Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential election

Warren Is Hillary’s Unwitting Collaborator

There is a fair amount of irony buried throughout Maggie Haberman’s entertaining story on how Elizabeth Warren is “vexing” Hillary Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign even without running herself. The story is a good reminder of one reason Warren isn’t likely to run: she doesn’t have to. Left unsaid is the corollary: Warren is a populist on the campaign trail but a heavyhanded wielder of power and a surprising policy lightweight in the Senate. Most of Warren’s appeal is what leftists pretend she could be, not what she really is.

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There is a fair amount of irony buried throughout Maggie Haberman’s entertaining story on how Elizabeth Warren is “vexing” Hillary Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign even without running herself. The story is a good reminder of one reason Warren isn’t likely to run: she doesn’t have to. Left unsaid is the corollary: Warren is a populist on the campaign trail but a heavyhanded wielder of power and a surprising policy lightweight in the Senate. Most of Warren’s appeal is what leftists pretend she could be, not what she really is.

So Warren not only doesn’t have to run to impact the party’s political future; she’s probably better off not running. Her actual policies range from nonsensical to intellectually bankrupt, but her shallow applause lines are perfectly calibrated to what the economic illiterates of the leftist fringe want to hear. Warren can be a hero without ruining the economy, because she won’t have the power to ruin the economy. Put her in the Oval Office and the calculus changes. She would also be exposed further as a suffocating regulator with an academic’s flimsy and theoretical understanding of complicated economics.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t have such an obstacle holding her back, because her fan base doesn’t care about serious policy. The cult of Hillary is powered by pure identity politics, and Clinton is a mainstream figure in Democratic Party governance. That is to say, she intends to be the figurehead of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, much like Obama has been. Obama’s one major policy “accomplishment,” after all, was a launching pad for newly created regulatory behemoths to make policy that fell outside the intent or oversight of Congress.

When it comes to Hillary, it’s about what (and who) she represents. As an executive, all indications are that she’s a terrible manager, as her time at Foggy Bottom proved. And she’s interested in symbolic politics, not nuts-and-bolts governance–again, her time as secretary of state showed her to be risk-averse and image hyperconscious.

Ideologically, the contrast is interesting. Hillary doesn’t actually believe in anything, so she’s running as a representative of her Wall Street funders who appear to be even writing her “populist” talking points for her. This is one reason Warren won’t go away and wants to at least keep Hillary on her toes. For Clinton, it’s all a game. Nothing has any real significance for how she’d govern. Clinton is coopting Warren’s populist rhetoric for the express purpose of empowering precisely those economic actors Warren is railing against.

So how to handle the contradiction? Warren’s supporters liked the idea of Clinton having to look over her shoulder and see Warren because they knew it meant pushing Clinton to the left. But it really meant pushing Clinton’s rhetoric to the left. In actuality, it allows Clinton to crowd out any space there might be for Warren by mimicking her and then forgetting she and her supporters even exist.

That’s why Clinton’s populist rhetoric is so strained and clumsy. The most recent example was when she made the ridiculous statement that businesses don’t create jobs. It’s not that Clinton actually believes instead that the Job Fairy leaves jobs under the pillows of good liberals. It’s that Clinton has no idea how to play the populist because she doesn’t think along those lines economically and she very clearly doesn’t like interacting with the populace at all.

Haberman is exceedingly generous, calling the gaffe “a misdelivered line about businesses not creating jobs.” That kind of life-raft spin from the media to cover for Hillary will crop up throughout the campaign. But it didn’t cause a bigger splash because the expectations for Hillary’s discussion of policy are so low. Haberman also includes Hillary’s own pushback:

Clinton allies are quick to point out that the woman who was synonymous with the government-led “Hillarycare” effort has a claim on economic populism. She gave a speech discussing the anger people feel in the current economy earlier this year. Her speeches for other candidates this fall have hit the core issues of the new Democratic populism, and she has woven in a message similar to her husband’s from 1992 about raising the middle class.

But she is not yet a candidate delivering her own pitch, and she has shown she is still figuring out the notes to strike.

And that last line gives it away. What jumps out about Hillary’s campaign is the soullessness of it all. She’s still “figuring out the notes to strike” because she doesn’t write her own songs. She’s a cover artist, down at the local pub mangling Mr. Jones and waiting for the next request.

Warren might actually be enjoying all this–though temperamentally, she does not appear to be a person who enjoys anything, ever, and doesn’t want you too either. That’s something she and Clinton have in common. But humorlessness is just another box to check to win the favor of the American left, and Hillary fulfills that requirement. Warren may think she’s influencing Hillary or the campaign, when in reality she’s merely an ornament. The corporatists in her party, who hold the real power, are happy to keep up the charade.

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Scott Walker’s Fate and 2016

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker emerged triumphant from a recall election in 2012, he immediately moved to the front ranks of those Republicans considering a 2016 presidential run. But before he could think about the White House, he needed to win reelection in 2014. Many would-be presidential candidates have used such state races as vehicles to further the argument that they are political dynamos deserving of national attention. But as Politico notes today, Walker’s struggles in his fight to hold onto his job may impact his hopes for the White House even if he manages to beat Democrat Mary Burke.

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When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker emerged triumphant from a recall election in 2012, he immediately moved to the front ranks of those Republicans considering a 2016 presidential run. But before he could think about the White House, he needed to win reelection in 2014. Many would-be presidential candidates have used such state races as vehicles to further the argument that they are political dynamos deserving of national attention. But as Politico notes today, Walker’s struggles in his fight to hold onto his job may impact his hopes for the White House even if he manages to beat Democrat Mary Burke.

Walker has had a bull’s eye on his back ever since he decided to take his 2010 campaign promises seriously and to take action to save his state from rapacious public employee unions. Walker stood up to the union thugs and obstructionist Democrats who sought to prevent the legislature from enacting legislation that would end the vicious cycle by which state employees sank Wisconsin further into debt. He then ably fended off the recall effort and assumed the status of conservative folk hero as the foremost among a class of GOP governors intent on reforming a corrupt system.

But three all-out liberal assaults on Walker in five years have taken their toll. Instead of waltzing to reelection as Chris Christie did in New Jersey, Walker has faced the fight of his political life against Burke, a wealthy businesswoman who has been able to pour her considerable personal resources into attacks on the governor in a state that remains fairly evenly divided between the two parties. Showing signs of strain at times, Walker has appeared to falter occasionally and it can be argued that his blunt style has gotten a little stale in his third go-round with the voters.

Up until this week, most polls have shown the race essentially tied or with Walker holding a razor-thin edge. However, the latest survey of Wisconsin voters form Marquette University shows him opening up a 7-point lead, the same margin by which he won the recall. It could be that Walker will benefit from the accumulation of Obama administration disasters even as the president comes to the state to back his opponent. Yet even if that poll proves to be right about the governor achieving an easy victory, 2014 wasn’t the sort of coronation for Walker that Christie achieved in New Jersey before “Bridgegate” changed his political image.

Knocking off Walker has been a top Democratic objective this year and would provide them with some consolation even if they lose the Senate. Doing so would not only effectively eliminate him for 2016 consideration but also send a cautionary message to any Republican in the country who would think to emulate Walker’s courageous stand against unions and traditional tax-and-spend policies.

It would also have some interesting consequences for the Republicans who remain standing in the presidential sweepstakes. Without Walker, other GOP governors like Christie and Indiana’s Mike Pence will get more attention. The Jeb Bush boomlet will also be helped, as Walker is one of the few Republicans who could challenge for both Tea Party support as well as the backing of establishment Republicans who share his fiscal conservatism.

But as much as it might help Christie, a Walker defeat would also create another and perhaps bigger problem for him. This is thanks in no small measure to Walker’s own complaints about insufficient support for his reelection from the Republican Governors Association run this year by Christie as well as other national GOP groups. Whether or not the charge is accurate—and Walker soon backed off on his claims—conservatives won’t forget it and you can count on them blaming the New Jersey governor for a loss. It will be one more count in an indictment charging him as a RINO that stems from his controversial embrace of President Obama days before the 2012 election.

There will be those who will argue with some justice that even a narrow Walker victory next week will undermine his 2016 argument. Critics will say that if he can’t decisively win at home how can he hope to carry the nation against Hillary Clinton. Unlike George W. Bush’s 1998 landslide or, as Christie backers will point out, the New Jersey governor’s enormous win last year in a far more Democratic state than Wisconsin, a close Walker win could be interpreted as weakness.

