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Republicans in 2016: Searching for George Washington


Last week, I listed the four things we’re going to need in a 2016 Republican presidential candidate: someone who will fight for liberty on the big issues, someone with broad enough appeal to win, someone who will restore limits on the chief executive, and someone who can be a commander-in-chief who pulls us out of our foreign policy free-fall.

In short, we need another George Washington.

Now comes the disappointing part: comparing that ideal to what we actually have for candidates. Let’s run down the list of the people we’re pretty sure are running, leaving out more speculative or long shot cases like Carly Fiorina or Mike Pence. (Fiorina will probably run, but she’s running for the vice-presidential nomination; she’s hoping to be around when the actual nominee decides he needs a woman on the ticket to counteract any advantage Hillary Clinton has in appealing to gender politics.) And for now, let’s ignore the polls, which are pretty meaningless at this early stage and mostly just measure name-recognition.

Let’s start with the first officially declared major candidate.

Ted Cruz

In my recent overview of Ted Cruz’s campaign announcement, I noted how he ticks off a lot of the boxes we’re looking for. Ideologically, he offers the right—including the pro-free-market right—all the red meat we could possibly want, along with a feisty, self-confident attitude. He is poised, articulate, and good at finding rapport with an audience—though I’ve mostly seen this tested with friendly audiences like the one at Liberty University. (If they were a “captive audience,” they seemed to be enjoying their captivity.) Unlike the formal, distant Mitt Romney, Cruz has the air of a regular, middle-class guy who worked hard and made his own way in the world. I think the left, which reflexively dismisses him as an out-of-touch religious zealot, might be surprised at how well he catches on with the average, non-ideological voter.

But there are two big questions hanging over him.

First, he has risen mostly on the basis of his very strong appeal to the conservative base and he has never really faced a test that would show us how well he does with a general audience. (And no, Texas does not count. The old tourism slogan is right: it’s like a whole other country.) So in terms of my list from last week, we know Ted Cruz will fight, but we don’t really know if he can win.

Second, he rose from solicitor general of Texas to US senator, but he has never had a real executive position. We know he’s good as a speaker or debater—on behalf of Texas, he argued nine cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them—but we don’t have evidence of what he would be like as a leader. In the Senate, he has been more noted for cantankerously opposing legislative compromises than for forging them.

So while he made a point in his announcement speech of talking about how he would reverse President Obama’s practice of ignoring Congress, we don’t know how effective he would be at actually convincing Congress to go along with his agenda. And while he would be likely to have a Republican-controlled Congress, at least at first, he would still have to deal with a bruised and recalcitrant Democratic minority, particularly in the Senate.

All of this has some people raising the question: Is Ted Cruz the Barack Obama of the right?

The analogy is not very exact. From my observation, Cruz is significantly smarter and more articulate than the comically overrated Obama. As president, I don’t see him having a lot of need for a TelePrompTer. He has more accomplishments to list as a lawyer, and he is much more open about who he is and what he believes. Whereas Obama ran for office by hinting to the left that he would give them everything they wanted, while presenting himself as a pleasant cipher to the average voter, Cruz comes out openly and explicitly telling everyone that he’s going to give the right everything they want.

And there’s the rub. When he promises everything, it seems too good, too tempting to be true. When he confidently asserts that abolishing the IRS “ain’t all that tough,” it has a we-are-the-ones-we’ve-been-waiting-for-yes-we-can kind of feel to it. We know how that ends, and how destructive it can be for the party that tries for too much and fails.

The danger is that Cruz is promising everything, instead of focusing on just a few key priorities. He risks being the kind of leader who is able to push just hard enough to alienate moderate voters, but not hard enough to get results. And unlike Obama, he won’t be able to rely on the protective cordon of the mainstream media.

Quite the opposite. The press is going to attack him. They’re already attacking him.

I’ll warn you right now that I’m going to end up defending Cruz a lot, quite independently of whether I think he’s the best candidate, simply because I will not be able to stand the media’s absurd attacks on him. Things like this, where Cruz makes a comment about how he grew to appreciate country music after September 11 because of its patriotism, which the Wonkette blog turns into the claim that Cruz only likes art if it “stirs patriotic bloodlust.” The media knows that Cruz is intelligent and articulate, and they see him as a threat. They’re going to work overtime twisting every little thing he says into a glaring character fault that pre-emptively disqualifies him for the presidency.

