Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2012 presidential election

Dems Shouldn’t Bother Arguing with Silver

Back in 2012, Republicans and many conservative writers weren’t buying Nate Silver’s forecasts about the presidential election. They argued he was exaggerating President Obama’s appeal and some, like me, doubted the New York Times writer’s assumptions about turnout that year resembling that of the 2008 election. As everyone knows, we who differed with Silver were wrong. In fact, we were extremely wrong and those who care to learn from the experience will try not to allow their political opinions or their hopes temper their views of the numbers again. But, as the Washington Post reports, this time around it’s the Democrats who are the doubters.

Silver, who left the Times to start his own website associated with ESPN, posted a piece this weekend establishing the GOP as a clear favorite to win control of the Senate this fall. But, as the Washington Post reports, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to argue that the man who called all 50 states right in the 2012 election is wrong. The DSCC claims that there aren’t enough polls to justify Silver’s assertion that the Republicans have a 60 percent chance of picking up at least six Senate seats. The Democrats also point out instances of Silver being either wrong in the past or at least underestimating the actual margins of races. But while the attempt to take down Silver will reassure some nervous Democrats who may have been under the impression the liberal-leaning pundit/statistician was only capable of predicting results they like, the response bears all the signs of the same denial that characterized GOP jousting with the writer two years ago.

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Back in 2012, Republicans and many conservative writers weren’t buying Nate Silver’s forecasts about the presidential election. They argued he was exaggerating President Obama’s appeal and some, like me, doubted the New York Times writer’s assumptions about turnout that year resembling that of the 2008 election. As everyone knows, we who differed with Silver were wrong. In fact, we were extremely wrong and those who care to learn from the experience will try not to allow their political opinions or their hopes temper their views of the numbers again. But, as the Washington Post reports, this time around it’s the Democrats who are the doubters.

Silver, who left the Times to start his own website associated with ESPN, posted a piece this weekend establishing the GOP as a clear favorite to win control of the Senate this fall. But, as the Washington Post reports, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to argue that the man who called all 50 states right in the 2012 election is wrong. The DSCC claims that there aren’t enough polls to justify Silver’s assertion that the Republicans have a 60 percent chance of picking up at least six Senate seats. The Democrats also point out instances of Silver being either wrong in the past or at least underestimating the actual margins of races. But while the attempt to take down Silver will reassure some nervous Democrats who may have been under the impression the liberal-leaning pundit/statistician was only capable of predicting results they like, the response bears all the signs of the same denial that characterized GOP jousting with the writer two years ago.

As the Post notes, the DSCC has been trying to fundraise off of Silver’s last prediction about the Senate made less than a year ago. Last summer, Silver’s assessment of the various competitive Senate races gave the Republicans a 50-50 chance to pick up the seats they need. The article was cited in an attempt to rouse a somewhat lethargic Democratic donor base into action to fend off a potential disaster for President Obama’s party. But now that Silver’s analysis has begun to point toward what many are thinking may be a wave election in November, the Democrats are rightly worried about panic setting in among their ranks.

Silver’s breakdown of the competitive races is not particularly original. You don’t have to be a stat geek to know that the GOP will be heading into the fall knowing that, barring some kind of cataclysm, they will gain at least three red-state seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana. They are odds-on favorites to pick up two more from the Democrats in Arkansas and Louisiana. He rates North Carolina as a 50-50 tossup as to whether the GOP will seize yet another red-state Democratic seat won in Barack Obama’s big year in 2008. Worse than that, he gives the Republicans at least a 40 percent shot at taking three more in Colorado, Michigan, and Alaska. And he rates Democratic chances of gains in Kentucky and Georgia as no better than 25 and 30 percent respectively. While it is conceivable to think that unforeseen circumstances or GOP gaffes can allow the Democrats to hold on, the chances of that happening are no better than those of the Republicans winding up winning far more than the six they need.

So my advice to Democrats is to not waste time arguing with Silver. He may be a liberal but as we have seen in the past few years, his background in baseball statistics as one of the leading lights of the SABRmetric revolution leads him inevitably to sober and unflinching looks at the numbers. If liberals don’t like the way things are heading this year, they would do better to evaluate their own positions on issues like ObamaCare or the fact that their out-of-touch “Downton Abbey” elitist party (to use the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Green’s apt phrase) is setting this midterm cycle up as one that will be extremely favorable for the GOP, not bad poll numbers or faulty analysis. If not, they’ll be eating crow that is just as bitter as the dish so many conservatives had to consume in 2012.

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Demographics and the GOP

At a recent lunch, several friends and I discussed the future of the Republican Party. I argued that the challenges facing the Republican Party, at least at the presidential level, are significant and fairly fundamental. 

After our conversation, I cobbled together some data that underscore my concern–data based on previously published works, including an essay in COMMENTARY I co-authored with Michael Gerson, articles by Jeffrey Bell in the Weekly Standard and Ron Brownstein in National Journal, an essay by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen in National Affairs, and portions of the book Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Below are the data points along with links to the sources (note: the paragraphs are taken from the original sources, in some cases with very minor changes for the purposes of clarification). Readers might find this of interest.

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At a recent lunch, several friends and I discussed the future of the Republican Party. I argued that the challenges facing the Republican Party, at least at the presidential level, are significant and fairly fundamental. 

After our conversation, I cobbled together some data that underscore my concern–data based on previously published works, including an essay in COMMENTARY I co-authored with Michael Gerson, articles by Jeffrey Bell in the Weekly Standard and Ron Brownstein in National Journal, an essay by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen in National Affairs, and portions of the book Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Below are the data points along with links to the sources (note: the paragraphs are taken from the original sources, in some cases with very minor changes for the purposes of clarification). Readers might find this of interest.

Barack Obama v. Mitt Romney

  • In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes (332 to Romney’s 206) and won the popular vote by nearly 5 million. Mr. Obama is the first president to achieve the 51 percent mark in two elections since President Eisenhower and the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt. He did this despite losing white voters by a larger margin than any winning presidential candidate in American history.
  • Of the 12 “battleground” states, Obama won 11—eight of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. Remarkably, this meant that if there had been a uniform 5 point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin—that is, had Romney won the popular vote by 1.1 percentage points instead of losing it by 3.9—Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes. (Source: Jeffrey Bell)
  • Neil Newhouse, Mitt Romney’s pollster, ran through the exit poll data, explaining that Chicago had dramatically pulled off its coalition-of-the-ascendant play–turning out an electorate even more diverse than in 2008, not less, as Newhouse assumed would be the case. Nationally, the white vote fell from 74 to 72 percent, while the black proportion held stead at 13. Participation among Hispanics rose from 8 to 10 percent, among women from 53 to 54 percent, and among young voters from 18 to 19 percent. Obama’s share of each of those blocs ranged from commanding to overwhelming: 93 percent of African Americans, 71 percent of Latinos, 55 percent of women (and 67 percent of unmarried women), and 60 percent of young voters. (Source: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann)
  • In 2012 the minority share of the vote rose to 28 percent, 2 percentage points above 2008 and more than double the 12 percent level for Bill Clinton’s first victory in 1992. (Source: Ron Brownstein

Historic/Demographic Trends

  • In the last two decades of Democratic dominance, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic six out of six times. These currently have 242 electoral votes, which is quite close to the 270 needed to win the presidency. There are 13 states that have voted Republican in every election since 1992, but they total just 102 electoral votes. (Source: Jeffrey Bell)
  • Out of the last six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 210 for the Republican. During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 113. In three of those contests, the Democrats failed to muster even 50 electoral votes. (Source: Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner)
  • White voters, who traditionally and reliably favor the GOP, have gone from 89 percent of the electorate in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012. (This decline is partially an artifact of a change in the way the Census Bureau classifies Hispanics, who used to be counted among whites before being placed in a separate category.) Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same in 2012 as it was in 2000, he would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won in a rout. (Source: Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner)
  • The 2012 election was clearly decided by the non-white vote for the first time in American history. About 72 percent of the electorate in the 2012 election was white, according to the exit poll. Romney carried the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent, a 20-point lead and the fourth highest for a Republican since the advent of exit polling. No presidential candidate in American history had ever carried 59 percent of the white vote and lost. Yet Romney lost the election by four points because he lost the non-white vote by 63 points. (Source: Henry Olsen)
  • From 1996 to 2012, according to census figures, the white share of the eligible voting population (citizens who are older than 18) has dropped about 2 percentage points every four years, from 79.2 percent to 71.1 percent; over that same period, whites have declined as a share of actual voters from 83 percent to 74 percent (according to census figures) or even 72 percent (according to the exit polls). With minorities expected to make up a majority of America’s 18 and younger population in this decade, all signs point toward a continued decline in the white share of the eligible voter population—which suggests the GOP would have to marshal heroic turnout efforts to avoid further decline in the white vote share. If the electorate’s composition follows the trend over the past two decades, minorities would likely constitute 30 percent of the vote in 2016. (Source: Ron Brownstein
  • If minorities reach 30 percent of the vote next time, and the 2016 Democratic nominee again attracts support from roughly 80 percent of them, he or she would need to capture only 37 percent of whites to win a majority of the popular vote. In that scenario, to win a national majority, the GOP would need almost 63 percent of whites. Since 1976, the only Republican who has reached even 60 percent among whites was Reagan (with his 64 percent in 1984). Since Reagan’s peak, the Democratic share of the white vote has varied only between 39 percent (Obama in 2012 and Clinton in the three-way election of 1992), and 43 percent (Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 1996). (Source: Ron Brownstein)
  • In 2016, if there is not a dramatic reduction in African-American turnout, a Republican presidential candidate will need to get 60 percent of the white vote, plus a record-high share among each portion of the non-white vote (African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and others) to win a bare 50.1 percent of the vote. (Source: Henry Olsen)
  • Every Democratic nominee since 1980 has run better among single than married whites. In 1984, married couples represented 70 percent of all white voters; by 2012, that number slipped to 65 percent. (The decline has been especially sharp among married white men, who have voted more Republican than married women in each election since 1984.) Another trend steepening the grade for the GOP is growing secularization. Since 2000, Democrats have averaged a 32-point advantage among whites who identify with no religious tradition, and the share of them has increased from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent by 2012, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. (Source: Ron Brownstein)

My purpose with this post is to present the empirical data, not to interpret it, except to say this: Republican problems are not superficial, transient, or cyclical. The trends speak for themselves. The GOP therefore needs to articulate a governing vision and develop a governing agenda that can reach groups that have not traditionally been supportive of it. Republicans, at least when it comes to presidential elections, have a winning message for an electorate that no longer exists.