But even though both Democrats and rival Republicans would like to bury him, Walker’s future is still in his own hands. Though it can be argued that the 2014 campaign showed that he is mortal, if he manages to win decisively—and a 7-point win equaling the runoff margin would qualify—the speculation about his presidential ambitions will begin immediately. Surviving yet another Democratic deluge of campaign money and attack ads even if by only a few points will bolster his credentials for the White House. And it will also allow him to spend the next year preaching his gospel of reform and fiscal sanity from the bully pulpit that reelection will give him. If so, he will be a formidable candidate if he runs in 2016. But before that can happen he’s got to win next Tuesday.

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Hillary’s Fake Populism and Her Fatal Flaw

It didn’t take long for Hillary Clinton’s handlers to start walking back the putative 2016 Democratic presidential nominee’s latest whopper. While campaigning alongside Senator Elizabeth Warren — the Democrat most members of her party’s base really like — Clinton tried to play can you top this with the popular left-winger by telling her audience, “Don’t let anybody tell you that corporations and businesses create jobs.” It’s hard to imagine a more mind-boggling confession of her ignorance of basic economics. But even after her staff tried to explain it as merely opposition to certain tax breaks or “trickle down economics,” it’s hard to explain what she was thinking.

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It didn’t take long for Hillary Clinton’s handlers to start walking back the putative 2016 Democratic presidential nominee’s latest whopper. While campaigning alongside Senator Elizabeth Warren — the Democrat most members of her party’s base really like — Clinton tried to play can you top this with the popular left-winger by telling her audience, “Don’t let anybody tell you that corporations and businesses create jobs.” It’s hard to imagine a more mind-boggling confession of her ignorance of basic economics. But even after her staff tried to explain it as merely opposition to certain tax breaks or “trickle down economics,” it’s hard to explain what she was thinking.

Granted, in a week in which Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz actually said that she agreed with the idea that Republicans are more dangerous than Ebola or ISIS, it must be acknowledged that Clinton’s wacky attack on capitalism isn’t even the most outrageous thing said by a Democrat. But it nevertheless offers us a fascinating insight into her character and inherent weakness as a candidate.

Clinton understands that although Warren has wisely decided to decline to attempt to challenge her for her party’s presidential nomination, her left-wing populism makes her the darling of Democrats. Though she can’t be too worried about a gadfly like Senator Bernie Sanders providing competition in the 2016 primaries, Clinton needs the enthusiasm as well as the support of her party’s liberal core. So when placed alongside Warren, her instincts tell her to not merely echo the Massachusetts senator’s attack on the market economy but to go even further down the ideological road to a place that must surely baffle the Clinton enterprise’s big money Wall Street donors.

This is, of course, the same Hillary who likes to pretend to be the adult in the room on economic as well as foreign policy issues. But as she proved during her time as secretary of state, Clinton is a political chameleon with no core beliefs other than her own personal ambition. Just as she gladly went along with President Obama’s decision to cut and run from Iraq and ultimately from Afghanistan and stay out of Syria even though she supposedly disagreed with much of this, when placed in Warren’s orbit in front of an audience of rabid liberals, Clinton is ready to stake out a position that seems to assert that only government is responsible for job creation.

Rather than a misstatement or a gaffe or even a late life avowal of neo-socialist claptrap her nonsense about corporations not creating jobs is testimony to her inauthentic nature.

In another context, we’d just put her down as an unprincipled flip-flopper but with Clinton it is more than that. After more than 20 years in our national political life, Hillary Clinton has amassed an impressive resume and can count on her party and the mainstream media to treat her quest to be the first female president as being a national crusade deserving of slavish and unquestioned support. But even after all this time in the spotlight, she’s still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants us to think she believes. And she’s ready to say anything, whether tilting to the right or the left to fit the circumstances.

Just as important, all that time spent at the side of our country’s most gifted politician since Ronald Reagan has taught her nothing about how to speak or behave while under scrutiny. Coming after her awful book tour in which she committed gaffe after gaffe (including her memorable claim about being broke after leaving the White House that left out the fact that she had received a multi-million dollar book advance), this attack on the corporations that she hopes will donate money to her presidential bid is just the latest proof that she is a terrible candidate who isn’t improving with age and experience.

Democrats are laboring under the delusion that Clinton is a political colossus who will follow in Barack Obama’s footsteps and sweep aside any GOP opposition in another historic campaign. But this misstep is a reminder that she has never (as Obama knows all too well) beaten a tough opponent in an election and is capable of blowing elections that seem impossible to lose. Even if this doesn’t tempt Warren to try and steal the party out from under Clinton’s nose, it should encourage Republicans who may believe that changing demographics and other problems doom their party to inevitable defeat. Americans can smell a phony from a mile away and this week Hillary proved again that this is her glaring and perhaps fatal weakness.

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Jeb Can’t Win By Running Against the Base

Apparently Jeb Bush isn’t listening to his mother. Though he has yet to make anything like a definitive statement about his plans for 2016, the former governor of Florida is not only acting like a presidential candidate but members of his family are speaking as if they believe he will run. His son George P. Bush yesterday told ABC News that it’s “more than likely” that his father would run. The son and brother of former presidents has also been campaigning hard for Republican candidates and reportedly meeting with GOP fundraisers who are eager for Bush to provide them with a moderate and/or establishment alternative to the current crop of conservatives lining up to run. But though momentum is building for him to enter the race, a lot of pundits are, while extolling Bush as his party’s best hope, are wondering whether he is too “moderate” to win its presidential nomination. Are they right?

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Apparently Jeb Bush isn’t listening to his mother. Though he has yet to make anything like a definitive statement about his plans for 2016, the former governor of Florida is not only acting like a presidential candidate but members of his family are speaking as if they believe he will run. His son George P. Bush yesterday told ABC News that it’s “more than likely” that his father would run. The son and brother of former presidents has also been campaigning hard for Republican candidates and reportedly meeting with GOP fundraisers who are eager for Bush to provide them with a moderate and/or establishment alternative to the current crop of conservatives lining up to run. But though momentum is building for him to enter the race, a lot of pundits are, while extolling Bush as his party’s best hope, are wondering whether he is too “moderate” to win its presidential nomination. Are they right?

The conventional wisdom in the mainstream liberal media about the Republican Party is that it has been abducted by its right wing and has no hope of winning another presidential election until it learns to win back the hearts of women and the growing number of Hispanic voters. While much of the overheated rhetoric heard from liberals about the Tea Party is both inaccurate and unfair, there is some truth to this argument.

No political party can win by only appealing to the most extreme elements of its base. Nor can the GOP hope to prevail by deliberately snubbing those elements of the electorate that it lost badly in 2012. Bush is probably the most appealing of all the possible Republican centrists who could run and has as good, if not better, chance to appeal to the independent voters as any candidate. It should also be pointed out that in spite of the conservative cast of the party, in the last two election cycles the GOP has nominated the most moderate of the major contenders.

The primary obstacle to a Bush candidacy has also collapsed as President Obama’s disastrous second term has helped burnish the memory of his predecessor. The Bush name may still be a punch line on the left but George W. Bush’s noble demeanor after leaving office and the catastrophes in the Middle East that have unfolded on Obama’s watch have taken the sting out of the Bush legacy.

There is also a belief that Bush will stand out as a reasoned voice in a 2016 GOP field that may be dominated by more hard-line conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or a libertarian like Senator Rand Paul. In theory, that should set up Jeb for the same kind of run to the nomination that enabled John McCain to win in 2008 and Mitt Romney to play in 2012.

But there are some obvious obstacles that must be overcome before the Bush clan and their supporters starts planning their move back to the White House. Despite the rush in the media to anoint him as the Republican front-runner in a race that will start to take shape next summer, Jeb Bush cannot win the nomination, let alone the presidency, by running against his party’s base.

Let’s understand that although Bush has a well-earned reputation as a good governor and a serious thinker about policy issues, no one should assume that most Republicans are all that eager to put a Bush on their national ticket for the seventh time in the last ten presidential elections. Though Republicans have tended in the past to like familiar names, it is the Democrats who are more deferential these days to existing dynasties as the impending nomination of Hillary Clinton shows. The 2016 race looks to be the most wide-open GOP race in several decades and many in the party not only agree with Barbara Bush that the country needs some fresh names, not recycled dynasties. With Hillary Clinton as their opponent, Republicans will be better off providing a fresh alternative to an attempt to gain revenge for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 defeat at the hands of her husband.

Far more troubling for Bush is his seeming determination to win not by winning over conservatives but by flaunting his disagreements on key issues.

