The only thing inevitable in politics is crushing disappointment. So you might as well be entertained.
With all the media concern-trolling about the swarming GOP presidential field, it should not escape our attention that you’re getting exactly what you asked for. Voters incessantly complain about the lack of choices in politics. Well, for the first time in a long time, nearly every faction of the American Right is represented in an open primary.
So have at it, democracy lovers. Because—and apologies to befuddled New Yorker cartoonists—not only does this contest feature ethnic diversity (though perhaps not the identity politics that work so well for Democrats), it features a wide range of substantive ideological disagreements, a rarity for any party in any era.
This week, for example, Rand Paul, the country’s first libertarian U.S. senator, claimed that ISIS’s existence and strength was made possible by Republican interventionists. This triggered Bobby Jindal—a first-generation Indian-American, Rhodes Scholar, governor of Louisiana, and likely presidential candidate—to shoot back that, actually, it was the dithering lily-livered weakness from people like Paul that allows ISIS to exist.
And here you were blaming it all on a bunch of Islamists.
Rand’s position isn’t exactly mainstream among conservatives, granted, but it does force Republicans to defend a foreign policy legacy and make a coherent case for future interventions. But can you imagine a comparable debate about, say, government interference in health-care markets or the cost of fighting climate change within the Democratic Party today? Not even socialist wingman Bernie Sanders—whose positions have gradually conflated with those of mainstream liberals over the past decade—can fabricate an authentic-sounding disagreement with the preordained candidate of the Left.*
Primary candidates are often forced to create intraparty rifts that are barely perceptible to an average voter. Paul’s views on foreign policy are so out of step, though, that they prompted Jindal (and other conservatives) to question why he’s even running for the GOP nomination at all. But couldn’t this question be asked of other GOP candidates?
Take Rick Santorum, who announced this week. Not so long ago, he lamented the fact that too many conservatives believe in “personal autonomy” and he rejects the “idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do …” His contention, basically, is that the Goldwater impulses of modern conservatism—which could just as easily be called the Reagan impulses—should be abandoned.
Now, if for some reason Santorum, the runner-up in Republican primary vote in 2012 who was often portrayed as the “conservative” option for voters, isn’t your guy but you’re still a fan of nannyism, high tariffs, and wage controls … well, there’s always Mike Huckabee. As Jonah Goldberg pointed out recently, we might consider him the philosophical offspring of Progressive-Era heroes like Richard Ely, Josephus Daniels, and William Jennings Bryan.
There is no candidate in the Democratic Party who could plausibly claim any intellectual relationship to Fred Hayek.
The populist ideas that motivate the likes of Santorum and Huckabee are not going anywhere. A few years back, The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, one of the voices of reformicon movement today, championed Santorum as a candidate that “Electability Republicans” could live with on “the fronts of populism and moralism.” He argued that Santorum represented was a proponent of subsidiarity—the principle that policy should be handled in the least centralized and most local way—and pitted him against those who believe in classical liberalism.
“Subsidiarity” fans have a knack for proposing ideas that empower federal government, weirdly enough. Nevertheless, a number of these proposals have emotional appeal and will undoubtedly find their way into the agendas of other candidates. The reformist-libertarian fiscal divide is not going anywhere. Which means the GOP is likely going to have some meaningful debates about economic policy.
In addition to arguing about foreign policy and taxes, you’re also going to see disagreements about immigration, education, and numerous other issues that are likely create recriminations and further atomize the party—before, of course, everyone comes together again to face a common foe. But who will do it?
You’ve got Ted Cruz, and he’s all in. Carly Fiorina brings newly honed political competence to wherever Hillary happens to be right now. (Though it’s difficult to imagine that anyone who’s had to fire American workers could run for president in this populist age.) Governors Jindal, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry—all, probably in—all have varying records of success in different areas of reform on the state level. There is legacy candidate Jeb Bush, cash-rich with faint chances. And there’s Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American from Florida, who may be the least wealthy senator in the United States and probably the one with the best shot at the nomination. This oligarchy of ours can’t get anything right.
If you’re not crazy about any of those options, there’s former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who represents what we should probably refer to ambiguously as the anti-establishment vote. And I’m sure I’m forgetting a kook who shouldn’t be taken seriously.
In this week’s Quinnipiac poll, Bush, Carson, Huckabee, Rubio, and Walker are each at around 10 percent support among Republican voters. Paul has 7 percent. Cruz has 6 percent. Christie has 4 percent. Fiorina has 2 percent. With this sort of parity it’s going to be a while before any egos allow candidates to drop out even if they’re only here to sell books.
Few things are more comfortable for a political party than ideological homogeny. So whether all these candidates reflect a party having a debate or whether it’s a sign that the party is fraying is another question. But, Republicans, this is what you wanted.
*You’ll also note how warped the media’s coverage of these races can be. There’s already been a number of deep dives investigating how Sanders can help shape the race. At the same time, journalists have spent an inordinate amount of time focused on the abundance of candidates or the slim prospects of GOP hopefuls, including new entrant George Pataki—a two-term moderate governor of the second—most populous state in the country. And it’s true that Pataki has virtually no popular support among conservatives. It’s also true that Pataki is, by any rational measure, more prepared to be president than Bernie Sanders. Actually, he’s probably more prepared than Hillary Clinton.