For the GOP to revivify itself and enlarge its appeal, Republicans at every level will have to think creatively even as they remain within the boundaries of their core principles. It isn’t an easy task, but it’s certainly not an impossible one. (Bill Clinton did this for the Democratic Party in 1992 and Tony Blair did this for the Labour Party in 1997.) It would of course help if those speaking for the party were themselves irenic rather than angry, inviting rather than off-putting, individuals of conviction who also possess the gift of persuasion and a certain grace. “You know what charm is,” Albert Camus wrote in The Fall, “a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.”

Whether Republicans understand the nature of the challenges they face–and if they do how they intend to deal with them and who will emerge from their ranks to lead them–will go a long way toward determining the future of their party and their country.

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“Mitt”—The Right Man at the Wrong Time

For those who supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, reliving the pain of his defeat may not seem like premium family entertainment. Yet if watching Mitt, Greg Wheatley’s documentary about the Republican nominee now appearing exclusively on Netflix, is not always easy viewing, it does provide a clear portrait of the man who was beaten by Barack Obama.

This is not a film about the issues that divided the country or the merits of the Obama presidency. ObamaCare is never mentioned nor is RomneyCare, the Massachusetts health-care bill that helped undermine the candidate’s critique of the president’s plan. Campaign strategy is mentioned only in passing and the strategists and aides who worked feverishly to put Romney in the White House are almost completely absent. Instead, the focus is solely on the candidate and his family, in footage shot in hotel rooms and on the campaign trail where Mitt is with the people closest to him: his wife Anne, their five sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren. That means we don’t learn as much as we might wish about why the protagonist should have been president. But what we do learn what an extraordinarily decent man the GOP nominee is. That’s something a lot of Americans who saw Romney as a remote, rich guy who didn’t understand them should have learned while the issue was still in doubt.

The Mitt Romney of Mitt is funny, kind, and loving. He’s also skeptical about his prospects for success, introspective, aware that he is a “flawed candidate” and frustrated by the way his opponents smeared him. He has a sense of his limits as well as a healthy perspective on all the advantages he received from his father George, who remains his hero. Contrary to the narrative hammered home by the Democrats’ unprecedented barrage of negative advertising, this is not a privileged character who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

This Mitt seems nothing like the one who came across on television in two presidential campaigns (the film begins in 2006 and also includes his defeat by John McCain in the 2008 GOP primaries) as a plastic, almost robotic politician who seemed allergic to the business of retail politics. It’s difficult not to like or to care about the man at the heart of this movie, a verdict that should cause Romney’s 2012 brain trust to wonder how it is that they failed to bring these qualities across to the nation during the campaign.

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For those who supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, reliving the pain of his defeat may not seem like premium family entertainment. Yet if watching Mitt, Greg Wheatley’s documentary about the Republican nominee now appearing exclusively on Netflix, is not always easy viewing, it does provide a clear portrait of the man who was beaten by Barack Obama.

This is not a film about the issues that divided the country or the merits of the Obama presidency. ObamaCare is never mentioned nor is RomneyCare, the Massachusetts health-care bill that helped undermine the candidate’s critique of the president’s plan. Campaign strategy is mentioned only in passing and the strategists and aides who worked feverishly to put Romney in the White House are almost completely absent. Instead, the focus is solely on the candidate and his family, in footage shot in hotel rooms and on the campaign trail where Mitt is with the people closest to him: his wife Anne, their five sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren. That means we don’t learn as much as we might wish about why the protagonist should have been president. But what we do learn what an extraordinarily decent man the GOP nominee is. That’s something a lot of Americans who saw Romney as a remote, rich guy who didn’t understand them should have learned while the issue was still in doubt.

The Mitt Romney of Mitt is funny, kind, and loving. He’s also skeptical about his prospects for success, introspective, aware that he is a “flawed candidate” and frustrated by the way his opponents smeared him. He has a sense of his limits as well as a healthy perspective on all the advantages he received from his father George, who remains his hero. Contrary to the narrative hammered home by the Democrats’ unprecedented barrage of negative advertising, this is not a privileged character who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

This Mitt seems nothing like the one who came across on television in two presidential campaigns (the film begins in 2006 and also includes his defeat by John McCain in the 2008 GOP primaries) as a plastic, almost robotic politician who seemed allergic to the business of retail politics. It’s difficult not to like or to care about the man at the heart of this movie, a verdict that should cause Romney’s 2012 brain trust to wonder how it is that they failed to bring these qualities across to the nation during the campaign.

But even if they had, it’s important to remember that the mission Mitt Romney accepted in 2012 was probably impossible. Republicans were immune to Barack Obama’s charms and largely ignored the way most Americans responded to his historic status as our first African-American president. Nothing short of a cataclysm could have convinced a majority not to reelect Obama. Protected as he was 24/7 by the fawning support of the mainstream media—a fact that is highlighted in the documentary in its footage of the second presidential debate when CNN’s Candy Crowley intervened to insert an erroneous correction of one of Romney’s statements during an exchange over the Benghazi terror attack—the president’s victory was probably never in doubt even at the moment when Romney hit his stride in their first debate.

At the beginning of the film we see Romney gathering his family to debate the pros and cons of a presidential run. Most seem skeptical and deeply aware of how a campaign and being elected would have a negative effect on their lives. But his oldest son Tagg reminds him that he had a duty to his country and to God to run and therefore try his best to make things better. Romney did just that, and if he failed it was not for lack of effort or a sincere desire to lead his nation back from the dangerous path on which Obama had placed it. As he says at one point in the movie, the candidate “left it all on the field” in 2012. Despite his shortcomings as a politician, it’s not likely that any other Republican could have done better. For all the recriminations about 2012 that have convulsed the Republican Party since the election, conservatives should watch this film and remind themselves that the person they nominated was a good man who would have been a good president.

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Obama’s Incompetence Now Twinned to Mendacity

The news for President Obama continues to get worse.

According to a new CNN/ORC International survey, only four out of 10 Americans believe Mr. Obama can manage the federal government effectively. Fifty-three percent don’t view him as a strong and decisive leader. And 56 percent say he does not agree with them on important issues and he does not inspire confidence.

But the numbers on the president’s personal characteristics should alarm the White House most of all. More than half (53 percent) believe he’s not honest and trustworthy, while 56 percent say he’s not a person they admire.

Each of these figures are all-time records for Mr. Obama in CNN polling.

In their fascinating behind-the-scenes book on the 2012 election, Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that the campaign’s research showed “that there was a deep well of sympathy for Obama among voters.” In focus groups after the first debate, they write, “people offered excuse after excuse for his horrific presentation. In Florida, one woman said, almost protectively, ‘I just bet you he wasn’t feeling well.’”

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The news for President Obama continues to get worse.

According to a new CNN/ORC International survey, only four out of 10 Americans believe Mr. Obama can manage the federal government effectively. Fifty-three percent don’t view him as a strong and decisive leader. And 56 percent say he does not agree with them on important issues and he does not inspire confidence.

But the numbers on the president’s personal characteristics should alarm the White House most of all. More than half (53 percent) believe he’s not honest and trustworthy, while 56 percent say he’s not a person they admire.

Each of these figures are all-time records for Mr. Obama in CNN polling.

In their fascinating behind-the-scenes book on the 2012 election, Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that the campaign’s research showed “that there was a deep well of sympathy for Obama among voters.” In focus groups after the first debate, they write, “people offered excuse after excuse for his horrific presentation. In Florida, one woman said, almost protectively, ‘I just bet you he wasn’t feeling well.’”

That deep well of sympathy–that willingness to give the president the benefit of the doubt and the attachment and connection voters felt for Mr. Obama–has been crucial to his success for his entire political life. He has always been viewed as a likeable and decent man, even when his campaign employed fairly ruthless tactics. But the days of broad public faith and trust in this president appear to be over. And no wonder.

The fact that the president knowingly misled the public on such a crucial element of his health-care program so many times, over such a long period of time, with such apparent ease, has penetrated the public consciousness in a way nothing else ever has. Incompetence has now been twinned to mendacity. And not surprisingly, that deep well of sympathy is drying up.

Mr. Obama will discover that trust, once lost, is hard to recover. 

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Are We Still Underestimating Santorum?

Prior to the 2012 campaign, as Rick Santorum prepared to run for president few pundits (including this one) took his bid seriously. Nor did most Republican operatives think the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign had a ghost of a chance to even survive until the votes started being counted in Iowa. Yet Santorum persisted and wound up winning a dozen caucuses and primaries on the way to being the unofficial runner-up for the nomination to eventual winner Mitt Romney. Though there are no silver medals handed out for finishing second in politics, it was still an amazing achievement for someone who had been left for dead politically after losing his 2006 re-election race by a landslide.

Given that strong showing, you might think Santorum would be treated as a viable candidate for 2016. Indeed, given the Republicans’ unofficial tradition of nominating for president the candidate who failed after a strong run in the previous competitive race (a list that includes Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan), you might think Santorum would be considered a first-tier contender for 2016, if not a frontrunner. But that isn’t the case. The consensus appears to be that with a much stronger field of prospective candidates than the party had in 2012—a group that includes Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker—Santorum hasn’t much of a chance. But that might be a mistake. As pieces in the Daily Beast and Politico published today point out, Santorum is not only back on the hustings in Iowa (where he outworked the other candidates last year); he has a hold on the affections of a crucial portion of the GOP electorate that none of those big names can claim. So long as no other Republican can establish themselves as the favorite of social conservatives or as one who cares about the working class, Santorum will be a factor in the presidential race.

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Prior to the 2012 campaign, as Rick Santorum prepared to run for president few pundits (including this one) took his bid seriously. Nor did most Republican operatives think the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign had a ghost of a chance to even survive until the votes started being counted in Iowa. Yet Santorum persisted and wound up winning a dozen caucuses and primaries on the way to being the unofficial runner-up for the nomination to eventual winner Mitt Romney. Though there are no silver medals handed out for finishing second in politics, it was still an amazing achievement for someone who had been left for dead politically after losing his 2006 re-election race by a landslide.

Given that strong showing, you might think Santorum would be treated as a viable candidate for 2016. Indeed, given the Republicans’ unofficial tradition of nominating for president the candidate who failed after a strong run in the previous competitive race (a list that includes Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan), you might think Santorum would be considered a first-tier contender for 2016, if not a frontrunner. But that isn’t the case. The consensus appears to be that with a much stronger field of prospective candidates than the party had in 2012—a group that includes Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker—Santorum hasn’t much of a chance. But that might be a mistake. As pieces in the Daily Beast and Politico published today point out, Santorum is not only back on the hustings in Iowa (where he outworked the other candidates last year); he has a hold on the affections of a crucial portion of the GOP electorate that none of those big names can claim. So long as no other Republican can establish themselves as the favorite of social conservatives or as one who cares about the working class, Santorum will be a factor in the presidential race.