To note the gap between Bush’s positions on issues like immigration and the Common Core education and possible tax increases is not the same thing as agreeing with all of his critics. Bush’s instincts on immigration are correct and the GOP would do well not to heed those in the conservative camp who believe that the growth of the Hispanic population is somehow a negative thing for the country irrespective of how we change the immigration laws. Common Core is a complicated issue on which smart people differ and others would do well not to try and demonize those on either side. And even when it comes to theoretical debates about raising taxes, Bush’s refusal to give an ironclad pledge can easily be defended, as our Pete Wehner did here last week.

But Bush’s complaints about the rightward trend of the party bodes ill for his efforts to win over the same conservatives that he is going to need to win both the nomination and the general election. It should be remembered that while both McCain and Romney won the nomination contest as the leading moderates in a field populated by conservatives, they did so by seeking to bridge the gap with the right, not smacking it down as Bush sometimes seems to want to do.

The complaints from some on the right that McCain and Romney lost because they were insufficiently conservative are bunk. Both probably did as well, if not better than possible Republican opponent of Barack Obama. But they’re not wrong when they note that no GOP candidate can win without an enthusiastic base or by disdaining their concerns.

Bush’s qualifications are second to none. But the current polls that put him at the head of a field of possible candidates is based purely on name recognition. If Jeb Bush wants to be the face of the Republican Party in 2016, he must forge a new winning coalition that must include those who disagree with him. If he can’t, no matter how many leading establishment donors embrace him, there will be no third President Bush.

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Democrat Midterm Woes May Impact 2016

With just over a week left before the midterm elections, most of the battleground states that will decide control of the Senate are still in play. That is allowing Democrats to believe that just the right amount of last minute cash infusions or voter turnout efforts will allow them to hold on to a share of power on Capitol Hill. But with yet another new major poll showing that Republicans are expanding their edge on the question of who should control Congress and with polls of battleground states also showing momentum edging toward the GOP, the Democrats’ reliance on gender — their 2012 trump card — is proving to be a crucial mistake that could have an impact on the next presidential election.

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With just over a week left before the midterm elections, most of the battleground states that will decide control of the Senate are still in play. That is allowing Democrats to believe that just the right amount of last minute cash infusions or voter turnout efforts will allow them to hold on to a share of power on Capitol Hill. But with yet another new major poll showing that Republicans are expanding their edge on the question of who should control Congress and with polls of battleground states also showing momentum edging toward the GOP, the Democrats’ reliance on gender — their 2012 trump card — is proving to be a crucial mistake that could have an impact on the next presidential election.

With so many key races still remaining tight, it is still possible to argue that 2014 isn’t a wave election in the manner of past midterm landslides such as the GOP landslide in 2010 or the Democratic earthquake of 2006. But the telltale signs of disaster are clear for President Obama’s party. It’s not just that The Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg Center poll shows Republicans gaining ground in crucial Senate races or the stories reporting that Democrats have already conceded that they are going to lose even more ground in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Rather, it’s the polling that shows their reliance on the so-called gender gap was a mistake. Merely labeling Republicans as ogres waging a “war on women” not only won’t be enough to save them next week, it is also possible that the assumption that the same factors that allowed Democrats to easily win the last two presidential elections may not necessarily apply in 2016.

Democrats have consoled themselves throughout the current election cycle by pointing to the fact that the key races of 2014 are almost all being held in deep red states. Combined with the lower turnouts that are usual in midterms and the normal burden that falls on the party of the incumbent president in his second term and it was possible to argue that any outcome — even a disaster on the scale of 2010 — could be discounted. Based on the almost complete turnabout from the Republican tide of 2010 to the Obama re-election two years later, there seemed no reason to worry that defeat this year would diminish Democratic chances of repeating the same formula in 2016 that allowed them to win in 2008 and 2012.

In both those years, Barack Obama rode a tidal wave of minority voters and support from women into the White House. More than that, the war on women meme also allowed his party to hold onto Senate seats in 2012 that they had seemed certain to lose. The tactic seemed so foolproof that Democrats like Mark Udall have doubled down on the idea to the exclusion of almost everything else in his bid for re-election to his Colorado Senate seat.

But in Colorado, as elsewhere, the same drumbeat about GOP troglodytes seeking to victimize helpless females isn’t working. Part of it can be put down to Democrats facing smarter Republican candidates like Udall’s opponent Rep. Cory Gardner, who aren’t making idiotic gaffes about pregnancy and rape. But the real problem is that when faced with genuine threats to their well being such as a sluggish economy, as well as worries about whether an incompetent Obama administration is up to the challenges from Ebola and ISIS, women are refusing to fall for the Democrats exploitation. Whereas voters in 2010 were up in arms about rising taxes and debt and ObamaCare, after six years of Democratic government that is all hope and no change, they are thinking about alternatives.

If in fact they do as well as pollsters think they may next week, Republicans shouldn’t, as they did after 2010, simply assume that they could win in 2016 just by showing up. Their party is just as unpopular as the Democrats and two years in control of both Houses of Congress will give them plenty of opportunities to remind voters of what they don’t like about the GOP. But what 2014 may do is to remind the chattering classes that like time, politics doesn’t stand still. If Democrats are to win in 2016, it won’t be playing the same songs that won them the love of the voters in 2012. The war on women is failing them this year and will fail again — even with a woman on the top of the ticket — if that’s all they have to say for themselves in the next presidential year.

American voters may be seduced every now and then by a would-be messiah but sooner or later they revert to their usual requirements in leaders: competence and sobriety. Republicans flunked that test during George W. Bush’s second term just as Democrats are doing them same during Barack Obama’s swan song. Republicans failed to learn the lessons of 2006 and sought to run in 2008 on the issues that had given them victories in the past and wound up losing again in 2008. Instead of pretending that more war on women talk will solve their problems, Democrats should realize that they might be repeating that pattern.

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Do Early 2016 Polls Matter? For Democrats, Not Republicans

There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

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There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

Additionally, the polls tell us something else: Democratic voters are not interested in nominating Joe Biden. That’s significant this time if only because he’s the sitting vice president, and therefore has some claim to be next in line. It also means he has high name recognition, which is the key to leading such early polls. (Although it’s worth pointing out that if this Jimmy Kimmel man-on-the-street experiment is any indication, Biden has lower name recognition than you might otherwise think.)

Name recognition, in fact, is basically both the question and answer to deciphering such early polls. So while it’s the reason polls showing Clinton in the lead are worth paying attention to, it’s simultaneously the reason polls of the Republican side of the equation are meaningless. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll makes this point pretty clearly:

Hillary Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the potential Democratic field for president in 2016, while the GOP frontrunner in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is a familiar figure – but one not favored by eight in 10 potential Republican voters.

That would be Mitt Romney, supported for the GOP nomination by 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That’s double the support of his closest potential rival, but it also leaves 79 percent who prefer one of 13 other possible candidates tested, or none of them.

But what happens when you remove Romney’s name from contention and ask his supporters the same question? This:

When Romney is excluded from the race, his supporters scatter, adding no clarity to the GOP free-for-all. In that scenario former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have 12 or 13 percent support from leaned Republicans who are registered to vote. All others have support in the single digits.

As I wrote last month on Republicans and name recognition:

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. … If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). … Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

Now look at the new ABC/WaPo poll. There’s Huckabee, along with Jeb Bush and Rand Paul plus Romney at the top. Name recognition still roughly determines the outline of the race.

And that brings up another reason these polls aren’t much help: the actual makeup of the field when the primaries get under way. It’s doubtful Romney will run again. Huckabee is far from a sure thing to run again. Jeb Bush is probably more likely than not to pass as well, considering the fact that Christie still appears to be running and so does Bush’s fellow Floridian Marco Rubio.

Yet according to the ABC/WaPo poll, the top three vote getters on the GOP side are … Romney, Bush, and Huckabee. The pollsters took Romney out of the lineup to get a better sense of where Romney’s support was coming from (leaving Bush and Huckabee still in the top three), but they might have done better taking all three out of an additional question and seeing where the field would be without them. Rand Paul is the top voter-getter among those who either haven’t previously run for president or whose last name isn’t Bush.

After that, it gets more interesting–but not by much. Paul Ryan is a popular choice, but that’s name recognition as well since he ran on the 2012 national ticket. He also doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about a run for president. If he doesn’t run, that means there’s a good chance three of the top four vote getters in the Romney-free version of the poll aren’t running, leaving Romney’s supporters without any of their favored candidates except Rand Paul.

Here’s another such poll, this one of Iowa voters from last week. The top two choices are Romney and Ben Carson, followed by Paul, Huckabee, and Ryan. Perhaps Romney really is running and Carson is a strong sleeper pick. But I doubt it on both counts. I also doubt Romney would win Iowa even if he ran, no matter what the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll says.

This is an indication of how wide-open the race is on the GOP side. But not much else. And the polls should be treated that way.