So if I spend a lot of the next 12 months (or 19 months, or ten years) beating up on the press for their scurrilous treatment of Cruz, please don’t take it the wrong way. It’s going to be less about liking Cruz than hating the media. I can’t say I’m looking forward to this, but I can see it coming, and I don’t think I’ll be able to help myself.

We’ll have some time to see how well Cruz manages to break through the media caricatures. But what we don’t want is someone who annoys the media—while also failing to break through their filters and appeal to the general voter.

What we’re trying to avoid is ending up with someone like Ben Carson.

Ben Carson

I don’t consider Dr. Carson to be a major candidate due to his lack of political experience and campaign infrastructure. But I find him interesting as an example of what not to do.

The mainstream media’s attitude toward Ben Carson is that Republicans only like him because he’s black, because we’re racists, or something. (Don’t try to make too much sense of it.) In fact, the right likes Carson because he’s the voice of the conservative id. He says a lot of things they agree with and says them with no sense of reserve, of carefully parsing his words, of holding anything back. He projects a persona that is ideologically fierce and uncompromising.

That he’s black is just an extra bonus. When you have been unjustly denounced as racists for years, there is a certain extra joy in nominating a black candidate and saying, in effect, “Suck on this, Progressives.” That’s why I think the first time we have a black Republican who can put the whole package together—conservative credentials, good political experience, an articulate speaker who is disciplined about picking a few key messages and staying on them—he will be the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.

But Ben Carson is not that man. He has never run for office and has no political experience, which is precisely why he’s such an unreserved firebrand. He’s never been in a position where everyone is scrutinizing everything he says and where he has to display what they call “message discipline.” Which he completely lacks.

That’s why we get embarrassing moments such as his claim that sex in prisons is proof that homosexuality is a choice.

It’s not that the comment is rude or insensitive or politically incorrect. I mean, there’s a part of me that wants them to bring back Jeremy Clarkson, so I can handle a little insensitivity. But Carson’s point was illogical, had not been thought through in the most elementary way, and was trying to make a point that was totally unnecessary even to discuss.

I can see myself forced to defend Ted Cruz as the media twists his words. I can’t see myself standing up for Ben Carson when he makes genuine, gratuitous gaffes like this one.

In short, Carson doesn’t have the basic skills necessary to be in politics, so he can be dismissed. He might stay in the campaign as a rabble-rouser or in Ron Paul’s old role as the gadfly. But he’s not a serious contender.

So who else is there who has the reputation of a right-wing firebrand? Well, there’s one other candidate out there, but one who offers a different variant of the right.

Rand Paul

Ted Cruz is a bit too religious for my taste. It mostly manifests in opposition to abortion and gay marriage—both issues he won’t be able to do much about—so I don’t think it necessarily defines his campaign. And I like the fact that Cruz may discourage the entry of other religious candidates I like less (Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee). But as someone from the secular wing of the right, I wish there were a candidate who has a lot of the same characteristics as Cruz but is less religious. And lo and behold, here is Rand Paul.

Actually, Paul is not that much less religious (he’s still anti-abortion, for example) but he puts less emphasis on it and runs on more of a libertarian live-and-let-live platform. Otherwise, he has a lot of the same appeal as Cruz: he is a free-market firebrand, a proponent of limited government, a strict constitutionalist. And he also has many of the same weaknesses: he is a first-term senator with no executive experience. Paul gets somewhat better treatment from the press, which is intrigued by his libertarianism, though we can expect that good will to evaporate if he becomes the nominee. But it’s easier to see him escaping some of the media caricatures of the right and appealing to moderate voters.

Then there is his foreign policy. It’s not just that Rand Paul keeps getting weighed down by his father’s dogmatic, reflexive blame-America-first rhetoric. It’s the fact that Paul shares his father’s anti-interventionist philosophy. This means that he will not reverse the foreign policy of the Obama administration but will largely continue it.