Right now, political observers are focused—as we were before 2012—on the question of which Republican can best appeal to the Tea Party movement. That will be a major factor in the GOP race, but we forget that social conservatives remain a key Republican constituency. Though a single-minded focus on abortion or opposition to gay marriage would be a liability to the GOP in a general election, religious conservatives can’t be ignored in Republican primaries. Though all of the possible 2016 contenders are pro-life, none, save for Santorum, can be said to be particularly or exclusively devoted to their interests as he was, or as Mike Huckabee was in 2008. They were the factor that propelled Santorum to the first tier last year and could do the same for any of the contenders in the next contest.

Just as important is Santorum’s critique of the 2012 GOP campaign for ignoring the interests of working-class voters. Running an extremely wealthy candidate like Romney with no seeming connection to the concerns of ordinary middle-class voters was enough of a problem. But Santorum is on to something when he says that even the Republican National Convention’s attempt to exploit President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” gaffe was only directed toward business owners, not the people who labor in those businesses.

What Santorum is aiming at here is a GOP strategy that seeks to re-engage with what an earlier generation called “Reagan Democrats” or even the Ross Perot voters of the 1990s. They make up what Sean Trende identified in Real Clear Politics as the party’s “missing white voters” who could theoretically make up for their failure to connect with the growing Hispanic population.

None of this will necessarily make up for Santorum’s relative lack of star power compared with any in the upcoming class of GOP candidates. Christie’s ability to appeal to independents could make him a juggernaut, as could Paul’s growing libertarian faction. Moreover, it is entirely possible that a candidate like Ryan or Rubio could steal the Pennsylvanian’s thunder with religious voters and make him irrelevant in 2016. But anyone inclined to write off Santorum this far in advance is likely making a mistake.

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The Hazards of Hillary Hagiography

As Mitt Romney secured the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, bringing to a close the competition to lead the GOP effort to unseat President Obama, there were all sorts of reactions from conservative voters. But the one complaint no one ever seemed to lodge was that there weren’t enough debates. No one had any reason to want to prolong the misery of that series of events. Grassroots conservatives watched in horror as the debates elevated Romney and Newt Gingrich while wrecking the candidacies of Rick Perry and Tim Pawlenty.

Liberals may have enjoyed what they thought was a clown show, but the debates went on long enough to eliminate any actual clowns from contention. (Say what you will about Romney as a candidate, but he isn’t a circus act.) The one exception to this rule might be the television networks that broadcast and moderated the debates, attracting viewers and giving liberal moderators numerous opportunities for what they actually show up to the debates to do: talk about contraception and occasionally call someone a racist.

So I am sympathetic to the idea that fewer debates next time around–especially fewer debates run by the moderators’ class of 2012, which included media personalities who threw themselves in front of Obama to shield him from any accusation unfit for royal consumption–might be worth a try. I wonder, however, if this is the way to go about it:

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As Mitt Romney secured the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, bringing to a close the competition to lead the GOP effort to unseat President Obama, there were all sorts of reactions from conservative voters. But the one complaint no one ever seemed to lodge was that there weren’t enough debates. No one had any reason to want to prolong the misery of that series of events. Grassroots conservatives watched in horror as the debates elevated Romney and Newt Gingrich while wrecking the candidacies of Rick Perry and Tim Pawlenty.

Liberals may have enjoyed what they thought was a clown show, but the debates went on long enough to eliminate any actual clowns from contention. (Say what you will about Romney as a candidate, but he isn’t a circus act.) The one exception to this rule might be the television networks that broadcast and moderated the debates, attracting viewers and giving liberal moderators numerous opportunities for what they actually show up to the debates to do: talk about contraception and occasionally call someone a racist.

So I am sympathetic to the idea that fewer debates next time around–especially fewer debates run by the moderators’ class of 2012, which included media personalities who threw themselves in front of Obama to shield him from any accusation unfit for royal consumption–might be worth a try. I wonder, however, if this is the way to go about it:

The chairman of the Republican National Committee says NBC and CNN are in the bag for Hillary Clinton, and he’s pledging to block the networks from sponsoring 2016 GOP primary debates unless they scratch their respective TV projects about the former secretary of state.

Reince Priebus accused the networks of promoting Clinton “ahead of her likely Democratic nomination for president in 2016” by airing the productions.

NBC is planning a miniseries about Clinton staring Diane Lane, and CNN has a documentary in the works about Clinton’s professional and personal life, expected to air in theaters before running on the cable network. In a letter to program executives, Priebus asserts that the networks’ plans will tip the scale toward Clinton in the next presidential election, providing unfair treatment not only to Republicans but also to other Democrats vying for the nomination. He called the networks “campaign operatives” for Clinton, and noted that Democrats protested when Citizens United tried to air a pay-per-view film about her before the 2008 election.

It’s possible this is just an easy way for Priebus and the RNC to reduce the number of debates, a prospect that was always easier said than done because the events brought revenue to local parties and gave candidates extra time in the spotlight. The debates were useful, without question, because the race was wide open and because it was important for Republican candidates–who won’t have the networks airing hagiographic propaganda on their behalf, unlike their opponents–need to be able to debate effectively. That was important in 2012 because although Obama isn’t a very good debater, the moderators intervened when they thought he was in trouble. It will be more important against Hillary Clinton, who is a far superior debater.

But 20 debates is excessive, and with few exceptions the last round of moderators didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. It should also be noted that while the debates may have played a central role in derailing Perry’s candidacy, the later revelations about his health problems at the time suggests he might not have made it to the finish line even with fewer debates.

There is also the matter of the content of the CNN and NBC documentaries on Hillary Clinton. I doubt anyone thinks the network once derided as the “Clinton News Network” and the network that hired Clinton’s daughter will take a terribly critical view of the former first lady. But it’s worth keeping in mind that this is not how the Clintons will interpret the movies. Their standards for unadulterated worship are high. When Hillary Clinton spoke at the Saban Forum in late 2012 she permitted her event to be on the record–which included a film about Clinton preceding her speech whose tone was, wrote the New Yorker’s David Remnick, “so reverential that it resembled the sort of film that the Central Committee of the Communist Party might have produced for Leonid Brezhnev’s retirement party if Leonid Brezhnev would only have retired and the Soviets had been in possession of advanced video technology.”

Anything less will likely result in the expression of the typical Clinton suspicion that borders on paranoia (Clinton did, after all, introduce us to the “vast right-wing conspiracy”) and manifests in vicious public counter-attacks and character assassination. The networks are playing with fire: even the mere presumption of balance will set the Clintons fuming, and a replay of the Saban Forum’s Brezhnevite pomp will be a laughingstock.

Priebus is right to want to cut back on the debates and exert more discernment in choosing moderators and networks. He is also right to object to the hero-worship filmography of “news” networks covering the election. But the networks are probably asking for trouble, and Priebus and the RNC might end up enjoying not the films themselves, but the spectacle that follows.

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Is Perry a Viable 2016 Contender?

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to pass up a chance for a fourth full term in office will make for a lively race to replace him next year. But the fact that he is clearly leaving the door open for another run for the presidency in 2016 raises the question as to whether a second try will give Perry a better chance than he had in 2012. Though there is an informal tradition among Republicans that the second time is invariably the charm, if Perry thinks he can count on that helping him to the nomination, he may be in for as unhappy a ride in 2016 as his 2012 run.

Perry’s record as governor is, if anything, even more of an asset today than it was in 2011 when he declared his ultimately unsuccessful candidacy, and three years is a lifetime in politics. But there is simply no precedent for a man who was a laughingstock as a presidential candidate in one election cycle to transform himself into the winner at the next contest. The memory of what happened to Perry in those first disastrous months of his campaign combined with the far more formidable nature of the competition in 2016 should give him and his potential backers pause before they commit themselves to an effort that is unlikely to meet with any more success than he had before. No one has ever better illustrated the gap between success at the statewide level—even in a state as big as Texas—and the national stage than Rick Perry.

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Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to pass up a chance for a fourth full term in office will make for a lively race to replace him next year. But the fact that he is clearly leaving the door open for another run for the presidency in 2016 raises the question as to whether a second try will give Perry a better chance than he had in 2012. Though there is an informal tradition among Republicans that the second time is invariably the charm, if Perry thinks he can count on that helping him to the nomination, he may be in for as unhappy a ride in 2016 as his 2012 run.

Perry’s record as governor is, if anything, even more of an asset today than it was in 2011 when he declared his ultimately unsuccessful candidacy, and three years is a lifetime in politics. But there is simply no precedent for a man who was a laughingstock as a presidential candidate in one election cycle to transform himself into the winner at the next contest. The memory of what happened to Perry in those first disastrous months of his campaign combined with the far more formidable nature of the competition in 2016 should give him and his potential backers pause before they commit themselves to an effort that is unlikely to meet with any more success than he had before. No one has ever better illustrated the gap between success at the statewide level—even in a state as big as Texas—and the national stage than Rick Perry.

After 13 years in office, Perry has placed an indelible stamp on Texas political history. Though he has his detractors on the left, it’s difficult to argue that the state’s growth and prosperity has nothing to do with his leadership. The specific economic circumstances that apply to Texas may have worked to his advantage, but the least you could say about Perry is that he didn’t get in the way of those factors. Nor did he allow the legislature or the state bureaucracy to derail the boom. No matter how you look at it, he’s been an efficient manager and an effective promoter of the Lone Star State’s virtues. Any governor or president would be thrilled to be able to boast of a record that was anywhere close to what he achieved. After eight years of Barack Obama’s indifferent leadership, that ought to make for a powerful argument for Perry in 2016.

But any talk about another Perry presidential run has to start—and perhaps end—with a discussion of what happened to him the first time he ran.

Perry did enter the race late in the election cycle. By the time he declared his candidacy in August 2011 (on the day of the Ames, Iowa straw poll), his rivals had been at it for months if not years. But while he, and any other candidate, would be well advised to start a lot earlier in the run-up to 2016, it would be a mistake to assume that late start hurt him. In fact, it might have helped. After a summer and a couple of early debates that showed just how lackluster the GOP field was, Perry’s entrance into the contest could not have been better timed to ensure an easy path to the nomination for him. Perry looked to be the perfect candidate with a strong resume as a governor as well as close ties to both religious conservatives and Tea Partiers who loved his small government Texas philosophy. Indeed, the polls taken after his declaration showed him to be the frontrunner, easily eclipsing Mitt Romney and his other rivals.

It was only after he started opening his mouth and actually campaigning and taking part in the seemingly endless round of GOP debates that the trouble started.