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America’s Anxious Mood and What it Means for Republicans

Every political and presidential election takes place within a context and environment. And while it’s impossible to know what things will look like two Novembers from now, the overall mood of the nation then is bound to have some similarities to the mood of the nation now.

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Every political and presidential election takes place within a context and environment. And while it’s impossible to know what things will look like two Novembers from now, the overall mood of the nation then is bound to have some similarities to the mood of the nation now.

So what is the mood at this moment? The predominant feeling of Americans, according to polling data, is deeply unsettled and anxious, the product in large part of the multiplying failures of the Obama administration.

Think of the list from just the last year, from the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov to the VA scandal, the flood of immigrants (many of them children) crossing the southern border, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, Islamist advances in Libya, the colossal misjudgment about ISIS and the half-hearted air campaign the president is waging against it, and now the string of mistakes by the CDC in dealing with the Ebola virus.

Beyond this is the sluggishness of the economy, which has lasted the entire Obama presidency. Despite some encouraging recent jobs reports, overall the situation remains quite problematic: a drop in median household income even after the recession officially ended, the unusually low workforce participation rate (the lowest in 36 years), the broader failures of the Affordable Care Act, the rise in income inequality (nearing its highest levels of the last 100 years) and poverty (the poverty rate has stood at 15 percent for three consecutive years, the first time that has happened since the mid-1960s), the record number of people on food stamps and the fact that this year China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy, the first time America has been in second place since 1872. It’s little wonder, then, that only around a quarter of Americans believe the country is on the right track.

In addition to all this, there are longer-term trends, such as middle-class Americans working longer hours than they did since 1979 while median net worth is lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1989. Trust in government is at all-time lows. Disdain for the political class (especially Congress and the media) is sky-high. Americans are less trusting of our public institutions and of one another. More and more of us are living in “ideological silos”. Two-thirds of Americans think it is harder to reach the American Dream today than it was for their parents, and three quarters believe it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to succeed. Americans are pessimistic, feeling unusually vulnerable and polarized. (Political polarization is “the defining feature of early 21st century American politics,” according to the Pew Research Center.)

Given all of this, and assuming that in two years the political environment and psychological state of Americans is roughly what it is now, it’s interesting to contemplate some of the qualities they may be looking for in a GOP nominee.

My guess: A conservative who radiates competence, steadiness, and reassurance; who is perceived as principled, reform-minded, and reality-based; and who’s comfortably associated with a middle-class governing agenda. “Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some,” is how former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels put it in 2011, and his critique still holds. This can be done while also focusing needed attention on those living in the shadows of society.

In the aftermath of the Obama era, Americans will be a good deal more skeptical of empty, extravagant rhetoric. The public can also do without political figures comparing themselves to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Jesus (all of whom Obama or his closest aides have compared Mr. Obama to). A modesty about what government can accomplish would be most welcomed; so would distrust of those who cling to ideology even when facts argue the contrary.

Voters are likely to trust individuals who have demonstrated a mastery of governing and can identify with, and have something to say about, the challenges facing many Americans. (One example is soaring higher education costs, a subject very few Republicans talk about and even fewer Republicans have solutions for.) The Republican Party’s standard-bearer certainly needs to be perceived as modern, future-oriented, and understanding the ways the world is changing.

A GOP nominee will also have to speak more to people’s aspirations than to their fears. A campaign that could be symbolized by an angry, clenched fist won’t work. Demonstrating touches of grace and winsomeness probably will. And because Republicans are on a long-term losing streak at the presidential level, including having lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, they’ll need to find someone who is able to do more than rally the faithful. They’ll have to win over a significant number of people who are not now voting Republican but are persuadable. Which means Republicans might want to look to someone characterized by intellectual depth and calm purpose rather than stridency. In a recent speech, Tony Blair said, “In the end parties can please themselves or please the people.” He contrasted those who have the character of a governing party with those who seem like the shriekers at the gates outside. That’s a distinction worth bearing in mind.

To be sure, no single individual will embody all these qualities, and someone may well come along who personifies other characteristics in a way that is highly appealing. In addition, of course, politics is never static. But my guess is that given the mood and attitudes of Americans right now, some combination of the traits I’ve sketched out will be needed if Republicans hope to win.

While I fully expect Republicans to do quite well in the mid-term elections 15 days from now, it’s worth recalling that Republicans did historically well in 2010 (adding 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate) yet lost the presidency and House and Senate seats in 2012. And like it or not, we’re in a period when the Republican Party’s image has reached a historic low; when a majority of Americans said last year that the GOP is out of touch (62 percent), not open to change (56 percent), and too extreme (52 percent); and when, at the presidential level at least, the GOP faces an uphill climb.

President Obama’s cascading failures will make things easier for Republicans in 2016, but it still won’t be easy.

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Marylanders to the Rest of the Country: Beware Martin O’Malley

What does Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley have in common with self-described socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders? The same percentage of Maryland Democrats want them to be the next Democratic presidential nominee. That would be 3 percent. It’s just one of the many data points to come out of the latest Washington Post/University of Maryland poll to support H.L. Mencken’s contention that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

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What does Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley have in common with self-described socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders? The same percentage of Maryland Democrats want them to be the next Democratic presidential nominee. That would be 3 percent. It’s just one of the many data points to come out of the latest Washington Post/University of Maryland poll to support H.L. Mencken’s contention that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Although, in the interest of basic compassion, it might be unkind to claim Maryland residents–or anyone, really–deserve to get two terms of Martin O’Malley.

And, to their immense credit, Marylanders don’t want the rest of the country to bring Martin O’Malley upon themselves. The message from Marylanders to the nation at large is: Don’t let our years governed by O’Malley be in vain; let something good come out of all of this. And that something good appears to be a national future unencumbered by Martin O’Malley as the nation’s chief executive.

But there are worse numbers in the poll for O’Malley than Democratic voters’ resounding declaration that they don’t want him representing their party in the next presidential election. That at least can be spun away. After all, if Democrats are asked to pick one politician to be their next presidential nominee, it’s no surprise that so many–63 percent–chose Hillary Clinton. (Although it is somewhat humorous that “Other/no opinion” polls nearly five times as well as O’Malley. They say you can’t beat something with nothing, and O’Malley appears to be the exception that proves the rule.)

No, the most unflattering portion of the poll is probably when registered voters are asked “Do you think Martin O’Malley would make a good president, or not?” The response: 14 percent said yes; 70 percent said no. The poll contrasts that with the result when the same question was asked in October 2012. At that time, the numbers were only slightly better–22 percent said yes; 62 percent said no–but still so far underwater as to be invisible from the surface.

There are more bad numbers–really, the whole poll is just an opportunity for Marylanders to unload on their horrendous governor. As the Post reported in an accompanying story, his “job-approval rating has fallen to an eight-year low of 41 percent, with his biggest defections coming from fellow Democrats.” What happened? The Post offers some suggestions:

Although O’Malley is not on the ballot this year, his policies in Maryland — particularly a string of tax increases during his tenure — have come under heavy fire from other candidates. Months of attacks, including some from fellow Democrats, appear to have taken their toll, some analysts say.

Other observers suggest that the time O’Malley has spent crisscrossing the country, seeking to gain national exposure, has alienated some constituents in Maryland.

Plausible. But it might be worth delving a bit more into his policies. The lesson might not be one national Democrats want to learn:

His legacy will include legalization of same-sex marriage, a sweeping gun-control bill, repeal of the death penalty, several measures expanding immigrant rights and an increase in the minimum wage. He has also overseen multiple tax hikes during his tenure, including increases in personal income taxes paid by high earners, the corporate income tax, sales tax, gas tax, tobacco tax and alcohol tax.

All politics is local (though not as local as it ought to be), so I doubt it’ll worry Democrats too much. Some of this might be personal; O’Malley is, after all, deeply unlikeable. But his agenda is also very liberal in a pretty liberal state, and voters don’t seem to love the results. It’s a common feature in American politics: there’s only so much liberalism even liberals can take.

And part of that could be the impression of the stereotype come to life. Reread that list of O’Malley tax increases, and you not only understand the O’Taxey nickname but get the sense the governor is to taxes what Bubba Blue is to shrimp.

Democrats may counter all this by pointing out that O’Malley is terrible at his job, and Democrats who aren’t terrible at their jobs will not suffer the same poll numbers. That’s true. But an element of O’Malley being terrible at his job is that, when it comes to issues like taxes, he cranks his liberalism up to eleven.

