While we were all busy being inundated with Trump, another of the 743 Republican presidential candidates started gaining some traction. Not much traction—he’s currently sitting at 3.5 percent in the latest Real Clear Politics polls—but he is absolutely trouncing Lindsey Graham, so there’s that. He’s also attracted the attention of Larry Sabato, former George W. Bush adviser Tom Rath, and Myra Adams of Bush’s creative team and John McCain’s 2008 ad council. Be still my beating heart.
Writing at National Review, Adams laid out “Five Reasons Why Kasich-Rubio Is the Right 2016 Ticket.” She offers traditional arguments about demographic appeal and not scaring the moderates. She, of course, also invokes the Buckley Rule. She doesn’t get it exactly right, though, as Ben Domenech noted at Real Clear Politics back in 2013.
Adams paraphrases the Buckley Rule as “nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.” Buckley’s actual admonition was to elect the most conservative candidate who is viable. Even then, as Domenech pointed out, it’s still a pretty terrible electoral strategy as “viable” and “electable” have become synonyms and focusing on electability helps ensure defeat. Just ask Presidents Dole, McCain, and Romney.
Yet here we are again, watching some Republicans try to put together the formula that will guarantee they can thread the needle to 270 electoral votes and retake the White House. Of course, it’s doomed to failure, but even if it were not, it’s a horrible way to think about governing, that it “is all about passing legislation and winning elections, no matter what that legislation includes or who those elections elect.”
For some, that is all it’s about. Stay in power and maintain business as usual. It’s team sports with no ideological aspiration, no unifying causes to rally the electorate toward a moment when the tides started to recede and the earth started to heal.
Don’t Write Off Hope And Change
Yes, I went there. Because while Obama has been disastrous on myriad levels, it is a mistake to not learn from his victories. It’s easy to dismiss it as solely about a changing electorate, stupid Millennials, and vague platitudes, but Obama offered something more. He offered a vision, an opportunity to be part of something larger. He most certainly had an electoral strategy to go along with it, as evidenced by his 335 Electoral College votes in 2008 and 332 in 2012, but it his strategy wasn’t to thread the needle, to write off large swathes of the population, and eke out a victory. His strategy was to win, handily, and he did.
Of course, he did so while moderating a number of his positions, at least in speech. We can pretend that he was actually against gay marriage or for reining in executive authority, but c’mon, that’s just what we call “pillow talk,” baby. And voters knew they were getting sweet pillow talk, yet they still went into the booths and pulled the lever. Partly because policy matters less to normal people, aka voters, than it does to those of us who are rolling around in the mud and blood in August, 2015, and partly because people like an optimistic vision around which they can rally. First, though, the problems with Adams’ assumptions.
Brandon Finnigan, aka @ConArtCritic, is huge on the numbers game and how it factors into the Electoral College. He is not so huge on the concept of eking out the necessary 270. Like Obama, he knows that the best strategy is to plan to win, handily. I asked him about the Adams’ piece and he quickly pointed out some huge flaws. Geography, much like demography, ain’t destiny.
So from the start, we’re supposed to go with assumptions—ones that don’t have a ton of historical weight behind them—when deciding around which candidate to rally? Granted, Kasich is popular in his home state and Ohio is a must-win, but that gets us to the second, larger flaw in the notion that he can deliver the White House. The normal people, aka voters, will mostly be saying, “John Who?” if the powers that be rally around Kasich as the safe alternative, the unfrightening one guaranteed not to scare the moderates. More important, though, is that the Republican base still matters and they’re not so keen on a hollow victory, the continuing Trump surge notwithstanding.
Politics Is Downstream, Embrace It
The thing is, though, it’s all about the continuing Trump surge. Mollie Hemingway broke it down for us.
In my less charitable moments, I also want to extend a giant middle finger to the Grand Old Party, which has defecated on its illustrious record from Lincoln to Reagan of rhetorical persuasion, kicking butt and getting stuff done, and become a party of officials who are in absolutely no way responding adequately to the size and scope of problems the country faces.
Damn straight. The Republican Party has given up on rhetorical persuasion and decided that, no, there’s no reason to offer a compelling vision to voters, that it’s safer to try to thread the needle than offer an optimistic cause around which they can rally. And though Hillary may yet survive and become the Democratic nominee despite mostly offering vagaries and remember the ‘90s nostalgia, the GOP has bungled things so badly for so many years, they face a higher standard. Fortunately there are voices on the right looking to shake it off and get the GOP back cruising, one notable example being Arthur Brooks.
Brooks doesn’t advocate pillow talk and platitudes, but he does correctly point out that conservatives can win if they “open hearts and minds so that Americans will listen to what we have to say and trust us to solve the deep problems facing the nation today.” In other words, offer a positive vision to the electorate, something that they can be part of. Conservative principles can win if they are articulated clearly and provide “an aspirational, inclusive, optimistic conservative movement that could reunite the country.”
Kasich, and the impulse to look to someone like him, is the opposite of that approach. It’s the hapless floundering we’ve come to expect of the GOP. Check out Kasich’s record. Obamacare? He’s down. I mean, I’m sure Compassionate Conservatism will be a huge winner in 2016, though the base and people facing higher medical bills may disagree. Social issues? We probably need to tone it down and move a little to the left. “Early childhood. Infant mortality. The environment. Education,” [Kasich] said. Hell yeah! If you’re looking for issues that inspire and animate conservative, early childhood education and the environment are way up top on the list.
Which brings us to the elephant in the toupee—illegal immigrants. While the voters have varying opinions on that issue, Kasich does too. If you want hedging, he’s your man. Alas, hedging isn’t really what we need in a leader. An elected official’s job in a republic is not just to reflect the electorate, but to lead, to get buy-in. To show, as Brooks noted, that you’re “fighting for people, not against things.” Besides we’ve already got a candidate who is against things and he FIGHTS!™ No point in trying to out-bombast him.
The GOP has a strong record of failing to explain why they want to fight for people, especially in a way that inspires and motivates the electorate. Kasich’s biggest strength, in the eyes of those pushing him, is a continuation of that failure. For many Republicans, victory has become nothing more than winning at the ballot box and then maintaining the status quo, albeit with the accelerator not pressed fully to the floorboard. That’s not a cause, not an optimistic vision of the future. It’s not a fight for people. It’s politics as usual. The Grand Old Party has become very comfortable with politics as usual, but if they don’t get excited about offering a bold new direction, and soon, they will lose—again—handily and deservedly.