What the nation soon learned was that while Perry had won three gubernatorial elections in Texas, he had never had to face the competition he was up against in the presidential contest. It wasn’t just that he soon got the kind of scrutiny from the national press that for the most part he didn’t receive in Austin. It was that he seemed utterly unprepared, if not completely incapable of putting forward a coherent argument for his candidacy.

The standard excuse for Perry’s disastrous debate performances is that he was still recovering from back surgery. That probably didn’t help him, but the indelible image of his “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember the three federal departments he said he wanted to disband is something that will stick with him until the day he dies. There are lots of reasons why a candidate can flop under that kind of pressure, but excuses don’t cut it in the big leagues in which he sought to compete. Within a few months, he went from being a likely winner to a punch line. It wasn’t that he lost so much as it was that he appeared to be in over his head outside the friendly confines of Texas politics. That is the sort of transformation that doesn’t just require a political makeover but an obituary.

The second try paradigm is what is tempting Perry back into the race, but the examples of Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush and even Ronald Reagan don’t really offer much comfort to Perry. All of them mustered decent showings in their previous tries for the presidency. If this “rule” offers much hope to anyone it should be encouraging Rick Santorum, who came from the back of the pack to win a dozen primaries and caucuses before ending up as the unofficial runner-up for the nomination.

But what both Santorum and Perry have to contend with in 2016 is a potentially far tougher field than they faced in 2012. With political stars like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz in the mix, retreads from the failed attempts to stop Barack Obama have no reason to assume they start with an advantage over newcomers. More than that, the constituencies that seemed most likely to boost Perry in 2012 now have stronger claimants on their support. Santorum is a more natural candidate to support for social conservatives while Tea Partiers are far more likely to embrace fellow Texan Ted Cruz or one of the other conservatives. With Christie and potentially Walker in the race, Perry will also have strong competition for the title of most successful governor.

Perry may be a better candidate if he runs for president again, but the point is that his first try was so bad that anything would be an improvement. Second tries only lead to victory if the first impression a candidate makes on the national electorate is not as dismal as the one Perry made in 2011 and 2012. There are no absolutes in politics, but pegging him as a long shot for 2016 would probably be giving him more of a chance than he actually has.  

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Young Voters Give Obama “A” for Effort

It’s no secret that the Republican Party is struggling with its message–and appeal–to millennial voters. Yesterday the College Republican National Committee released a new report written principally by a research analyst with the Winston Group, Kristen Soltis Anderson, with the aim of explaining how the GOP got in a rut with young voters and what it can do to dig itself out. Anderson and her associates conducted extensive focus groups nationwide with various populations, spanning the ethnic, educational and wealth divide. There’s no magic bullet for Republicans to win the majority of the youth vote back (the CRNC report reminds readers of the fact that George W. Bush lost young voters by more points than he lost seniors).

At Outside the Beltway Doug Mataconis has a good roundup of the report’s findings and the issues the GOP clearly has to take on in order to remain relevant. Many of the points are no surprise: gay marriage is viewed as a deal breaker for many young voters who might otherwise be almost entirely on board with the GOP with other major issues. Young voters are less likely to view the GOP’s strong record on defense as a net positive, as many have little, if any, memory of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. 

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It’s no secret that the Republican Party is struggling with its message–and appeal–to millennial voters. Yesterday the College Republican National Committee released a new report written principally by a research analyst with the Winston Group, Kristen Soltis Anderson, with the aim of explaining how the GOP got in a rut with young voters and what it can do to dig itself out. Anderson and her associates conducted extensive focus groups nationwide with various populations, spanning the ethnic, educational and wealth divide. There’s no magic bullet for Republicans to win the majority of the youth vote back (the CRNC report reminds readers of the fact that George W. Bush lost young voters by more points than he lost seniors).

At Outside the Beltway Doug Mataconis has a good roundup of the report’s findings and the issues the GOP clearly has to take on in order to remain relevant. Many of the points are no surprise: gay marriage is viewed as a deal breaker for many young voters who might otherwise be almost entirely on board with the GOP with other major issues. Young voters are less likely to view the GOP’s strong record on defense as a net positive, as many have little, if any, memory of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. 

One issue that pops up in the report several times, however, is the notion that while President Obama and his party haven’t come close to solving the major issues on the minds of young voters, namely the economy, jobs, student loan debt and, to a lesser extent, healthcare, voters were willing to give the president an “A” for effort. Soltis explains:

Despite those poor marks for Obama and the Democrats on the economy, Democrats held a 16-point advantage over the Republican Party among young voters on handling of the economy and jobs (chosen as the top issue by 37% of respondents). For those respondents who said they approved of the job Obama had been doing as president, the number one word they used? “Trying.” He was trying. Young voters were disappointed in Obama’s performance, but gave him credit for attempting to improve the situation.

Millennials seem particularly susceptible to this “participation trophy” mindset, which is one indication of the extension of certain markers of childhood well into adulthood. Yet parents are far from blameless. A recent piece in Psychology Today, entitled “A Nation of Wimps,” describes just how devastating the trendy brand of parenting known as “helicopter parenting” can be for the offspring of the most well-intentioned of parents:

The end result of cheating childhood is to extend it forever. Despite all the parental pressure, and probably because of it, kids are pushing back—in their own way. They’re taking longer to grow up.

Adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends, according to a recent report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg and colleagues. There is, instead, a growing no-man’s-land of postadolescence from 20 to 30, which they dub “early adulthood.” Those in it look like adults but “haven’t become fully adult yet—traditionally defined as finishing school, landing a job with benefits, marrying and parenting—because they are not ready or perhaps not permitted to do so.”

Using the classic benchmarks of adulthood, 65 percent of males had reached adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960. By contrast, in 2000, only 31 percent had. Among women, 77 percent met the benchmarks of adulthood by age 30 in 1960. By 2000, the number had fallen to 46 percent.

The reelection of Barack Obama, however, highlights another unfortunate side-effect of parents who insist that every child, regardless of merit or achievement, receive a participation trophy. When these young people “grow up” (while they may not necessarily be adults, they are at least of voting age), they consider any effort, even with dismal planning and execution, worthy enough of a trophy–in this case, reelection. Soltis discusses how this translated for her focus group participants in terms of the health-care reform law:

Despite these concerns about the law, the general sentiment seemed to be that at least Obama had attempted to change things. Few felt like the current health care system was working well, and thus even with their concerns about how Obamacare might turn out, they once again gave the president credit for trying. As one participant in our focus group of young men in Columbus put it, “at least Obama was making strides to start the process of reforming health care.”

Research, including that of Psychology Today which linked higher rates of anxiety to helicopter parenting, indicates that children who aren’t given the opportunity to fail are disadvantaged for life. While the focus has thus far been on how this increasingly popular form of parenting affects individuals and their development, Soltis’s CRNC report contains frightening indications of how the “participation trophy” mindset could seriously damage our national political landscape. If young voters are content to elect anyone who appears on MTV and messages to them effectively, regardless of any proven record of success, the future of America is in more danger than it seemed in the immediate aftermath of the November election. 

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Phyllis Schlafly and the Road to GOP Ruin

In a radio interview, longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said, “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican.”

She added, “The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes — the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election. And there are millions of them. And I think when you have an establishment-run nomination system, they give us a series of losers, which they’ve given us with Dole, and McCain, and Romney and they give us people who don’t connect with the grassroots.”

Let’s deal with first things first: The notion that there’s “not the slightest bit of evidence” that Hispanics are going to vote Republican is quite wrong. George W. Bush won roughly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. As for the “series of losers” the “establishment-run nomination system” produced: Perhaps Schlafly believes the path to a GOP victory in 2012 would have been paved by GOP presidential nominee Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann. If so, she’s living on another planet. Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination because he won more Republican voters in more primary states than any of his competitors did.

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In a radio interview, longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said, “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican.”

She added, “The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes — the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election. And there are millions of them. And I think when you have an establishment-run nomination system, they give us a series of losers, which they’ve given us with Dole, and McCain, and Romney and they give us people who don’t connect with the grassroots.”

Let’s deal with first things first: The notion that there’s “not the slightest bit of evidence” that Hispanics are going to vote Republican is quite wrong. George W. Bush won roughly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. As for the “series of losers” the “establishment-run nomination system” produced: Perhaps Schlafly believes the path to a GOP victory in 2012 would have been paved by GOP presidential nominee Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann. If so, she’s living on another planet. Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination because he won more Republican voters in more primary states than any of his competitors did.

But Ms. Schlafly’s comments provide a good opportunity to call attention to recent remarks by Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute. Among the points made by Olsen:

  • The election was clearly decided by the non-white vote for the first time in American history. Seventy-two percent of the electorate in the 2012 election was white, according to the exit poll. That bloc includes people of many different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. But while there’s no monolithic white vote any more than there is a monolithic non-white vote, the racial differences are still stark.
  • Mitt Romney carried the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent, a 20 point lead. No candidate in American history had ever carried 59 percent of the white vote and lost the presidency. Governor Romney lost, by four points. He lost by four points because he lost the non-white vote by 63 points. (Among Hispanics, Romney lost 71 percent v. 27 percent.)
  • In every election since the 1996 election, like clockwork, the share of the non-white vote has gone up as a share of the total voters by 2 percent and the share of the white vote has gone down by 2 percent, much of that stemming from Hispanic population increases.
  • In 2016, if there is not a dramatic shrinkage in the African-American vote, a Republican candidate will need to get 60 percent of the white vote, plus a record high among African-Americans, plus a record high among Asians, plus a record high among Hispanics, plus a record high among those people who don’t classify themselves in any of those categories, or are American-Indian or Hawaiian or Aleut, to win a bare 50.1 percent of the vote.

Now these data points by themselves don’t mean Republicans should support the immigration reform legislation that is being crafted in the Senate. That legislation needs to be judged on its substantive merits. It’s also true that Mitt Romney did not appeal to white working class and blue-collar voters in anything like the numbers he needed to in order to win. But of course one can do both: appeal to rising immigrant groups and white working class voters. It’s not an either/or proposition.

In addition, the data points cited by Olsen do indicate that the strategy Ms. Schlafly is recommending–which is that Republicans should give up on Hispanic voters, who will never vote for Republicans anyway, and simply reach out to white voters–is a path to permanent political minority status. Republican presidential candidates are already doing fantastically well with white voters. The problem for the GOP is that they are a shrinking percentage of the electorate (from 89 percent of the electorate in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012).

As for the Schlafly mindset, Michael Gerson and I addressed it in our recent essay in COMMENTARY, when we wrote this:

Conservative critics of such [immigration] reforms sometimes express the conviction that Hispanic voters are inherently favorable to bigger government and thus more or less permanently immune to Republican appeals. It is a view that combines an off-putting sense of ideological superiority—apparently “those people” are not persuadable—with a pessimism about the drawing power of conservative ideals. Such attitudes are the prerogative of a sectarian faction. They are not an option for a political party, which cannot afford to lose the ambition to convince.