To be sure, it will be in a less actively malevolent form. Paul will not denigrate Israel or run diplomatic interference for Iran. But the real essence of Obama’s foreign policy has been the desire to make the United States largely irrelevant to world affairs, on the premise that American interference only contributes to the world’s problems rather than solving them. It’s hard to see how that is much different from Rand Paul’s foreign policy.

President Obama is going to leave America in foreign policy free-fall. That will call for a president who is going to be unusually active and vigorous in restoring our power, influence, and credibility. This is not the role for which anyone would choose Rand Paul.

Rand Paul is the firebrand you choose when the only big issues are domestic policy and reducing the power of the state. He’s not the guy you choose when we need a commander-in-chief.

If we want someone with a more traditionally hawkish Republican foreign policy, with a greater emphasis on the idea that America is a force for good in the world, there is another likely candidate who has been trying to carve out that niche.

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio looks great on paper. He is Hispanic and the son of immigrants. He came to the Senate in 2010 as an insurgent candidate backed by a Tea Party rebellion against a big-government ex-governor (who later defected to the Democrats). He has also staked out a position in support of a more vigorous US foreign policy—and you’d better believe that a son of Cuban immigrants would never go soft on the Castro regime. Yet he is more moderate in his domestic positions, which in theory makes it easier for him to appeal to a wider range of voters. At least, it makes it easier for him to tack to the right during the primaries and then tack swiftly back to the center during the general election.

While I can see the mainstream media dismissing Ted Cruz as a religious nut and eventually turning against Rand Paul for some of his more ideologically consistent libertarian views, it will be much harder for them to impose an unfavorable narrative on Rubio. And that’s 80% of what we’re really talking about when we talk about “electability”: the ability to resist having an unfavorable narrative imposed on you by the media.

But Rubio’s very moderation is what has gotten him into trouble. When he first came into office, he tried to make immigration reform the centerpiece of his record—which I am all in favor of. Yet he let himself get taken for a ride by Senate Democrats, who tilted the legislation so far to their side that it could never pass the House. There is a faction in the Republican base that probably wouldn’t be happy with any immigration deal, but Rubio ended up with the worst of both worlds: he looked like a total pushover in negotiations with Senate Democrats, and he still didn’t get his big legislative accomplishment. So in terms of the criteria we’re looking for, Rubio seems on paper to be a guy who could win in the general election—but who we can’t trust to fight once he’s in office.

I’m not even sure about how electable he is. Rubio has the same problem as the other candidates we’ve talked about so far: he’s another first-term senator with no executive experience. He doesn’t have a good answer to the question: What have you ever done except grandstand and give speeches about your inspiring background? Unlike Cruz and Paul, Rubio can’t compensate by offering more red meat or rallying fanatical supporters. So he runs the risk of seeming both inexperienced and bland.

Hence, Republicans are looking for someone with a record of actually getting things done. One man immediately comes to mind.

Scott Walker

Scott Walker is the guy who did this:

Three years ago, a labor leader named Marty Beil was one of the loudest opponents of Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill,” a proposal that brought tens of thousands of protesters out to the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison in frigid February weather. A gruff-voiced grizzly of a man, Mr. Beil warned that the bill was rigged with booby traps that would cripple the state’s public-sector unions.

He gets no satisfaction from being right. Since the law was passed, membership in his union, which represents state employees, has fallen 60 percent; its annual budget has plunged to $2 million from $6 million….

Madison is the home of the very first local, founded in 1932, in the nation’s largest union of state and local employees: Local 1 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Since Act 10 was enacted, membership in Local 1 has plummeted to 122 from 1,000.

How did Walker kneecap the state employees’ unions? “The law repealed a so-called fair-share requirement that all public employees represented by a union pay union fees, and many employees are opting out.” So when workers are given a choice about whether to support their unions financially, they choose not to.

What’s even better is that Walker won the public relations battle. One official complains, “It’s put a black eye, so to speak, on being a government employee, whether management or hourly. All government employees seem to have taken a hit, there’s this image that they’re sucking all these good benefits.” I wonder how anybody got that impression.

This is all you really need to know about the basis for Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. He is the man who destroyed a powerful Democratic constituency and went back to the voters twice to ratify the decision. He began to unwind the Progressive state in its birthplace and won three elections in six years.

