Those who are not ready for Jeb or Mitt (much less Hillary) are now officially on the clock–tasked with finding a credible conservative insurgent capable of going toe-to-toe with the Republican establishment’s favorite in the primary elections that begin fourteen months from now.
The clearest path to victory for the establishment, as they have publicly made clear, is to rally around one high profile candidate while conservative and libertarian-leaning Republicans divide themselves among a half dozen or more until the early primaries begin to cull the field. A divided right and a (more) united middle has carried the establishment to victory in every open primary since the contemporary system emerged (in 1988).
Jeb Bush’s exploratory committee announcement last week is a large step toward uniting the middle–either around Bush himself or, if he fails to gain traction, Mitt Romney, called in from political retirement as a management consultant Cincinnatus to save the day. For what? Beyond the benefits to properly-credentialed job seekers, we can expect another campaign for expert mastery of the economy, a 98-cents-on-the-Progressive-dollar budget, democratic self esteem-promoting missions abroad, and market-oriented but beltway-directed education (if Bush) or health care (if Romney) “reform.”
As Josh Kraushaar argued last week at the National Journal, such a program is unlikely to energize the Republican base. But the base won’t matter if the Republican establishment standard-bearer can win the early primaries and caucuses with 30-40% of the vote and build an air of inevitability around his nomination before the campaign hits the states where most of that base resides. Meanwhile, renewed rumblings about the end of the Ames, Iowa, straw poll (related to new Republican National Committee rules to discourage party-sponsored voting events prior to the official Iowa caucus) and plans to limit the number of pre-primary debates make the early unification of conservatives all the more unlikely.
Last week, we proposed calling a series of regional pre-primary caucuses featuring candidate debates and straw polls (sample below) that would openly, fairly, and naturally work to unite conservatives behind a single insurgent candidate several months before the primaries begin. The idiosyncrasies of the early-voting states would still favor the establishment candidate, but he’d have to get something close to a majority of the vote to defeat a conservative/libertarian insurgent who had established himself as the clear choice of the non-elite.
What sort of an insurgent could run this gauntlet and break the establishment winning streak? Being willing to take on the Republican branch of America’s ruling class would be a good start. But that could be the pathway for demagogues and attention-seekers as much as true republicans.
The test will be in the alternative he advocates. After eight years of President Obama, we expect the establishment candidate to talk about reform, but we hope an insurgent reformer would bend us toward more constitutional government, not merely more efficient government. A true reform candidate would be able to highlight the important difference between the American presidency as first conceived, and the celebrity, hegemonic, mind-everyone’s business executive that the position has become, to the discredit of both the office and the country.
How, then, do we know if we’ve found the genuine article? There is no better place to rediscover the true nature of a constitutional executive than Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist essays on the American presidency (numbers 67-77). There Hamilton describes:
- A republican leader, who loves the Constitution, embraces the boundaries of our separation of powers system and protects both with his veto power (essays 73, 76-77);
- An energetic leader, who who understands that his charge is to (a) protect the community against foreign attacks, (b) steadily administer the laws, (c) secure property, and (d) guard the people’s liberty “against the enterprises of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy”: a vigilant defender of our peace (70, 74-75);
- A responsible leader, realizing his ambition in directing an executive branch that serves a self-governing people: an office-holder ever accountable for his actions, who is a judicious representative of the people, not their impassioned and impassioning mouthpiece, attuned to the “deliberate sense of the community.” (67-69, 71-72, 76-77).
President Obama’s greatest contribution to reviving the American republic has been his blatant disregard for this model–standing in such a stark contrast to the original that it has drawn our attention back to it. He is not the first to have left the Founders’ republican ideal behind. But he has been the most audacious in trying to hammer the nails into its coffin.
He has usurped legislative authority time and again and then threatened to use his veto to prevent the reassertion of Congress’s constitutional powers. He has undermined our peace by suffering injury to American interests from one rogue state after another and exacerbating our political, economic, and racial divisions. He has expanded government power and bureaucratic discretion while leading an executive branch that views the defenders of self-government with suspicion and disdain.
There is enough low-hanging fruit here for any ambitious Republican. Criticizing President Obama on the 2016 campaign trail will be easy and, so long as his approval ratings remain low, politically cheap. But whatever measure of political success another not-Obama campaign might bring, it will take the persuasive presentation of a compelling alternative to begin the revitalization of our republic.
The ideal conservative running for President would, therefore, be one who understands that that which he is attempting to “conserve” is the Founders’ vision of republican executive authority, exceptional both in their day and ours. True republican reform would amount to a refinement of current executive practices that bring the office back into alignment with the original understanding of the American presidency. Perhaps most difficult of all, it would require the new president to foreswear many of the executive prerogatives asserted by President Obama, even, or especially, when they appear to be the only way to achieve his favored policy. When he takes the oath of office, he must “swear to his own hurt” (Psalm 15) to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Who among the current Republican contenders is best positioned to make the case for this understanding of the American presidency–and then live up to it in office? The combination of intellectual and moral virtues necessary to accomplish this is difficult to find. Add the administrative gifts necessary to govern well and the task becomes more difficult still. We hope that over the next year there will be a very robust and public debate centered on this question, despite the efforts of the GOP establishment. Let’s start today. Who do you think is best able to re-constitutionalize the presidency? Participate in our straw poll and add your comments below.
David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.