Phyllis Schlafly has lost the ambition to convince, which is just one reason why her counsel should be ignored. 

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Sic Transit Bachmann: The Ridicule Principle and 2016

There was a moment two years ago when Representative Michele Bachmann looked like she had a realistic chance to be a first-tier Republican presidential candidate. In the spring and summer of 2011, Bachmann seemed to be the favorite of Tea Party voters and her strong showing at the first debates indicated that she could emerge from the pack as the person who could mobilize social conservatives as well as anti-tax rebels and give mainstream frontrunner Mitt Romney a run for his money. Indeed, when she showed the organizational heft that allowed her to win the straw poll in Ames, Iowa that August she knocked former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty out of the race and seemed poised for a long and possibly significant presidential campaign.

But that was her high point, and from there her candidacy, if not her celebrity, went into a steep decline. Not only did she not win the actual Iowa caucus the following January, she finished so far down in the standings that she dropped out the next day. The Michele Bachmann moment in our national political history was so short that even though it happened less than two years ago, it’s hard even for some political junkies to remember it. The news today that Bachmann won’t run for re-election to Congress next year is a reminder for both politicians and journalists of the enduring wisdom to be found in not getting so caught up in what is happening in each segment of the 24/7 news cycle that they lose perspective on things or people that turn out to be flashes in the pan rather than have staying power. While no one should assume that we’ve heard the last of Bachmann, her exit from office illustrates just how fleeting such moments can be. And that’s something the next crop of GOP presidential contenders, including current Tea Party idol Ted Cruz, should remember.

Why did Bachmann fade so quickly? The answer is simple. There aren’t many hard and fast rules in politics that apply to all situations, but surely one of them is to avoid ridicule.

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There was a moment two years ago when Representative Michele Bachmann looked like she had a realistic chance to be a first-tier Republican presidential candidate. In the spring and summer of 2011, Bachmann seemed to be the favorite of Tea Party voters and her strong showing at the first debates indicated that she could emerge from the pack as the person who could mobilize social conservatives as well as anti-tax rebels and give mainstream frontrunner Mitt Romney a run for his money. Indeed, when she showed the organizational heft that allowed her to win the straw poll in Ames, Iowa that August she knocked former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty out of the race and seemed poised for a long and possibly significant presidential campaign.

But that was her high point, and from there her candidacy, if not her celebrity, went into a steep decline. Not only did she not win the actual Iowa caucus the following January, she finished so far down in the standings that she dropped out the next day. The Michele Bachmann moment in our national political history was so short that even though it happened less than two years ago, it’s hard even for some political junkies to remember it. The news today that Bachmann won’t run for re-election to Congress next year is a reminder for both politicians and journalists of the enduring wisdom to be found in not getting so caught up in what is happening in each segment of the 24/7 news cycle that they lose perspective on things or people that turn out to be flashes in the pan rather than have staying power. While no one should assume that we’ve heard the last of Bachmann, her exit from office illustrates just how fleeting such moments can be. And that’s something the next crop of GOP presidential contenders, including current Tea Party idol Ted Cruz, should remember.

Why did Bachmann fade so quickly? The answer is simple. There aren’t many hard and fast rules in politics that apply to all situations, but surely one of them is to avoid ridicule.

Bachmann’s penchant for saying whatever came into her head caught up with her. She got labeled as the candidate who made the loony comment about a vaccine against sexually transmitted diseases causing mental retardation. She had genuine charisma as well as a better grasp on many issues than better known and funded candidates (need we mention Rick Perry?), but the more America got to know her, the less it took her seriously. Her fans can blame that on the mainstream media’s liberal bias, but the fault was hers. Where once she looked to be about to replace Sarah Palin as the La Passionara of the Tea Party movement, she wound up just looking ridiculous. There are few examples of politicians recovering from that malady, though Anthony Weiner is giving that principle a run for its money this year.

The speculation about why Bachmann is not running for re-election needn’t detain us long. Her protestations that her decision was unrelated to the ongoing investigations into the financing of her campaign or fears of winning re-election ring hollow. Since she was already running ads for 2014, it’s clear the baggage she carried endangered her chances of winning a seat that she had only barely held onto last November. By leaving now before taking another chance on losing in an overwhelmingly Republican district, she preserves her options for the future. She can be become a popular figure on the conservative lecture circuit or a talk show host.

But what Bachmann taught us in 2011 is that the gap between being a celebrated congressional dissident whose antics delighted the conservative base and someone who can actually challenge for the nomination of a national party is not so narrow as some politicians think. The crop of 2016 GOP contenders seems to be a lot deeper and more serious than the 2012 roster, but what happened to Bachmann should be considered an object lesson for people like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who appears to be auditioning for the post of leader of the bomb thrower niche of the Republican Party that Bachmann briefly occupied.

You may argue that Cruz is a lot more polished and substantive than Bachmann was, and you might be right–though many forget that she knew what she was talking about when it came to tax policy and the Middle East. But as much as the grass roots is applauding when Cruz calls his Republican colleagues “squishes” and says he doesn’t trust them, the potential for crossing the line into caricature is there too.

Partisans like their politicians to be blunt and give the other side hell. But there is a fine line between that and getting labeled a nut case. Cruz may think he’s cut from a different mold than Bachmann, but he should regard her swift rise and even swifter fall as a warning of just how slippery a business politics can be.

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Debating How to Save the GOP

Last week I had a discussion/debate with Ben Domenech at Furman University to discuss “How to Save the GOP,” a topic that was inspired, in part, by the essay in COMMENTARY that I co-authored with Michael Gerson. Our conversation covered the 2012 election, social issues, the case for limited and effective government, and the 2016 presidential contest. For those interested, a link to the event can be found here

Last week I had a discussion/debate with Ben Domenech at Furman University to discuss “How to Save the GOP,” a topic that was inspired, in part, by the essay in COMMENTARY that I co-authored with Michael Gerson. Our conversation covered the 2012 election, social issues, the case for limited and effective government, and the 2016 presidential contest. For those interested, a link to the event can be found here

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Minority Voters and the GOP: Rand Paul’s Third Way

When confronted with the Republican Party’s poor standing among minority communities, GOP politicians have usually taken one of two approaches: claim these communities constitute “natural conservative constituencies” or advocate a broad change in policy or ideology to attract minority voters. Neither one of these tactics has been effective, for various reasons–chief among those reasons is that the communities under consideration are usually not “natural conservative constituencies.”

Take Hispanics, for example. It is often noted by GOP politicians that Hispanic immigrants are hard-working, family-oriented strivers who tend to be religious. That may be true, but polls showed that while Mitt Romney was generally trusted on the economy more than Barack Obama, Hispanics overwhelmingly trusted Obama on the economy. Whether or not Hispanics share a cultural or social conservatism with the GOP, then, becomes basically irrelevant. I wrote about one poll here that showed 73 percent of Hispanics preferred Obama to Romney on the economy, and 73 percent planned to vote for Obama. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

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When confronted with the Republican Party’s poor standing among minority communities, GOP politicians have usually taken one of two approaches: claim these communities constitute “natural conservative constituencies” or advocate a broad change in policy or ideology to attract minority voters. Neither one of these tactics has been effective, for various reasons–chief among those reasons is that the communities under consideration are usually not “natural conservative constituencies.”

Take Hispanics, for example. It is often noted by GOP politicians that Hispanic immigrants are hard-working, family-oriented strivers who tend to be religious. That may be true, but polls showed that while Mitt Romney was generally trusted on the economy more than Barack Obama, Hispanics overwhelmingly trusted Obama on the economy. Whether or not Hispanics share a cultural or social conservatism with the GOP, then, becomes basically irrelevant. I wrote about one poll here that showed 73 percent of Hispanics preferred Obama to Romney on the economy, and 73 percent planned to vote for Obama. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Conservatives also tried to convince themselves that since black voters were generally disapproving toward gay marriage, they would gravitate toward the GOP. But when it came to national elections, black voters weren’t basing their choices on gay marriage, and now African-American opposition to gay marriage is dropping anyway.

But there is a third way, in fact, to try to appeal to minority voters, and it was typified in Rand Paul’s speech to the predominantly black Howard University yesterday. This strategy may not work either, but it is certainly worth trying. Paul’s third way had two elements. The first, and obvious, one is to show up in the first place. Conservatives cannot expect minority voters to come to them; if you want someone’s vote, you have to prove it–and earn it.

In the Washington Post’s wrap-up of the 2012 presidential election, the paper noted that Paul Ryan, on the ticket as the vice presidential nominee, apparently “had wanted to talk about poverty, traveling to inner cities and giving speeches that laid out the Republican vision for individual empowerment.” The Romney campaign, according to the Post’s sources, was unconvinced. But Ryan had the right idea. (Rand Paul’s speech at Howard raises the question of why Ryan isn’t giving those speeches now that he’s no longer restrained by the top of a presidential ticket.)

As Romney’s disastrous “47 percent” remarks showed, if you appear utterly uninterested in someone’s vote, you’re probably not going to get it. But the second part of Paul’s approach at Howard, and the identifying element of his third way, has to do with policy. When Republicans address the issue of minority voters, they often come off as condescending. They tend to hold that minority voters simply don’t know that they should obviously be voting Republican, or that if they repeat the same message enough it’ll get through–both of which suggest ignorance on the part of the voter being addressed.

But as Rand Paul found out yesterday, these voters quite often do follow the policy fights in Washington and know exactly where they stand on the issues. Luckily, Paul came prepared. Though the students were skeptical of much of what Paul had to say, he did receive cheers for his advocacy of reforming mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders. Mandatory minimums take sentencing discretion out of the hands of judges and often result in wildly disproportionate sentences that have a disparate impact on the black community.

About three weeks ago, Paul and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy introduced a bill that would provide a “safety valve” for drug sentencing, allowing the judge in some cases to levy far less jail time when the circumstances call for leniency. Additionally, while Paul doesn’t favor full legalization of marijuana, he is stridently opposed to the way those who use the drug are prosecuted. In a recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, Paul said:

Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in jail for their drug use, and I really think, you know, look what would have happened, it would have ruined their lives. They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don’t get lucky. They don’t have good attorneys, and they go to jail for these things and I think it’s a big mistake.

When California proposed legalizing marijuana in 2010, polling showed it had the support of two-thirds of the state’s black voters, and an NAACP official called it “a civil rights issue.” Paul also supports school choice, which tends to attract support from the black community in both red and blue states.

