Not since that 1985 Mikhail Baryshnikov cinematic embarrassment has the term “white knight” so polluted the public discourse. (Or was that “white nights?” No matter.)
Even as the primary season rolls along, angsty Republicans fantasize about a base-friendly-but-not-barking-mad champion to come thundering up on his majestic steed and save them from this utterly uninspiring primary field.
After Michigan, don’t look for the dream to die anytime soon. Mitt Romney’s win wasn’t pretty and will continue to fuel concerns that the GOP electorate, despite its visceral hatred of Obama, won’t be as fired up as it needs to be to kick ass in November.
Thus the loins-on-fire lust for a white knight.
Now, the Republican establishment isn’t nuts. It knows that a last-minute savior is unlikely. Even those who publicly pine for one typically acknowledge a variety of technical impediments, such as missed filing deadlines, the difficulty of cobbling together a national operation at this late date—and, of course, the fact that pretty much all of the most-mentioned dream candidates have already said, thank you very much, but no thanks.
So there’s that.
But let us assume that all of these impediments could be removed. That still leaves us with the question: who in the world is actually a viable candidate to serve as the GOP’s great white knight?
The names most often uttered, with equal parts anguish and reverence, are Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, and Paul Ryan. All are fine men. But electoral powerhouses? Really?
For all their charms, none of these guys seems likely to perform the much-longed-for function of exciting the conservative base without scaring the shit out of everyone else in the country.
Take Mitch Daniels, a favorite of Republican thinkers like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Daniels is a smart, sensible, serious, seemingly reasonable guy. And therein lies his problem. Daniels doesn’t do the red-meat bombast thing that the base so craves. He makes heretical suggestions about calling a “truce” in the culture wars. He looks like the before photo in one of those old Charles Atlas weight-training ads. He still has all that foggy personal baggage surrounding his wife’s abandoning him and the kids in 1994 for an old beau only to later come back and remarry Mitch. Plus, the guy was George W. Bush’s OMB director. Just think of how much fun the Romney campaign could have with that.
No question Chris Christie does bombast well—arguably a little too well. Polls show that women dislike the in-your-face Jersey governor. And while he has the ‘tude necessary to charm the base, he also tends to do things like publicly bitch-slap the conservative “crazies” who objected to his filling a state superior court seat with a Muslim attorney who had defended post-9/11 detainees.
As for Paul Ryan, his first major strike is that he is a House member. And as any political obsessive will tell you, a House member hasn’t won the presidency in 131 years. That bears repeating: 131 years. Not a history buff? Fair enough. Ryan also lacks gravitas. Despite his wonky stylings, the guy comes across as way green and way goofy. Last but not least, the hard-charging congressman is the father of an entitlement-reform proposal that has proven to be more combustible than Callista Gingrich’s hair.
Then there’s Jeb. Arguably the most electable of the bunch, the Bush clan’s favorite son remains inescapably burdened by his brother’s White House legacy. Let’s call it the a-Bush-by-any-other-name pickle. Plus, Jeb has it so great right now, with everyone kissing up to him and hanging on his every utterance. Why risk all that to launch a half-assed run against a sitting POTUS whose prospects are beginning to rally along with the economy? Better to sit out this circus, get his ducks in a row, and give the electorate another four years to forgive and forget.
None of which is to say that one of these guys wouldn’t make a perfectly respectable white knight. But let’s not pretend any of them is an obvious fit for the armor. For one thing, none of them is really of the base—not in a man-of-the-people, culturally-and-socially-conservative-in-his-bones kinda way.
For that kind of champion, Republican leaders would need to look in another direction, at a man whose name is almost never heard in these who-will-save-us discussions—despite his conservative credentials, non-nuts persona, and first-hand experience with Mitt-slaying.
Paging Mike Huckabee.