None of this is to say that conditions today are the same as they were 20 years ago. There are a zillion differences. Bush was riding what turned out to be a fleeting wave of popularity after the war in 1991, while Obama will likely have more durable support in 2012. Also, the economy was trending downward in 1991 but will (hopefully) be headed up in 2012. It's unlikely next year's race will feature an independent who wins a substantial share of the vote, as Ross Perot did back then. And much of the press was against the incumbent president in 1991, but will most assuredly be for the incumbent president in 2012.
But whatever the differences, the similarity is that for Republicans, victory is possible for a candidate with daring, confidence and skill. Yet some of the most qualified potential GOP candidates appear to be hanging back, reluctant to take on the White House. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is surely one of the more capable potential presidents out there, but he has vacillated on the question of running and at the moment seems to be leaning against it. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has flatly declared himself unready for the job. Other Republicans with proven appeal, like former Arkansas governor and 2008 candidate Mike Huckabee, are biding their time.
But time is passing. The first Republican presidential debate is less than two months away, and by now candidates should have already spent months organizing and seeking support in early primary and caucus states. Those who haven't been doing that are already behind.
Yes, Obama will be difficult to beat. He has the enormous power of incumbency, and he can lose a number of the states he won in 2008 and still be re-elected. But George H.W. Bush seemed unbeatable, too. In 1991, Clinton decided to go forward, in the face of all the conventional wisdom, and ended up in the White House. No one knows whether a Republican challenger could do the same thing now. But we know this for sure: They won't win if they don't run.