Paul was far from embraced by the students at Howard yesterday. But Republicans have to start by showing up. It’s a low-risk proposition anyway, since it’s unlikely Paul’s third way will fare any worse than its predecessors.

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Republicans Recognize Their Party in Peril

The new RNC report has elicited a lot of reaction. I wanted to highlight just one element that I found encouraging, which is it clearly understands the magnitude of the challenging facing the national GOP.

The report cites the results of presidential elections from 1968-1988, when Republicans were utterly dominant (winning an average of 417 electoral votes); and from 1992-2012, when Republican have lost the popular vote five out of six times. (During that period no Republican presidential candidate reached even 300 electoral votes.)

I wanted to add several more data points to reinforce the reasons for concern.

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The new RNC report has elicited a lot of reaction. I wanted to highlight just one element that I found encouraging, which is it clearly understands the magnitude of the challenging facing the national GOP.

The report cites the results of presidential elections from 1968-1988, when Republicans were utterly dominant (winning an average of 417 electoral votes); and from 1992-2012, when Republican have lost the popular vote five out of six times. (During that period no Republican presidential candidate reached even 300 electoral votes.)

I wanted to add several more data points to reinforce the reasons for concern.

On demographics: In 2012, Governor Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same last year as it was in 2000, Romney would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won going away. And if it were the same last year as it was in 1980, Romney would have won by a larger margin than Ronald Reagan. Instead Barack Obama won easily. 

On public perceptions: Last month a Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of respondents (and 65 percent of independents) agreed with the statement that the Republican Party was “out of touch with the American people.” Even 36 percent of Republicans thought their party was out of touch. And more than half of those surveyed (52 percent) said the Republican Party was “too extreme” (only 39 percent said that same thing of Democrats).

On party affiliations: In the Pew Research Center poll, respondents identified with Democrats more than Republicans by 14 points (51 v. 37 percent) when independents were pressed to say which party they leaned toward.

To add insult to injury, the RNC conducted focus groups in Columbus, Ohio and Des Moines, Iowa with people who formerly considered themselves Republicans. They described the GOP as “scary,” “narrow-minded,” and “out of touch” and said it was comprised of “stuffy, old white men.”

What this means is that unless the GOP makes some fairly significant course corrections, losses will continue to mount. To be clear: It’s not that a Republican candidate can’t beat a Democratic candidate at any particular point in time; it’s that the trajectory of events means that absent a new Republican Party, and a modernized conservatism, it will be harder and harder for the right to win. Republicans will have to produce more and more exceptional candidates and hope Democrats produce more and more sub-par ones.

For the GOP to once again become dominant will require significant upgrades in the mechanics of campaigning (from improvements in data-gathering, micro-targeting and social media outreach to earlier primaries and a better ground game). But it will also require a particularly talented presidential candidate who can recalibrate the party without ripping it apart, and a policy agenda committed to limited government while also repositioning the GOP in ways that addresses its weaknesses and signals to the public that it’s changing.

Fortunately, a lot of work is being done by policy thinkers, public intellectuals and lawmakers and governors on ways to deal with social mobility; exploding college and health care costs (including replacing the Affordable Care Act); pension and collective bargaining reforms; ending corporate welfare; breaking up the big banks; a simpler and leaner tax code; increasing child tax credits; taking advantage of the revolution in energy technology; strengthening our social and civic institutions; reforms in education and immigration; extending the principles of welfare reform to other federal-aid programs; overhauling our prison system; making adoption easier; and more.

This is not the time for intellectual rigidity and repeating the same slogans, only with volume turned up. Rather, people who represent different strands within the party need to engage each other with real arguments.

I have a hunch, too. Those who believe their main purpose in life is to expel heretics from the temple–who believe in addition by subtraction and purity over prudence–are going to make a lot of noise and issue a lot of threats. They’ll cite the Constitution without ever recognizing that it was the product of an extraordinary series of political compromises. And they will repeatedly invoke the name of Reagan even as they come across in most un-Reagan-like ways: agitated and angry, unhappy and bitter, full of scores to settle. They are fading figures, and on some deep level they recognize it.

The good news for the GOP is that political fortunes can shift fairly dramatically. But this will require an honest appraisal of this moment in time. The RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project does that, and for that reason alone it’s a useful contribution to the Republican future.

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The MSM Is Disappointed in Itself

In May 2012, the Washington Post published the findings of its deep dive into Mitt Romney’s past. The paper had been working on a big investigative journalism piece that would finally reveal what no one else could uncover about Romney. Utilizing the resources that only major dailies can marshal, and proudly speaking truth to power and defending the people’s right to know, the Post threw the 2012 election into pure chaos, upending everything voters thought they knew about the candidates.

Mitt Romney, as a youngster, once cut someone else’s hair.

It didn’t sound like such a bombshell at first blush, but then the Post–in a bid to make this as embarrassing as possible for the family of the victim–openly speculated about his sexuality. The family of the victim (who has since passed away), thoroughly humiliated by the Post’s behavior, denied the Post’s story and asked the newspaper to please stop spreading stories about their family “to further a political agenda.” Indeed, it was one of the low moments of the 2012 cycle. So why do I bring this up now? Because that same Washington Post reports today on a new Pew study showing that the media is increasingly echoing, instead of investigating, politicians. The Post, unsurprisingly, isn’t happy about this:

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In May 2012, the Washington Post published the findings of its deep dive into Mitt Romney’s past. The paper had been working on a big investigative journalism piece that would finally reveal what no one else could uncover about Romney. Utilizing the resources that only major dailies can marshal, and proudly speaking truth to power and defending the people’s right to know, the Post threw the 2012 election into pure chaos, upending everything voters thought they knew about the candidates.

Mitt Romney, as a youngster, once cut someone else’s hair.

It didn’t sound like such a bombshell at first blush, but then the Post–in a bid to make this as embarrassing as possible for the family of the victim–openly speculated about his sexuality. The family of the victim (who has since passed away), thoroughly humiliated by the Post’s behavior, denied the Post’s story and asked the newspaper to please stop spreading stories about their family “to further a political agenda.” Indeed, it was one of the low moments of the 2012 cycle. So why do I bring this up now? Because that same Washington Post reports today on a new Pew study showing that the media is increasingly echoing, instead of investigating, politicians. The Post, unsurprisingly, isn’t happy about this:

“Campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans,” according to the report. “Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans.” …

When news organizations are pushed out of the information pipeline, voters alone are left to sort through messages that are tested in focus groups and opposition attacks tailored with great specificity. And on the heels of a presidential campaign in which one candidate’s pollster said he refused to let the campaign be dictated by fact-checkers, such a strategy is growing easier to execute.

The facts are these: Campaigns and candidates have more power than ever before to frame both their positive narrative and their opponents’ negative one.  And, if the Pew numbers are right, both sides are spending much more time on the negative side of the ledger — at least in 2012.

Think of those numbers the next time you run down the role of the political media.

Yes, you think about that the next time you feel like complaining about front-page stories in papers like the Post. In fact, you’ll probably have that opportunity again soon, because like clockwork the Post identifies the Republican it deems most dangerous to the liberal agenda and fires off a gobsmackingly absurd–and often factually incorrect–story about them. The Post usually follows that story with an article about its previous story, in which it drums up a fake controversy and then drums up fake outrage about it.

The truth is, if the Post is unhappy about the press acting “as megaphones, rather than investigators,” it only has itself to blame. Before Romney was the target, Democrats felt threatened by Texas Governor Rick Perry. So the Post published a story meant to be damning toward Perry’s character, in which it breathlessly reported the existence of a hunting property leased by Perry’s family that once had a rock with a racial epithet painted on it but which no one can find today. Before the Post went after Perry, the paper decided to weigh in on the 2009 Virginia governor’s race by attacking Bob McDonnell’s 20-year-old college thesis and publishing about a story a day on it for the first week or so. McDonnell won the election easily, needless to say. And the Post tried to dig up dirt on Marco Rubio, found nothing, and pretended it found something anyway. The Post story was quickly debunked.

None of this is to suggest that modern newspapers publish only nonsense. They do plenty of good work. And the fading of investigative journalism–a function of tightening budgets and lack of resources, mainly–is to be mourned. But too often investigative journalism as currently practiced discredits just this kind of reporting–especially when election season rolls around.

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Hope for the GOP’s Digital Strategy with New RNC Report

Unlike previous, informal autopsies on GOP data and digital performance, yesterday’s release from the RNC, a 100-page report on the future of the Republican Party, comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. Following the election, former digital managers for the Romney campaign joined with DC operatives and consultants for a cheerleading session. These meetings were like letting a murderer conduct the autopsy of his victim, making it impossible to draw meaningful lessons from the election’s many failures. This latest report acknowledges the “unique position” the RNC is in to initiate and execute a transformation in how digital efforts are regarded, funded and staffed in the future.

The RNC’s report details the path forward for a party that has lost the popular vote five out of the last six elections. Its scope is wide, discussing outreach, digital, data, and policy. It’s a document that makes clear that the leadership of the party recognizes that serious changes need to be made in order to prevent it from becoming a permanent minority. Many of the report’s recommendations have made conservatives nervous, especially the language pertaining to immigration. On the data and digital fronts, however, a highly-reported failure of the Romney campaign, there is room for hope.

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Unlike previous, informal autopsies on GOP data and digital performance, yesterday’s release from the RNC, a 100-page report on the future of the Republican Party, comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. Following the election, former digital managers for the Romney campaign joined with DC operatives and consultants for a cheerleading session. These meetings were like letting a murderer conduct the autopsy of his victim, making it impossible to draw meaningful lessons from the election’s many failures. This latest report acknowledges the “unique position” the RNC is in to initiate and execute a transformation in how digital efforts are regarded, funded and staffed in the future.

The RNC’s report details the path forward for a party that has lost the popular vote five out of the last six elections. Its scope is wide, discussing outreach, digital, data, and policy. It’s a document that makes clear that the leadership of the party recognizes that serious changes need to be made in order to prevent it from becoming a permanent minority. Many of the report’s recommendations have made conservatives nervous, especially the language pertaining to immigration. On the data and digital fronts, however, a highly-reported failure of the Romney campaign, there is room for hope.

Yesterday TechPresident interviewed several GOP operatives who, unlike the consultants involved with the Romney campaign, were warning of the failure of those on the right to keep up technologically long before the election. The experts TechPresident spoke with all expressed cautious optimism at the plan’s vision for the future of the Republican Party’s commitment to digital and data strategy. Some aspects were taken straight from the pages of the publication and others like it, specifically consultants who have long been warning that the talent pool for technology on the right was filled with political operatives who were also interested in tech, not the other way around.

