Editor's note: CNN contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- With the announcement last week that former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is "testing the waters" for a presidential run, he becomes the first Republican to come as close as possible to openly challenging President Barack Obama next year.
He will likely be joined by a large crowd. Mike Allen of Politico recently listed five other likely candidates for the GOP: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Utah Gov. and current Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.
This list does not take account of others who have been seriously spoken of and written about as potential candidates, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. And there has been talk from Donald Trump, and talk about others -- including Texas Gov. Rick Perry. This field could grow further to include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, congressman Paul Ryan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
With the exception of Donald Trump, each of these candidates brings with them a great deal of political experience, competence, energy, and political accomplishment. And, looking over the list, I disagree with my CNN colleague Paul Begala that "the Republicans could use brains," a comment he made as he cited President George W. Bush and Gov. Sarah Palin as evidence that "there's something wrong with the party."
The GOP field is full of brains. As for Bush and Palin, briefly, those without brains would not be able to defeat or hold their own against the likes of Al Gore, John Kerry, and Joe Biden in national debates.
There is no question Gingrich is a broad and deep thinker who can expatiate on almost any issue. Still, the question is not how high a candidate may score on an IQ test, but, rather, how high one can score with the electorate.
The question most analysts are thinking and talking about now, however, is whether the candidates and potential candidates will prove formidable against President Barack Obama. In other words, is President Obama defeatable? The short answer is yes.
No presidential campaign is a layup and Barack Obama is an excellent campaigner. He took on the Clinton machine and family -- arguably the most prominent, successful, and tough strategists, fundraisers, and campaigners in the Democratic party -- and beat them. But President Obama could very well be defeated by the Republicans next year.
Just to capture a few quick moments in time: In 1980, former Gov. Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter by almost 10 points. But, in January of 1979, Gallup had Carter beating Reagan by over 20 points; by December of 1979, Gallup had Carter beating Reagan by 24 points. It is an arguable proposition as to whether the national conditions Jimmy Carter presided over were worse in 1979 than they are now. The Misery Index (unemployment plus inflation) was approaching 20 points then, today it is just above ten points (the lower the better). 1979 was the year of gas lines. Marginal tax rates were at 70% at the top rate and 14% at the low (today the respective rates are 35% and 10%).
We had a hostage crisis in Iran, a demoralized military, and the Soviet Union on the march. While inflation is lower now, unemployment is much higher; there is no Soviet Union but the terrorist threat is "at its most heightened state" since 9/11 and we still face huge threats across the globe, but in that very miserable year of 1979 the leading Republican candidate was losing to the beleaguered incumbent President by over 20 points.
This augurs both good and ill for the Republican nominee -- whoever it turns out to be. A few things to keep in mind about the uncertainty of predictions at this point:
Expectations and polls the year before a presidential election can be wildly wrong (note, here, aside from Carter hypothetically besting Reagan in January 1979, George H.W. Bush had approval ratings touching 90% the year prior to his defeat).
Incumbency is usually a strong factor -- since World War II, only two elected presidents have been turned out of office after their first term (and they were Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush). And yet, just now, President Obama does look more vulnerable to a Republican challenger than Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush did in the first quarter of the year before their re-election year. A recent Gallup poll shows a nameless Republican candidate tying President Obama in a prospective re-election, 45-45.
We Republicans still have a lot of work to do to put our 2012 house in order. Each of our potential candidates comes with great qualifications and certain deficits. Given the polling history of 1979, 1991, and recent polling that shows President Obama's disapproval rating being higher than his approval at various points, so do the Democrats.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.