The other phenomenon here is just how “Ready for Hillary” national Democrats are. They don’t want a divisive nomination fight, and they don’t want a battle over ideas, in part because they want to nominate Hillary instead of a candidate who has ideas. So they’re not much interested in even having this conversation. And you almost can’t blame them: O’Taxey, a Vermont socialist, Joe Biden–the alternatives to Hillary aren’t exactly a sparkling A-team of Democratic leaders.

And that’s what might actually concern Democratic Party leaders more than O’Malley’s unpopularity: the prospect that there is no A-team. There’s just Clinton. They may get the nominee they want, but as far as Democrats see it, that’s not because she’s their best choice as much as that she’s their only choice.

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Dems Prepare for World Without Obama

After two presidential election victories that were won largely on the force of his personality and the historic nature of his candidacies, Barack Obama’s political stock is low and getting lower. But while the sidelining of the president in this year’s midterm elections is depressing for his many and adoring media cheerleaders, it is an important dry run for his party. Though much of the attention in the midterms is on the Democrats efforts to retain control of the Senate, they’re also attempting to do something else: prepare for a political world without Obama. Their success this year or lack thereof may go a long way toward answering the question as to whether Obama’s past victories truly transformed American politics or were just a passing phase.

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After two presidential election victories that were won largely on the force of his personality and the historic nature of his candidacies, Barack Obama’s political stock is low and getting lower. But while the sidelining of the president in this year’s midterm elections is depressing for his many and adoring media cheerleaders, it is an important dry run for his party. Though much of the attention in the midterms is on the Democrats efforts to retain control of the Senate, they’re also attempting to do something else: prepare for a political world without Obama. Their success this year or lack thereof may go a long way toward answering the question as to whether Obama’s past victories truly transformed American politics or were just a passing phase.

Heeding the call of his immense ego rather than the advice of his party’s political consultants, last week President Obama attempted to inject himself into this year’s midterm elections. But the unpopular president’s declaration that his policies, if not his name, was on the ballot in November was remarkable mainly for the fact that it was treated as a major political gaffe rather than as an inspiring call to arms for Democratic activists. This turn of events is a comedown for a man who entered the White House like a messiah but will spend his last years there as a lame duck. But, as the New York Times reports today, the real story here is whether the Obama coalition of young people, unmarried women, minorities, and educated elites that elected him twice is a foundation for his party’s future or something that stopped being relevant after 2012.

The president’s supporters believe he can still play a role in mobilizing key Democratic constituencies. In deep-blue states like Illinois, New York, and California that might be true. But as the president’s poll numbers head south, the idea that the magic of his personality can create a governing majority is no longer viable. With Democratic candidates in battleground states avoiding the unpopular chief executive like the plague, it is increasingly clear that his party is on its own.

It should be remembered that in the wake of the 2008 and 2012 elections, we were treated to a round of Democratic triumphalism about Obama having changed American politics in a way that gave his party what amounted to a permanent majority for the foreseeable future. That in turn generated a companion wave of Republican pessimism about their inability to win in a changing demographic environment in which minority voters would ensure GOP losses in national elections.

But like all such predictions (remember how George W. Bush’s victory in 2004 was thought to herald a permanent GOP majority?), these analyses failed to take into account that issues, candidates, and circumstances make each election a unique event. The Democrats’ victories were impressive and influenced heavily by the fact that the electorate is less white than it was only a decade ago. But if you take the Obama factor out of the equation, the notion of a permanent hope-and-change coalition seems more like science fiction than political science.

As the Times notes, the president isn’t only less popular among groups that are less inclined to support him but also among those that were crucial to the Democrats’ recent victories like young people and women. While no one thought that Obama would be anything but a liability to Democrats in red states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, or Georgia, he’s also being politely asked to keep out of swing states like North Carolina and even light blue states like Michigan. All of which means that this midterm is shaping up as a preview of 2016 when Democrats will try to win a national election without the old Obama magic helping them.

One Democratic answer centers on their past and their likely 2016 nominee: the Clintons. Hillary Clinton will have her own coalition to build and can certainly count on enthusiasm for what may be our first major-party female candidate for president. But as much as Democrats in states like Arkansas are happy to welcome her husband in to help bolster their tickets, it may be too much to ask even of Bill Clinton to expect him to save incumbents like Mark Prior.

Without the Obama personality cult boosting Democratic turnout, they will have to fall back on their technological edge in turnout and organization. Yet in the end each election is decided more on the names on the ballots than anything else. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats’ shaky incumbents and weak bench is strong enough to build on what Obama accomplished. But those who are counting on the same sort of enthusiasm fueling future Democratic campaigns need to explain who, in the absence of a charismatic leader, can give a reason for voters to heed the social networking appeals and other strategies that have worked so well for them in the recent past.

A world without Obama is terra incognita for a Democratic Party that must prove it can win a victory without the aid of a boogeyman like George W. Bush or a hope-and-change messiah. Moreover, eight years of a largely failed presidency has altered the political landscape just as much as the changing demographics. Next month we will get the first indication whether Democrats are equipped to deal with that dilemma. If the polls that currently give the GOP an edge are any indication, they might not like the answer.

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Bobby Jindal: One Wonk to Rule Them All?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Jindal is obviously smart, experienced, and fluent in policy. He’s also taken on the kind of “happy warrior” persona Republicans should embrace: outrage is not the same thing as anger. And seems to understand the importance of perceived authenticity, so he’s dropped the faux-folksiness he once wore on his sleeve and appears more comfortable in his own skin. But for the revenge of the nerds to be successful, Jindal is going to have to overcome the key challenge posed by how Republicans and Democrats see American electoral politics today.

On the Republican side, few if any doubt Jindal’s obvious intelligence and undeniable competence. But in a wide-open race for the nomination, it will be crucial for each candidate to have their own base within the conservative movement. In this respect, Jindal’s identity as a jack of all trades is less beneficial than it first appears.

Jindal’s defense plan is hawkish, but Marco Rubio long beat him to the punch in terms of establishing his political identity as a learned advocate for a robust American presence in the world. If the party’s hawks are to latch onto any prospective candidate, Rubio is likely to be the one. Most of the party’s potential nominees are hawkish and even Rand Paul has embraced the plain fact that President Obama’s unthinking retrenchment has been a disaster. (So have the president’s Cabinet secretaries; no one wants to take any credit for Obama’s colossal mishandling of world affairs.)

The same is generally true of the other major streams of American conservatism, as I’ve written in the past. But Jindal’s official identification as a hawk does not change the calculus.

The other challenge for Jindal here is how the two parties have reacted to the failure of the Obama presidency. When Obama was a candidate, he was built up by the media and his supporters (but I repeat myself) as a very smart, nuanced thinker. When that turned out not to be true, and when it became clear he also didn’t have the intellectual curiosity necessary to remedy his broad lack of knowledge, the right and the left each reacted differently.

Conservatives responded by turning forcefully against the pretensions of the academic elite. Rule by experts was always under suspicion because of the folly of treating people as science experiments and the repellant culture of eugenics so many of the policies seek to legitimize. But with Obama it became perfectly clear that the experts weren’t actually experts. Liberals just pretended to know what they were talking about, and hid behind credentialism when questioned.

Who is better positioned to take advantage of the discovery that the professor has no clothes, someone like Jindal or someone like, say, Scott Walker, the successful reformist governor without even a college degree? To conservatives, the answer seems clear. They will almost surely end up nominating someone more knowledgeable than the current president, just because the bar is so low. But they would take special pleasure in nominating precisely the kind of politician who would be looked down upon by the Democrats but who would nonetheless run circles around their Democratic opponent intellectually.

Liberals responded to Obama’s failure in a different way: by reverting to the mean of left-liberal politics. Democratic Party politics is traditionally a method of organizing a coalition of interested parties in such a way as to reward them for their support. There is not much of a coherent ideological component outside of the extremely ideological character of the party’s positions on social and cultural issues. Ben Domenech touched on this in last month’s COMMENTARY by noting that:

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax.

Political science has begun to catch up with this reality as well. In a recent paper, Matt Grossman and his coauthor David A. Hopkins studied the way Democrats and Republicans each seek to govern, and explain that Republicans tend to govern according to ideological principles while Democrats govern by rewarding constituencies. They write:

The partisan asymmetry in the governing style of political elites has its roots in the mass public. Party identifiers in the electorate perceive political choices differently: Republicans are more likely to reason ideologically whereas Democrats are more likely to think of politics as a competition among groups over benefits. This difference is durable over time.

The authors add that “Republican politicians and interest groups thus represent both their partisan base and a wider public majority when they think, speak, and act ideologically, advocating restrictions on government activity in a broad sense. By contrast, Democratic politicians and affiliated interests prefer to stress their advocacy of particular policies that have wider public support and that offer targeted benefits to members of their electoral coalition, placing themselves on the side of social groups favoring government action to ameliorate perceived disadvantages.”