The best executed aspects of the Obama campaign’s digital efforts were developed by recruits hired directly from Silicon Valley. These were technologically focused individuals who had little outside experience in politics before the Obama campaign. Yesterday’s RNC report suggested replicating that success, reaching out to youth not just for their votes, but also their expertise. RedState’s Erick Erickson and other conservative activists have long warned about the dangers of the consultant class and its ability to stifle innovation within the party. While the report, as Erickson noted today in an op-ed for Fox News, neglects to address this issue specifically, the fact that the RNC is actively looking to recruit in San Francisco, Austin, New York and Denver holds the promise that the talent pool that the conservative movement draws from would be infused with fresh faces and ideas.

Other experts, like the Heritage Foundation’s Rob Bluey, expressed concern that the party would be centralizing the digital efforts of the movement within the party. Bluey told Raw Story, “When it comes to data, I don’t know if there should be a central repository that the RNC is only going to share with the candidates of its choice, instead of letting the market pick the winners.” This is a legitimate concern that should be addressed as the RNC continues to grow its digital footprint. But if the right candidates are chosen (as Jonathan rightly cautioned was the most essential element of a successful Republican Party), they will be able to compete on par with Democratic nominees in 2016 and beyond if the RNC follows through with the plans set forth in the Growth and Opportunity Project.

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GOP Leadership Seeks Its Own Rebranding

As the Republican Party rolls out its rebranding efforts today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is getting the most press and the most attention. Flying slightly under the radar, however, is a piece of news related to the party’s rebranding efforts. Politico reports that a McLaughlin poll commissioned by the YG Network–an outgrowth of the “Young Guns” of the House GOP–is warning Republicans that the party’s focus on debt and deficits is missing the mark with voters.

I wrote about this subject last week, noting that the right’s focus on balancing the budget was crowding out the rest of its economic message and that it would ultimately prove a distraction from a more effective–and marketable–policy approach. Politico is reporting that the House GOP is getting similar feedback from its survey:

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As the Republican Party rolls out its rebranding efforts today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is getting the most press and the most attention. Flying slightly under the radar, however, is a piece of news related to the party’s rebranding efforts. Politico reports that a McLaughlin poll commissioned by the YG Network–an outgrowth of the “Young Guns” of the House GOP–is warning Republicans that the party’s focus on debt and deficits is missing the mark with voters.

I wrote about this subject last week, noting that the right’s focus on balancing the budget was crowding out the rest of its economic message and that it would ultimately prove a distraction from a more effective–and marketable–policy approach. Politico is reporting that the House GOP is getting similar feedback from its survey:

The YG Network polling, conducted by the GOP firm McLaughlin & Associates, found that 38 percent of Americans name the “economy and jobs” as the issue of greatest importance to them. Twenty percent named “deficit and debt” as their top concern, and 16 percent pointed to health care….

The polling questions related to entitlements are just as bracing. Voters are willing to consider some changes to the Medicare system – raising the eligibility age to 67 and means-testing benefits – but less than half are enthusiastic about changing the system immediately in order to balance the budget over a decade.

Asked to choose one government program they would be willing to cut, only 14 percent of respondents named Social Security or Medicare. Just over three quarters – 76 percent – picked military spending or other, unspecified “welfare programs.”

It remains the case that cutting debt is a worthy goal and finds support among the voters. But it is simply not enough of an agenda for them. Americans have a full range of concerns tied to the current economic challenges they face, and it’s not at all clear Republicans have really been listening. This doesn’t mean conservatives in Congress have to pander by offering free goodies or more government programs. But they have to be able to offer a range of solutions.

More important than the results of the survey, however, is where it came from. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is the highest ranking “young gun” and generally seen as a conservative force in the House, pulling Speaker John Boehner to the right on legislation. But what often gets missed is that Cantor has been trying to rebrand himself as being closer to the center than he is currently thought to be:

John Murray, who heads the YG Network, confirmed that the poll was “specifically designed to challenge the assumption that spending cuts as a central theme is sufficient.”

It’s not that spending restraint is a bad issue for conservatives, according to Murray; it’s just not enough, on its own, to drive middle-class support for a center-right policy vision.

“It doesn’t feel aspirational and it doesn’t feel like a message of the future,” said Murray, who suggested conservatives need an agenda “broad enough so [Americans] feel like it impacts them in a real way.” …

“You can see where you can have a very solid center-right platform,” he said.

The “young guns” include not just Cantor but Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy as well. And it’s clear they believe the efforts to label conservatives as unconcerned about the poor and middle class are working. They seem almost to be conceding the point by talking about switching to a “center-right” agenda. As Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee last year, Ryan was visibly troubled by this on the campaign trail. He gave speeches about strengthening civil society and the need for a social safety net that encompasses more than federal welfare or entitlement programs.

What is meaningful about the McLaughlin poll, then, is that Cantor’s office wanted a survey that would justify his own desire to move away from an all-debt-all-the-time message, fully aware that he was losing the attention of the American people. And if the poll was structured to tell Cantor basically what he wanted to hear, then the results are perhaps even more significant, because a look at the results shows that what Cantor wanted to hear was more about education, energy policy, and even comprehensive immigration reform.

Quite apart from the self-conscious use of the term “center-right,” these are also issues the GOP should want to address. The GOP would almost certainly gain from taking the immigration issue off the table (though immigration reform is the right thing to do anyway). And the lack of discussion on the right about education is mindboggling. Conservatives are winning the argument on school choice and opportunity, yet find themselves mostly talking about teacher contracts. And high-profile Democratic politicians have been caught suppressing scientific studies showing the safety of economy-boosting and job-creating domestic energy production at a time of high unemployment, putting the issue of energy on a silver platter for conservatives.

The RNC reboot is getting all the attention today, but if this story is to be believed, the shift in the House GOP leadership may be of greater consequence.

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Candidates, Not Message or Tactics, Will Determine 2016 Outcome

Republican National Committee Chair Reince Preibus deserves kudos from his party for the exhaustive report produced by his staff about what the party needs to do to recover from its defeat last November. The “Growth and Opportunity Project” is must reading for Republicans who continue to grouse about the party’s problems amid recriminations about Mitt Romney’s loss. It contains valuable insights that ought to be heeded by conservatives about how to win elections in the future. Its sections on messaging, fundraising, voter registration, technology, turnout efforts, outreach to neglected sections of the electorate like Hispanics and youth voters and candidate selection all reflect both an honest assessment of what went wrong and what needs be done in the future to ensure the GOP returns to majority status. Other suggestions like limiting presidential candidate debates during the primaries, streamlining the nominating process and moving up the date of the national convention are also smart.

It’s not clear yet whether ornery conservatives who resent the idea of a party rebranding will now start calling Preibus a RINO for suggesting some things have to change if a Republican is going to win the White House in the foreseeable future. To the extent that they believe–as some speakers at CPAC seemed to suggest–all the GOP needs to do is to ignore the problems and simply be more faithful to conservative ideology, they are part of the problem rather than the solution. As Our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson wrote in their seminal article on the future of the Republicans in the March issue of COMMENTARY (which was quoted in the RNC report), serious thought must be given to rethinking the way the party approaches elections and some issues without abandoning its principles.

But the debate about this necessary report should not overlook one salient fact. No matter how smart the Republicans get in the next four years, they won’t win the presidency back until they nominate a better candidate than their opponents. That may seem to be such an obvious conclusion that it doesn’t merit discussion, let alone debate. But even as Republicans are rightly urged to heed the conclusions of the RNC report, it is still worth remembering.

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Republican National Committee Chair Reince Preibus deserves kudos from his party for the exhaustive report produced by his staff about what the party needs to do to recover from its defeat last November. The “Growth and Opportunity Project” is must reading for Republicans who continue to grouse about the party’s problems amid recriminations about Mitt Romney’s loss. It contains valuable insights that ought to be heeded by conservatives about how to win elections in the future. Its sections on messaging, fundraising, voter registration, technology, turnout efforts, outreach to neglected sections of the electorate like Hispanics and youth voters and candidate selection all reflect both an honest assessment of what went wrong and what needs be done in the future to ensure the GOP returns to majority status. Other suggestions like limiting presidential candidate debates during the primaries, streamlining the nominating process and moving up the date of the national convention are also smart.

It’s not clear yet whether ornery conservatives who resent the idea of a party rebranding will now start calling Preibus a RINO for suggesting some things have to change if a Republican is going to win the White House in the foreseeable future. To the extent that they believe–as some speakers at CPAC seemed to suggest–all the GOP needs to do is to ignore the problems and simply be more faithful to conservative ideology, they are part of the problem rather than the solution. As Our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson wrote in their seminal article on the future of the Republicans in the March issue of COMMENTARY (which was quoted in the RNC report), serious thought must be given to rethinking the way the party approaches elections and some issues without abandoning its principles.

But the debate about this necessary report should not overlook one salient fact. No matter how smart the Republicans get in the next four years, they won’t win the presidency back until they nominate a better candidate than their opponents. That may seem to be such an obvious conclusion that it doesn’t merit discussion, let alone debate. But even as Republicans are rightly urged to heed the conclusions of the RNC report, it is still worth remembering.

It’s easy and fun to spin out counter-factual scenarios and to imagine different results. Yet even if the Republicans had not bored everyone silly with nearly two dozen candidate debates that drove the discussion to the margins rather than the center; if their convention wasn’t overshadowed by hurricane coverage; if their get-out-the-vote effort not been a fiasco; and their candidate hadn’t alienated Hispanics or failed to connect with young voters, Mitt Romney was not going to defeat Barack Obama.

This was more the function of Obama’s strengths as a historic president with a built-in advantage with the media than it was of Romney’s weaknesses. Romney was, after all, the most electable of all the Republican contenders and it’s doubtful that any of his competitors would have done as well as he did.

But not even a Republican Party that was technologically up-to-date and appealing to Hispanics rather than turning them off with threats of “self-deportation” would have been strong enough to overcome Obama, especially with a candidate like Romney who lacked the ability to connect with ordinary Americans (a trait that was only exacerbated by his fatal “47 percent” gaffe).

None of this should serve as an argument in favor of ignoring the RNC report, whose conclusions should be heeded if the GOP is going to continue to compete in the future. Building the party is, however, not quite the same thing as winning a presidential election, which hinges on two specific personalities more than it does on the strengths of their parties.

Fortunately for the Republicans they now have a deep bench from which to choose a better candidate than Romney. Equally fortunate for them is the fact that Barack Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016 and if Hillary Clinton fails to run, it will be the Democrats who will probably be fielding a less able vote getter.

However, no one can tell yet whether the GOP contenders will pan out or if some Democrat surges to the fore as Obama did in 2008. Even if the RNC achieves all of its stated goals and Republicans embrace immigration reform, it won’t matter if the next matchup is as lopsided as it was in 2012.