So the basis for his campaign is the presumption that he must be a really tough, courageous guy who can stand up to special interest groups and win. Which he then put into doubt right out of the starting blocks by firing a campaign consultant because she posted a few comments on Twitter criticizing the first-in-the-nation status of the Iowa Caucus. Combine this with Walker caving in on the ethanol mandate—a giant giveaway to corn farmers—and it makes him look like a panderer, not a man of courage.

True, no one is paying much attention right now except the conservative punditry. But those are precisely the people Walker needs to convince of his image as a tough fighter, so we can keep repeating it in every article we write about the primaries for the next year. But now we’re all going to talk about it with that little caveat, with a shadow of distrust.

I can only assume the calculation here is that Walker has to suck up to the Iowa Republican establishment because he really, really needs to win the Iowa caucus. There’s no evidence this is necessary to win the primary or the general election—quite the opposite—but perhaps his campaign advisers thought that because Wisconsin actually shares a border with Iowa, if he doesn’t win locally he will easily be dismissed. That’s the sort of idea you would get from the geniuses in the political consultant class (who really are geniuses—at getting overpaid for bad advice).

But in the process, Walker is damaging his one real advantage: his reputation among conservative pundits and the conservative base as a fighter who wins. Walker needs to be able to tell Republican voters: I’m going to do things the left really hates, things that will hurt their cause materially for a generation, and I’m going to make them swallow it. But if he can’t stand up to a few Iowa Republicans, he puts that in doubt.

Walker can’t afford that doubt, because he isn’t the only successful Republican governor.

Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is another guy who looks great on paper. He’s very smart and has embraced a lot of Republican policy ideas for big reforms, even as he has been throwing around a lot of red meat to conservative audiences. Plus, he offers an intriguing combination: the dark skin of the son of Indian immigrants, with the good-old-boy drawl of someone who was born in Baton Rouge. He certainly would confound the lazy media tropes about white Republican Southerners.

While I think he’s an interesting choice, he hasn’t really broken out of the pack because he hasn’t done or said anything really special. At this point, I’m afraid he’s the Marco Rubio among the Republican governors: great on paper, with a lot of potential for mainstream appeal—but he still seems bland. And we’re going to need someone who can really rally the enthusiasm of his supporters.

So will you please save us, Rick Perry?

Rick Perry

I liked Perry a lot last time around, when he enjoyed a brief but powerful surge as the leading Not Romney. (And boy, did we need a Not Romney.) But he jumped into the race to seize an unexpected opportunity without much preparation—and it showed. He stumbled over his words, infamously forgot one of his own talking points during a debate, and generally came off sounding even less articulate than the last Texas governor to run for president. George W. Bush used to joke that “my mouth is where words go to die,” but with Perry we saw that literally happen.

Yet the policy mix he offers is good. He presents himself as a representative of his state’s small government ethos, and he ran last time on items like a flat tax and eliminating so many government agencies he couldn’t remember them all; for those of a more secular bent, he places less emphasis on religion than Cruz; as governor, he was a vocal advocate of federalism, of limiting the power of the federal government in favor of the states; and as a former Air Force pilot with a gruff Texas swagger, he’s got the American patriotism angle under control. He’s also a very successful governor, the longest serving in Texas history. And after 14 years with him in office, a lot of Americans are voting for Texas with their feet. So in a lot of ways, he’s a great choice.

But we’ll have to find out more about three issues. First, which platform items he chooses to emphasize in his campaign. Second, whether he can recapture some of his charisma on the campaign trail and in the debates. And most of all, whether he can build a better prepared campaign and get most of us to forget about his poor performance the last time around.

Can he get us to stop saying “oops”? (I just re-watched that clip, and man is it painful.)

It’s not entirely implausible. The number of people who really pay attention to the primaries is small, a lot of time has passed since then, and there are plenty of examples of politicians who didn’t succeed in their first try at the nomination but went on to much greater success the next time around. A certain governor from California comes to mind.

But what about the candidates who are not as far to the right, but who are (supposedly) more electable? I argued last week that winning is non-negotiable—that advocates of liberty can’t accomplish much, and certainly can’t roll back much of the Obama era, if we don’t get a Republican in the White House. So is there a point to making that trade-off for a more electable candidate?