That also helps explain the proliferation of put-upon groups in the constellation of liberal identity politics. If Democrats need more votes, they stoke resentment and create a new category for taxpayer-funded benefits. Their response to the revelation that their experts can’t be trusted, in other words, was to go back to inviting enough voters to raid the treasury to win national elections.

What does that mean for Jindal and the wonks? It means an uphill battle. Republicans believe they nominated a competent managerial technocrat last time around–and lost decisively. And Democrats aren’t particularly interested in intellectual prowess–they simply want to divide and conquer the electorate. Jindal is obviously qualified to be the nation’s chief executive. But it’s lonely out there for a wonk.

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Is Rubio Not Ready or Just Willing to Think?

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

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South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

The possibility of a Rubio candidacy came up in this context because if the Republican Party were really turning back to its roots as a bulwark of support for national security and away from the isolationist wing led by Senator Rand Paul, then Rubio would appear to be one of the obvious choices as leader. While Graham and his pal Senator John McCain have been the loudest voices on behalf of interventionist policies, no one in the Senate has been as eloquent on the need for a coherent and strong U.S. foreign policy than Rubio.

But while McCain praised Rubio Graham gave his younger colleague the back of his hand in his conversation with Hayes:

I asked Graham about Rubio. Hasn’t he been making many of the arguments you’d be likely to make? Graham wasn’t impressed. “He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him—we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” said Graham. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”

Graham’s problem with Rubio stems from the fact that after joining the bipartisan group backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, Rubio eventually backed away from the legislation once it stalled in the House. While McCain, Graham and the other members of the bipartisan gang of eight that championed the reform package have stuck to their plan, Rubio now says that conservatives who demanded that the border security portion of the bill be done first before any changes in the immigration system — especially the effort to legalize illegal immigrants and/or grant them a path to citizenship — should be implemented.

For Graham, who is being pushed to think about running for president by his friend McCain, this shift by Rubio shows he doesn’t have the right stuff.

Graham is right to note that Rubio hasn’t always looked like a future president in the past two years. While, as McCain notes, his record on foreign policy has been “very impressive,” there have been moments when he looked uncertain and a bit too interested in tagging along with Republican elements who don’t share his views. The beating he took from the party’s hardliners on immigration did take a toll. But Graham is wrong to castigate Rubio for rethinking his stand on the reform bill. If anything, his willingness to react to events and draw conclusions from them rather than doggedly stick to an ideological position that had been mistaken is a sign of maturity, not inexperience.

The surge of illegals over the border in Texas this year showed that rather than fixing the immigration system, the talk of granting illegals a path to citizenship without first securing the border had created a new incentive for people to cross the border. Moreover President Obama’s threats, renewed last night, to act unilaterally to trash the rule of law and legalize illegals shows that this administration can’t be trusted to enforce any immigration law passed by Congress.

By adjusting his position, Rubio opened himself up to charges of being a flip-flopper and abandoning his positions in order to curry favor with conservatives. But in doing so, he also demonstrated an ability to address difficult issues soberly and in a manner that enables him to make decisions based on reality rather than an ideological position. That’s pretty much the opposite of the pattern demonstrated by Barack Obama, that Graham rightly disdains.

Graham’s chances of winning the Republican nomination are virtually non-existent. While he’s part of the GOP mainstream on foreign policy, no one who has spent so much time offending the party’s base is going to be its standard bearer in 2016. By contrast, though Rubio made a lot of enemies because of his immigration stand, as a former Tea Party insurgent, he has a lot better chance of reconciling with the conservative base than Graham.

But what’s really interesting about this discussion is that while earlier in the year it looked as if the GOP presidential field would not have any strong entries that championed a strong foreign policy, now the roster of potential candidates representing that point of view seems to be getting crowded. Potential symbolic candidacies like those of Rep. Peter King and former UN Ambassador John Bolton may be joined by Rubio and Graham as well as Senator Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, both of whom also share many of the views espoused by McCain and other GOP hawks.

Graham’s carping about Rubio notwithstanding, the real news here is that as the isolationist moment in American politics ends, the GOP’s natural leaders on foreign policy are reasserting themselves.

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Santorum and the Myths About 2012

If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

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If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

Almost everyone outside of his inner circle thought Santorum’s candidacy was pure folly heading into the 2012 cycle. But a combination of hard work beating the bushes in Iowa and the fact that he was the one true social conservative in the race enabled Santorum to emerge as the chief challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney. Though Romney’s ultimate victory was never in doubt, Santorum won a dozen primaries and caucuses and earned the right to call himself the second-place finisher. Though politics isn’t horseshoes, coming close did help Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Romney get the nomination the next time out after similar failures.

But this “rule” about runners up won’t apply this time. Unfortunately for Santorum, politics isn’t a quilt pattern. The prospective Republican field is very difference than it was four years ago, and that will dictate very different results.

First of all, there is no true front-runner as there usually is for GOP races. Indeed, the closest thing to a leading candidate once New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was laid low by Bridgegate is Senator Rand Paul. But renewed fears about terrorism mean that Paul is going to have a hard time expanding his appeal significantly beyond his libertarian base. No one, including Santorum, will be able to head into the first contests playing off the base’s resentment of the eventual candidate since no one will be in that role.

Second, though Republicans will have their share of outliers like Dr. Ben Carson, the lineup in their debates could include some genuine heavy hitters. A roster that could include the likes of Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, Christie, Rick Perry (back for his own second go at the presidency), Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and maybe even Paul Ryan or Jeb Bush will leave less room for a dark horse like Santorum to squeeze through to the front of the pack.

Santorum does have on thing that his potential rivals don’t possess: The ability to play to working-class voters. Santorum was right when he criticized the 2012 Republican National Convention for its emphasis on small business owners with its attempt to counter President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe to the exclusion of those who work for them. But though Santorum brings plenty of substance to the table on economics, social issues, and foreign policy (raising the alarm about the Iranian nuclear threat was a key issue for him during his disastrous 2006 race for reelection to his Pennsylvania Senate seat), it’s far from clear the formula that worked for a time for him last time will do the trick against opponents who don’t fit as neatly into the establishment category as Romney or even New Gingrich did in 2012.

But the discussion of Santorum’s potential candidacy should also cause Republicans to rethink some other myths about their last go round.

One is the idea that Santorum’s challenge was somehow to blame for Romney’s defeat in November.

It is true that it would have been easier on Romney and saved him a great deal of money that he could have employed against Obama had Santorum quit in February rather than pushing on for another couple of months. But it should be recalled that although John McCain’s chief opponents (the most prominent of which was Romney himself) did him that favor in 2008, it didn’t help him win the general election. The same could be said of the 2012 GOP nominee. Even if his grass-roots critics had shut up about his shortcomings sooner and given him an easy glide to the nomination, he was never going to beat Obama. Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate and the enduring, if puzzling, popularity of Barack Obama beat him, not Santorum.

The other prominent 2012 myth among Republicans is the idea that the nomination of a relative moderate depressed the base so much that millions of conservatives stayed home in November ensuring a Democratic victory. That’s a theme that will be sounded by conservatives in the 2016 primaries but there’s little proof that “silent majorities” of right-wingers stayed home in the fall. But unless the GOP establishment coalesces behind a resurgent but still damaged Christie or Jeb Bush decides to run or, as some hope, Romney tries again, there will be little for the base to complain about in a race that will largely be a competition between conservatives.

Santorum’s 2012 achievements should mean that his ambitions deserve more respect from pundits than he’s currently getting. But he is, if anything, an even bigger underdog today than he was four years ago. The bottom line is that in politics there are no real precedents. Nor will rules seeking to end the race earlier than it did last time necessarily work or help the nominee win in November. The coming free-for-all will be played by a different cast and produce different results with the one exception being that it is unlikely to end in a Santorum triumph.

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Who Will Show Leadership on Iran?

One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

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One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

Shutting down the debate about Iran is one of President Obama’s few political triumphs during his second term. Though the president pledged to shut down Iran’s nuclear program during his campaigne for reelection, his main focus after his victory was on appeasing Tehran and enticing the Islamist regime to sign an interim nuclear deal that undermined economic sanctions while doing nothing to end the threat. Having squandered immense political, economic, and military leverage over Iran in order to secure that agreement, he then branded critics of this travesty as warmongers. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he was able to squelch efforts to increase sanctions on Iran if negotiations failed despite the support of majorities in the both Houses of Congress for a measure that would have strengthened his hand in talks with the ayatollahs.

