Remember Jimmy Carter, whose mother reportedly asked “president of what?” when told her son was running for president?
Unlike the case of Carter, who to the nation seemed to come from nowhere, the notion of a Riley candidacy has been around for a while.
In 2009, The Washington Times, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s conservative counterweight to The Washington Post, wrote enthusiastically about Riley’s qualifications. That newspaper suggested that if he continued on the same track — industrial recruiting, business promoting, fiscal responsibility — he might be someone the Republicans could consider in 2012.
That same theme has been played on recently by Joe Scarborough, the former Florida congressman, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and friend of Riley’s son, Rob.
It is a telling commentary on our culture that talk-show personalities have the ear of enough people to create a candidate. On the far right, Rush Limbaugh and the like are already promoting the cause of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and a host of others. But such are the times in which we live.
However, looking at how broad yet shallow the Republican field of hopefuls now appears, Riley’s qualifications are not that shabby.
Riley knows how to act boldly, accept setbacks, regain his footing and move ahead. He proved quick-witted and practical enough to take advantage of an economic boom and recruit industries that continue to employ Alabamians despite the recession’s lingering effects. He ran a business-friendly, scandal-free administration and kept the Big Mules happy without alienating working-class voters on whom Republicans depend.
A man of conservative religious convictions, he did not strut his beliefs and, except for the gambling issue, did not force-feed reluctant residents faith-based policies. He can be hard-headed and uncompromising, but in economic matters he built bridges and gained admirers.
It will be noted that much of Riley’s success depended on an overheated national economy and that he left office without having to deal with the long-term consequences of the collapse of the housing market and the BP oil spill.
However, Riley made the most of the good times without creating obligations the state would have trouble meeting today. Some, including this page, have chided him for not being more of a reformer, for not pressing for changes in the state Constitution that would give residents, especially on the local level, more control of their own affairs.
In fairness, however, it should be noted that by mandating a balanced budget, that same Constitution may have kept Alabama out of the catastrophic financial difficulties in which other states find themselves today.
Even so, Riley’s most impressive qualification may be this: For eight years, he governed Alabama, a state that at times in history has seemed almost ungovernable. For the most part, he left Alabama and its people better off than they were when he took office.
How many other GOP presidential hopefuls have such a record?