Chris Christie

Chris Christie started out with a Scott Walker type reputation, going into meetings of firefighters and telling them the hard truth about the benefit and pension reforms required to keep New Jersey solvent. Since then, however, he has made a lot of compromises. Perhaps this makes him more electable among moderates, but it makes him less appealing to the base. Consider his conversion on abortion. (He just came out in favor of limits on later-term abortions.) It’s a bit like Mitt Romney’s flip-flop on the issue: it’s a bit too late and too convenient in its timing to be very convincing.

Christie is trying to regain his reputation for bluntness by making entitlement reform a “centerpiece” of his campaign. “By casting himself in the coming months as a blunt truth-teller on issues that some in his party have resisted tackling, Christie hopes to win support among conservatives who have been reluctant to back him and are unsure of his rationale for running.”

That’s great, really, and I don’t think this is an issue that will necessarily flop with the general public. Polls show increasing support for reform of middle-class entitlements, particularly among the elderly, who used to be solidly against it. But while this is the big issue that needs to be addressed in the long term, it’s not the main issue right now, and it’s not the one on which we need a leader to launch an immediate fight. What we need first is to repeal ObamaCare, then to reverse other executive power grabs, particularly on global warming.

And those are the issues on which the right can’t trust Christie. He helped implement ObamaCare by expanding New Jersey’s Medicaid program, and he has at best an equivocal record on global warming regulations, withdrawing New Jersey from a regional cap-and-trade system but compensating by imposing a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.

Christie has a cantankerous temperament, to be sure, and we know that he relishes a fight. We just can’t be sure that he will fight for small government. And I’m not sure he’s the kind of guy I would trust to relinquish overbearing executive power once it is in his own hands.

Besides, if we’re going to go with a moderate politician who is more palatable to the establishment, there’s someone who has a bigger campaign operation and a bigger lead in the polls.

Jeb Bush

The most obvious objection to Jeb Bush’s campaign is the specter of a family dynasty. Martin O’Malley may have been aiming at Hillary Clinton when he said that “the presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families,” but that hits Jeb, too.

The problem is not just with the idea of political power passing down to members of the same family. There is, after all, a reason why political dynasties are common around the world, even in countries with a republican form of government. When people choose a leader, they have to spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out his character and ideals. A family connection to a previous leader seems to provide a short-cut. We know who this guy is and where he stands—he’s a Kennedy, after all. Given how that dynasty turned out, it’s pretty clear that this is an illusion, that one leader’s political virtues (such as they are) are not necessarily inherited. But you can see why people are tempted.

So the real question with Jeb is: what do you get when you get the Bush dynasty? Well, in domestic affairs you get moderation and prudence. You get people who lean a little more toward the liberal Republicans (George H.W. Bush) or a little more toward the conservatives (George W. Bush) but who mostly consider themselves to be solid, reliable managers of the establishment. This may or may not be fair to Jeb, but there it is.

That’s why I just can’t stand the idea of another Bush vs. Clinton election. It’s not just the dynasticism of having the same families squaring off as we did 24 years ago. It’s what those dynasties represent: timid, moderate, kinder-gentler-compassionate conservatism on the one side, versus corrupt, cynical, smash-and-grab big-government liberalism on the other side.

This is not what we need. I would confidently predict that Jeb Bush will not be the 2016 Republican nominee, that he will be too far out of sync with the current direction of the Republican Party. Then again, I confidently predicted that Mitt Romney would never win the nomination last time around, so what do I know? All I can do is hope that a lot of people feel the way I do: that if it’s Bush vs. Clinton again, I don’t know if I’ll have the stomach to go on.

I’ll take some comfort in the fact that things look even worse for the Democrats. Their primary is looking like a grim kind of death march, with an aging roster of minor figures up against the “inevitable” steamroller of a candidate who is infamously cynical and dishonest, flagrantly corrupt, and constantly mired in scandal, with an insufferably entitled daughter, in-laws who include a convicted felon, and a husband with a messy personal life.

So we may be hard pressed to find another George Washington, but we’re way closer to it than the other guys.

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