Since the collapse of that effort, the issue has remained largely dormant in the U.S. as diplomacy with Iran has remained largely under the radar. And while conservatives can generally be counted on to attack virtually any Obama initiative, let alone one as misguided as his attempt at engagement with Iran, many on the right have been far more interested in following Senator Rand Paul’s lead in criticizing the president’s misuse of executive authority rather than sounding the alarms about Iran. Even if, in the wake of the new concerns about the rise of the ISIS terrorist movement, it appears that the isolationist moment in American politics may be fading, the president is probably right if he thinks he still has plenty of room to maneuver in negotiating a new Iran deal that may be even more dangerous than last year’s accord.

Given the leaks about possible compromises—including the absurd one last week about an American proposal that Iran disconnect the pipes that link the centrifuges that enrich the uranium used for nuclear fuel—there is little doubt about the administration’s zeal for a deal. In response, Iran has stiffened its demands to the point where it is clear that any accord will leave their nuclear infrastructure in place and quickly eviscerate sanctions while making it impossible to re-impose them even if it quickly became clear that Tehran wasn’t keeping its promises.

But in the absence of serious debate about the issue or the willingness of GOP leaders to draw a line in the sand on the nuclear issue, it is possible to envisage a repeat of last year’s fiasco in which critics of Iran appeasement were routed by the administration.

That is why Senator Ted Cruz’s decision to stake out an extremely tough position on Iran is such an intriguing development.

Cruz has critics, including COMMENTARY bloggers, who rightly point out that his success in buffaloing congressional Republican leaders into supporting the confrontation that led to last year’s government shutdown was a huge mistake. So, too, is his continued unwillingness to concede that it was an error. But like it or not, the Texan has become an extremely influential figure in the GOP who is clearly interested in running for president in 2016. While Cruz goes into the next election cycle as a huge underdog who is probably not a viable Republican option to defeat Hillary Clinton, what is most interesting about his effort is the fact that this Tea Party hero seems to think foreign policy is where he can best differentiate himself from other conservatives or a libertarian like Rand Paul.

Where last year he rushed to the Senate floor to second Rand Paul’s dubious but wildly popular filibuster about the administration’s use of drones, in recent months he has been throwing down the gauntlet to the Kentucky senator. Though he claims he should not be confused with an all-out interventionist like John McCain, Cruz’s op-ed in Politico Magazine published yesterday seemed to indicate he is prepared to use opposition to the Obama drive for détente with Iran as a rallying point for his presidential hopes.

Cynics will say this is just about Cruz seeking an edge for 2016 and, as with his courageous stand against anti-Semitic critics of Israel among those protesting persecution of Christians in the Middle East, dismiss his statements as politics as usual rather than principle.

But at a time when the administration appears to be operating with a free hand on Iran, this is no time to questioning the bona fides of anyone on the national stage that is willing to prioritize this issue. Cruz’s insistence that justified concerns about ISIS should not allow the West to give Iran a pass on both its use of terrorism and its nuclear ambitions is exactly what we should be hearing from Republicans on Obama. But, for the most part, this point and others he made about Iran’s egregious human rights record haven’t been said loudly or often enough.

Even if we were willing to accept the premise that Cruz is doing this for political reasons—and his record on both Israel and Iran suggests that his foreign-policy views have been both consistent and sincere—that doesn’t change the fact that his effort to change the conversation about the issue is timely and much needed. If he steals a march on Paul or other 2016 contenders by pushing Republicans to speak up on Iran the way he did about the shutdown, then so much the better for him, his party, and the country.

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Will Bridgegate Vindication Revive Christie’s 2016 Hopes?

The leak of the news that the Justice Department probe in to Bridgegate has found that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had no role in the scandal is very good news for those who want him to run for president in 2016. But even if this is truly the end of efforts to lay responsibility for that mess on the governor—and there is no guarantee that this is so given Justice’s refusal to formally announce their findings in the investigation—nothing said now can take us back to the moment at the end of 2013 when Christie seemed to have a leg up for the Republican nomination.

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The leak of the news that the Justice Department probe in to Bridgegate has found that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had no role in the scandal is very good news for those who want him to run for president in 2016. But even if this is truly the end of efforts to lay responsibility for that mess on the governor—and there is no guarantee that this is so given Justice’s refusal to formally announce their findings in the investigation—nothing said now can take us back to the moment at the end of 2013 when Christie seemed to have a leg up for the Republican nomination.

As I wrote earlier today, the fact that we had to learn about this crucial piece of information from a leak raises serious questions about whether the Justice Department is slow-walking the investigation in order to damage the GOP star or if it is seeking to gin up an indictment of someone in his administration on some wholly unrelated charge. But even if they publicly vindicate him sometime soon or had done so months ago, Bridgegate forever altered his image. That can’t be undone. And given that Christie was always going to have trouble with major elements of the GOP base, any optimism about 2016 in his camp ought to be tempered with the realization that it will be, at best, a hard slog that will have to depend on a lot of good luck for him to win.

As frustrating as this may be for Christie, that moment in history when he was the darling of the Republican establishment as well as of much of the mainstream media was over the moment the story about his staff orchestrating days of traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge broke. For a few weeks, Bridgegate became the No. 1 news story and gave the liberal media a golden opportunity to destroy the governor’s carefully crafted image of a blunt, truth-telling, can-do politician. They made the most of it with coverage that dwarfed the attention given to Obama administration scandals concerning the Veterans Administration, the IRS, Benghazi, as well as Justice Department spying on the press. As Seth wrote earlier today, it gave Republicans a clear idea of the obstacles they face going forward toward 2016 when the Democrats’ press allies can play a crucial role in undermining their candidates while essentially defending both President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But there is more to the question of Christie’s 2016 viability than media bias or what is motivating the delay of the announcement of the federal probers’ findings. Christie’s problem is, in a way, much more serious than the one Texas Governor Rick Perry faces over his indictment on a bizarre charge involving the use of his veto power. Perry’s predicament is legal but not political because everyone, including the denizens of the far left who continue to try to justify the indictment, knows it is a phony, politically inspired charge. If it is allowed by the courts to proceed it will be a huge distraction and an obstacle to his presidential hopes. But no one thinks it says anything about his character or qualifications for the presidency.

By contrast, the really damaging aspect of Bridgegate was not the false charges laid at his feet but the distinct impression that the affair reflected something unpleasant about the character of his administration that even his defenders couldn’t credibly deny. Christie, after all, rose to national prominence with performances (captured on YouTube) where he rode roughshod over opponents and even citizens with the temerity to question his views or decisions. The attractive side of all this straight talking was that he came across as the opposite of a political phony. But when looked at another way, he could also be seen as a bully who brooked no opposition and was always focused on crushing and humiliating his opponents.

Thus while he was riding high nine months ago after a uniquely successful first term in office during which he had defied the unions and then won a landslide reelection as a moderate conservative Republican in an extremely blue state, the seeds of future problems had already been sowed. It was never clear whether his abrasive character would play as well on the national stage as it did in New Jersey. Nor was there any way of knowing whether this remarkably thin-skinned politician could hold up under the scrutiny the national press gives presidential candidates in the heat of the campaign.

But Bridgegate short-circuited that inevitable vetting process and illustrated exactly what Christie’s detractors and even some friends had always known would be his weakness. Though the governor had nothing to do with an insane and profoundly stupid plot by some on his staff to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey for not endorsing Christie, it was not a reach to claim that this sort of behavior reflected the dark side of a very hardnosed and unforgiving politician. It might have taken months on the campaign trail for some gaffe by the governor to raise these issues or it might never have happened. But now that it has, there’s no going back.

It is true that the public has the attention span of a toddler and that we have no idea what issues will be at the top of the national agenda when the nomination fight begins in earnest. The unfair treatment of Christie will also endear him to Republican primary voters who despise the media in much the same way that Perry’s troubles at the hands of his liberal tormentors have made him a hero to many on the right.

But Christie can’t wish away the damage that has already been done to him. Moreover, the problem with his candidacy is that even before Bridgegate, the notion that he had a straight path to the nomination was already a myth. Christie is, by New Jersey standards, a conservative Republican. But he forfeited the affection of many on the right when he embraced President Obama in the last days of the 2012 presidential campaign after Hurricane Sandy hit his state. Despite his pro-life views and attempt to edge further to the right, such as his refusal to involve New Jersey in a regional cap-and-trade emissions program, he was never going to be able to compete for the votes of evangelicals or Tea Partiers in the primaries. His hopes for the nomination rested on a plan that would repeat Mitt Romney’s trick in hanging around and letting all his more conservative opponents knock each other off. It might have worked, but Christie will be facing a much stronger field than Romney. And now that the glow is off his image after Bridgegate that scenario, while not impossible, is more unlikely than could have been imagined a year ago.

