter the race sooner, not later;
  2. Republicans usually produce a nominee before baseball’s Opening Day (the last three GOP nominees having secured the nomination no later than March 26 of the election year).

Let’s go back to the 2008 race. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, announced an exploratory committee on November 15, 2006; he formally announced his candidacy on April 25, 2007.

His main competition? Giuliani announced on Larry King Live, on Feb. 14 (a week-and-a-half after filing a federal “statement of candidacy”). That was two days after Mitt Romney’s formal announcement at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan (here’s the video) – Romney’s entry coming two weeks and two days after former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tossed his hat in the ring.

The Democratic race in 2008 operated at the same early-bird gait. Barack Obama formally announced on Feb. 10, 2007, some 21 days after Hillary Clinton and 46 days after John Edwards had kicked off their respective campaigns (see Hillary and see Johnny run).

The same can’t be said of the 2012 cycle.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry not only waited until last Saturday (Aug. 13) to enter the race, but he promptly leaped to the front of the pack in at least one national survey (Perry 29%, Romney 18%, Michele Bachmann 13%).

If indeed Ryan and Christie are doing some deep thinking, it’s because they see a race that unsettled. Why not come in – oh, say, after Labor Day – and throw the contest into further turmoil?

But how long can the two gentlemen remain in “Hamlet mode” – pondering to be, or not to be . . . a candidate?

In 1991, Democrats experienced their own Shakespearian drama courtesy of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, aka “Hamlet on the Hudson”.

Cuomo didn’t merely ponder a presidential run.

He played it out as long as he could, until the hard deadline of having to file papers in New Hampshire.

On Dec. 18, 1991, the last day for a candidate to drop off a ballot application in the Granite State, a chartered plane sat on the tarmac at the Albany airport.

During the morning hours, Cuomo worked on two statements – one saying he was in, the other saying he was out.

As the afternoon, hours ticked by, Cuomo hoped for a state budget deal that would free him to run (it didn’t materialize) and continued to agonize.

Ninety-minutes before the close of business in New Hampshire, Cuomo told the world he was a no-go.

“To be” . . . not meant to be.

Ryan and Christie could, in theory, drag this out just as long. But odds are they won’t. And that’s due to the second immutable rule that seems not to apply to 2012: a swift end to the GOP race.

It’s not a stretch to see the early primary states – all in February – delivering a split verdict: Bachmann, in Iowa; Romney, in New Hampshire; Perry, in South Carolina.

After that, it becomes difficult for any single candidate to deliver a knockout punch, given a rule change that allots delegates on a proportional basis rather than winner-take-all for a dozen-or-so states that plan to hold primaries and caucuses in March.

It means the GOP race could segue into April with a frontrunner who, though amassing states and perceived momentum, nevertheless might lack a dominant lead in delegates. And that serves only to prolong the race (this is why Texas Republicans were angling to move their primary from March to April, to be more of a king/queen-maker).

If you buy into this line of thought, then circle two dates on your 2012 calendar: the April 24thNew York primary; the May 8thOhio primary (looming farther on the horizon: the June 5thCalifornia primary).

And someone who is thinking along these lines: Romney, who’s raised money under the assumption that the 2012 contest is not the usual sprint. Anyone looking to jump into the race at this last point has to consider if they can keep a campaign financially afloat for at least the next eight months (not a problem for Perry; maybe troublesome for Bachmann).

So if you’re Paul Ryan or Chris Christie and the White House is more than fleeting thought, at least four things are occurring simultaneously:

  1. you’re talking to your family;
  2. you’re talking to your strategists;
  3. you’re taking calls from the GOP’s powerful and mighty;
  4. you’re shaking the Republican money tree, to gauge interest from donors still on the sidelines.

The assumption is those donors are eager and listening. To them, the thought of either Hamlet running is more than a late-summer night’s dream.

(photo credit: Ibán)