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The Republican Path Ahead

I have a column in TIME magazine in which I describe the three different camps Republicans have broken into in the aftermath of the 2012 election, some policy proposals the GOP might consider, and urge Republicans to draw on a conservative tradition that:

seeks to accommodate timeless principles to shifting circumstances, that rejects unyielding orthodoxy and believes prudence, not purity, is the cardinal political virtue. And while it believes in limited government, it is not carelessly antigovernment. The 19th century economist Alfred Marshall elegantly described government as “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way. A chief condition to that end is that it should not be set to work for which it is not specifically qualified, under the conditions of time and place.”

I’d add to this several other suggestions.

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I have a column in TIME magazine in which I describe the three different camps Republicans have broken into in the aftermath of the 2012 election, some policy proposals the GOP might consider, and urge Republicans to draw on a conservative tradition that:

seeks to accommodate timeless principles to shifting circumstances, that rejects unyielding orthodoxy and believes prudence, not purity, is the cardinal political virtue. And while it believes in limited government, it is not carelessly antigovernment. The 19th century economist Alfred Marshall elegantly described government as “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way. A chief condition to that end is that it should not be set to work for which it is not specifically qualified, under the conditions of time and place.”

I’d add to this several other suggestions.

First, Republicans should make front-and-center their plans to reform public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century. Our health-care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, immigration policies and regulatory regime are outdated, breaking down, and creating substantial wreckage. If I had to boil it down to a single sentence, I’d urge the GOP to develop its reputation as the party of reform and modernization.

Second, Republican leaders at every level need to conduct themselves in a manner that not just reassures voters but appeals to them. As former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has put it, “as we ask Americans to join us on such a boldly different course, it would help if they liked us, just a bit.” This is not just a matter of style; it’s a disposition that reflects an approach to the world. And it matters.

Third, Republicans must resist the temptation of defeatism, enervation, and turning against the country. It is entirely within the power of the GOP to both remain principled and appeal to a majority of Americans. An intellectually self-confident party would, in fact, be energized by a challenge of this scale.

But it seems to me that the main reason for Republicans to be confident, and the main reason they should act quickly to revive their party, is that reactionary liberalism is exhausted. It has nothing to offer when it comes to the greatest domestic threats facing America: our massive fiscal imbalance, the impending collapse of our entitlement programs, our insanely complicated and inefficient tax code, and anemic economic growth. By the end of President Obama’s second term, the Affordable Care Act will be viewed as a monumental failure. Liberals will have had nothing useful to say about combating poverty, improving education, energy independence or stabilizing a disordered and dangerous world. The propositions of progressivism will have been tried and found wanting in almost every respect. The public will again turn to the Republican Party.

For the GOP to fully reposition itself will require the right presidential nominee to emerge. But the groundwork needs to begin–has begun–with governors, members of Congress, public intellectuals and policy entrepreneurs.

In 1980, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan admitted, “Of a sudden, the GOP has become a party of ideas.” As it was, so shall it be again.

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An Interesting Time to Be Alive (If You’re a Republican)

In his appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Democratic strategist James Carville was asked what the Republican Party has to do in order to recover. Mr. Carville pointed out that “It’s hard when you’re a congressional party.” What he meant by that is that without a titular head, a party is relatively undisciplined and often sounds cacophonous. The press will focus on the most outrageous statements made by backbenchers, which leads to responsible members of the party often finding themselves with “a fist in your forehead.”

That’s a fair point. At the same time, a period like the Republican Party is in right now can also lead to some intellectual creativity, with good ideas being generated by governors and members of Congress. Wilderness years can help a party that has become ideologically rigid and somewhat out of touch with the changing nature of America. As Rod Dreher pointed out in a recent symposium in COMMENTARY, in the short run political cohesion and effectiveness have their advantages, but this can be “a disaster for a party that needs–as every party does–to have its intellectual base replenished by fresh, creative discussion and argument.”

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In his appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Democratic strategist James Carville was asked what the Republican Party has to do in order to recover. Mr. Carville pointed out that “It’s hard when you’re a congressional party.” What he meant by that is that without a titular head, a party is relatively undisciplined and often sounds cacophonous. The press will focus on the most outrageous statements made by backbenchers, which leads to responsible members of the party often finding themselves with “a fist in your forehead.”

That’s a fair point. At the same time, a period like the Republican Party is in right now can also lead to some intellectual creativity, with good ideas being generated by governors and members of Congress. Wilderness years can help a party that has become ideologically rigid and somewhat out of touch with the changing nature of America. As Rod Dreher pointed out in a recent symposium in COMMENTARY, in the short run political cohesion and effectiveness have their advantages, but this can be “a disaster for a party that needs–as every party does–to have its intellectual base replenished by fresh, creative discussion and argument.”

I also agree with Carville and “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough that a strong leader eventually needs to emerge to help the GOP regain its political footing. But that will have to wait at least until the next presidential cycle, which is still a ways off.

Until then, Republicans have to do the best they can given the situation in which they find themselves. And this can be–it actually is–an intellectually interesting moment for the GOP and conservative movement, which are engaged in fairly searching and healthy re-examinations. More needs to be done (Ross Douthat explains why here). Still, reactionary liberalism seems to me to be exhausted and unequipped to address the problems of the 21stcentury. Which means on the national level the Republican Party and conservatism will have their chance again. When it comes, readiness will be all.

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Ryan Has Options, But Has He Already Made His Choice?

Paul Ryan’s role in the 2012 presidential election was, from the standpoint of some congressional Republicans, perfect. Because Ryan is the author of budget-cutting legislation that seeks to reform entitlements, especially Medicare, his proposals are controversial. Republicans in Congress may be supportive of such legislation, and indeed voted for it in large numbers, but it opens up an easy line of attack for their opponents. But they also want to rein in debt, support their fellow (popular) conservative reformer, and stay in the good graces of the party’s grassroots–as Newt Gingrich found out when he criticized Ryan’s plan in harsh terms and earned the ire of conservative voters when he ran for the GOP nomination.

Gingrich backtracked, but he was in an unenviable position: he wanted to appeal to both the center and the base; he didn’t want to appear timid by backtracking and deferring to Ryan, who wasn’t running. But he also couldn’t embrace a plan he had genuine concerns about, both philosophically and with regard to electoral politics. This is where many in the party found themselves on the issue of trying to win local and national elections–caught between prudence and their reformist instincts. Ryan chose not to run for president, which prevented the party’s candidates from having to spend an entire election season defending that one proposal. And because he was picked up as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, his own plans were overshadowed by those of Romney–the top of the ticket. Thus, had the GOP ousted President Obama in November, Republicans would have arrived on the cusp of major conservative reform in a relatively quiet way.

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Paul Ryan’s role in the 2012 presidential election was, from the standpoint of some congressional Republicans, perfect. Because Ryan is the author of budget-cutting legislation that seeks to reform entitlements, especially Medicare, his proposals are controversial. Republicans in Congress may be supportive of such legislation, and indeed voted for it in large numbers, but it opens up an easy line of attack for their opponents. But they also want to rein in debt, support their fellow (popular) conservative reformer, and stay in the good graces of the party’s grassroots–as Newt Gingrich found out when he criticized Ryan’s plan in harsh terms and earned the ire of conservative voters when he ran for the GOP nomination.

Gingrich backtracked, but he was in an unenviable position: he wanted to appeal to both the center and the base; he didn’t want to appear timid by backtracking and deferring to Ryan, who wasn’t running. But he also couldn’t embrace a plan he had genuine concerns about, both philosophically and with regard to electoral politics. This is where many in the party found themselves on the issue of trying to win local and national elections–caught between prudence and their reformist instincts. Ryan chose not to run for president, which prevented the party’s candidates from having to spend an entire election season defending that one proposal. And because he was picked up as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, his own plans were overshadowed by those of Romney–the top of the ticket. Thus, had the GOP ousted President Obama in November, Republicans would have arrived on the cusp of major conservative reform in a relatively quiet way.

But they didn’t win. And that meant the party faced the prospect of a new cycle of political fights over Ryan’s reforms, since he is the House budget leader. But he could also not be easily overlooked, since he returned as the party’s (unsuccessful) vice presidential hopeful. That’s why in today’s Politico story analyzing Paul Ryan’s competing paths to power, this particular segment stands out as possibly the best harbinger of what to expect from the rising conservative star:

Ryan associates say he has been surprised at how central his governing role has been among House Republicans since returning from his failed run for vice president. He was instrumental in cooking up the GOP’s new debt ceiling strategy and will craft a budget plan that sets the direction for the GOP caucus on virtually every consequential issue. With this in mind, he now calculates that naked national ambitions would only dilute his growing power as Speaker John Boehner’s unofficial wing man.

At the same time, Ryan continues to cultivate a national political and financial network that would serve him in any role. A top GOP source said Ryan recently huddled with Spencer Zwick, Mitt Romney’s fundraising guru, who made plain much of the 2012 donor base stands ready to back him if he were to ever warm again to a White House run. Ryan also made a fundraising trip to Texas last month for his Prosperity PAC. He was hosted by top Romney donors who urged him to run, convinced he has been totally vetted and passed the readiness test.

There are three nuggets of information in those two paragraphs, and they basically summarize Ryan’s current predicament. First, major party donors like him and want him to run for president; second, his instinct is not to run, and instead stick to policy; and third, that the GOP House caucus’s embrace of Ryan when he returned from the campaign played a fairly important role in all this.

Ryan understood that although he is young, losing a national race can halt anyone’s career momentum, and it can leave the impression that the losing candidate is an also-ran. Those perceptions are difficult, though far from impossible, to reverse. And Ryan would have one advantage: no one blames him for the election result, since he was not at the top of the ticket. His selection, in fact, energized grassroots conservatives. Nonetheless, as a candidate for the White House in a close election Ryan had one foot out the door of the House chamber. The fact that House Republicans welcomed his return as a congressional leader says a lot about the value House Republicans place in Ryan, and the confidence he instills in them that they can win with his agenda.

Though Ryan is a fine public speaker and a solid debater, he was always more at home writing policy than on the campaign trail. If he wanted to compete for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he surely could, and he would have something of a head start on his rivals with both the base and party donors. But the lesson of Bob Dole’s run for president in 1996 looms large: it is difficult–Dole found it impossible, actually–to be a congressional leader and presidential candidate at the same time. Ryan may very well be the most influential Republican in the House already. Though he could certainly make a play for being even more, he appears to be relieved to have his old role back, for the time being. The party’s base has reason to be relieved, as well, that Ryan’s colleagues didn’t lose their resolve to fight for real reform in his brief absence.

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