The end of Bridgegate, if that is what has happened, will help Christie, whose interest in the presidency never flagged even at the height of the scandal. But if he was a frontrunner nine months ago, today he must considered as, at best, a very long shot to win the nomination.

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Will ISIS Votes Haunt 2016 Contenders?

The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

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The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

That’s the quandary for Senator Marco Rubio, who stands second to none in the Senate as a critic of the president’s foreign policy. Rubio has rightly denounced the president’s failures in the Middle East and, in particular, his abandonment of Iraq and dithering on Syria that allowed ISIS to become a dominant force in both countries on Obama’s watch. Like other conservatives as well as a not insignificant number of liberal senators, he’s also rightly worried that the president’s plans for this conflict are woefully inadequate to the situation. More than that, along with many Republicans, he believes the president is wrong not to seek an explicit authorization from Congress to fight ISIS rather than to merely pretend, as the administration wrongly contends, that the 2001 vote granting President Bush the right to use troops against al-Qaeda also applies to the rival, and now more powerful, group.

But Rubio has indicated that he will vote yes for the authorization on Syria. The question now is whether this will haunt him or anyone else planning on running for higher office or reelection.

Rand Paul seemed to be saying as much when he said yesterday that members of Congress were petrified by a possible vote to authorize force. Senator Ted Cruz, whose views on foreign policy are a lot closer to those of Rubio than they are to Paul, seems to agree. Cruz said he would oppose arming the Syrian rebels because the administration doesn’t really have a clue as to which groups opposing the regime of Bashar Assad are “good guys” and which are “bad.”

It’s difficult to argue too strenuously with those qualms. The president’s adamant refusal to act on the growing catastrophe in Syria not only enabled ISIS to fill the void but also undermined the chances that genuine moderates might be able to replace the despotic Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Moreover, there are, as the New York Times noted today, ominous precedents for senators who swallow hard and vote to authorize the use of force but later have that decision thrown in their face by primary opponents. Hillary Clinton, who voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while in the Senate, found herself outflanked on the left by Barack Obama in 2008. The question facing Rubio and the rest of the Senate is one that juxtaposes the certainty that voting for an expanded conflict will be viewed by many voters as a mistake against the certainty that the failure to act will allow ISIS to prevail in the fighting.

As I noted yesterday, as the U.S. prepares to step up the fight against ISIS, the country’s main problem is not the lack of a strategy but the seeming inability of the president to play the part of a wartime leader. Supporting operations in the Middle East under such circumstances is a perilous undertaking. So, too, is any effort to finally aid those Syrian forces that are not linked to Islamists or Assad and the Iranians.

But Rubio is right to worry more about the danger of inaction than any possible political repercussions. Were the U.S. to stand aside in Syria, especially with the president foolishly taking the threat of a direct intervention on the ground off the table, the consequences would be grave. If, as most Americans rightly now understand, ISIS is a serious threat to U.S. security, any counterattack undertaken now, whether well led or not, is bound to improve the situation. More to the point, the failure to act would be a potential catastrophe and might make all the difference in the ultimate outcome of a conflict in which U.S. success is not assured, notwithstanding the braggadocio being heard to that effect in Washington these days.

There is no way of knowing today whether votes on Syria or Iraq will be major liabilities in the winter or spring of 2016 or, indeed, if the ISIS threat will still be an issue at that time. The year and a half between now and the presidential primaries is a lifetime in politics. But Paul and Cruz are probably right in reckoning that any vote that can be construed as insufficiently anti-Obama is a safe bet and that those who vote yes are giving up a valuable hostage to fortune, whether or not they run for president.

Just as it is simple to second guess those who voted for war in Iraq without thinking what dangers would have resulted from doing nothing, it will be easy to take pot shots at those who vote yes today. But Rubio is still in the right here. The costs of doing nothing in war are usually higher than those of boldness. Even with an inadequate leader who is not prepared to do everything to achieve victory, the situation will be better off if the U.S. finally starts to do something to alter the correlation of forces in Syria and Iraq against both Assad and the terrorists. Voting no may eventually be popular, but it won’t be the right thing to do.

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Clinton’s Leftist Critics: Still Irrelevant

Imagine the following scenario. The Democratic Party continues to push Hillary Clinton as its nominee for 2016. The women of the party who could challenge her, like Elizabeth Warren, continue showing deference and bowing to reality by staying on the sidelines and supporting Hillary, knowing their turn may yet come. But then, word gets to Warren that an activist with Occupy Wall Street is put off by Clinton’s cozy connections to Wall Street, and wants someone like Warren to challenge her, to be the conscience of the party. Game changer, right?

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Imagine the following scenario. The Democratic Party continues to push Hillary Clinton as its nominee for 2016. The women of the party who could challenge her, like Elizabeth Warren, continue showing deference and bowing to reality by staying on the sidelines and supporting Hillary, knowing their turn may yet come. But then, word gets to Warren that an activist with Occupy Wall Street is put off by Clinton’s cozy connections to Wall Street, and wants someone like Warren to challenge her, to be the conscience of the party. Game changer, right?

Of course not. Elizabeth Warren is not going to take her career advice from pseudoanarchist trustfunders who defecate on police cars and shield rapists from legal trouble. Neither is Hillary Clinton, or anyone running the Democratic Party. And so it is in that light that we read about the latest anti-Hillary grumbling from the economically illiterate perpetual freshmen on the populist left. According to The Hill, there is an email group called “Gamechanger Salon,” consisting of about 1,500 liberal journalists, activists, and campaign strategists. Someone leaked the contents of the emails to The Hill. The “Gamechangers” are, of course, reveling in blissful unawareness of their own irrelevance to the 2016 presidential election:

“[A] Clinton presidency undos [sic] all our progress and returns the financial interests to even more prominence than they currently have,” Melissa Byrne, an activist with the Occupy Wall Street movement, said in a November 2013 email.

The progressives expressed an appetite for an alternative to Clinton to teach her — and those from the centrist wing of the party — a lesson.

Liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has repeatedly said she won’t run for president, but some on the left aren’t convinced.

“The establishment Dems need to be punished, and the best way for that to happen is for Warren to beat Hillary in the primary on a populist message,” Carl Gibson, a progressive activist and writer for Occupy.com, wrote in one email.

Even though months have passed since the emails were sent, the sentiment remains.

Mike Lux, a prominent strategist and an active member of the group, told The Hill that the concerns haven’t changed and operatives “are probably more worried at this point rather than less.”

Well sure, naturally they’d be more worried now than less, since Hillary Clinton is closer to her party’s nomination. She’s not just incredibly wealthy herself, with help from her Wall Street speaking clients, but she’s even asking them to help shape her talking points on economic inequality, as the New York Times reported last week:

Fledgling efforts to develop a message are quietly taking place, said the people close to Mrs. Clinton. Without discussing her 2016 plans, she has talked to friends and donors in business about how to tackle income inequality without alienating businesses or castigating the wealthy.

Certainly one can imagine why left-wingers aren’t thrilled to read that Hillary is outsourcing her policy and campaign communications to the people she’s asking for money. And they wouldn’t be alone in that uneasiness were Hillary a Republican. The ads would write themselves, as would the New York Times editorials. (Though to be fair, the Times editorials have already been written; they’d just be recycled with the name changed.)

Speaking of Republicans, what did Hillary’s benefactors and influence seekers tell her to say about economic policy? This might sound familiar:

That message would likely be less populist and more pro-growth, less about inversions and more about corporate tax reform, less about raising the minimum wage and more long-term job creation, said two people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions.

She’s running as Mitt Romney, in other words, but with less management experience and greater dependence on her donors. You can imagine why leftists are just thrilled.

Part of the story, according to The Hill, is lingering discontent over Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war. She has since apologized, seeking proper absolution. But all is not forgiven. One activist told The Hill he wants to see people like Clinton “punished at the ballot box” over the war. But didn’t that already happen? Hillary did, after all, lose in 2008 to Barack Obama, whose campaign really did get a lift from his opposition to the Iraq war.

On the other hand, you can see where these activists are coming from, since Clinton was a more interventionist and hawkish proponent of force in Obama’s Cabinet. The presumption on the part of these activists is that Clinton’s regret over the Iraq war vote is disingenuous to the extent that it hasn’t altered her worldview or her faith in American firepower. They don’t care as much that she regrets the last Iraq war because they think she’d jump right into the next one.

And maybe that’s true. But again, it doesn’t really matter. The “Gamechangers” are anything but. There is still no serious opposition to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party, and there does not appear to be any on the horizon. And a progressive email list isn’t going to change that.

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The Ever-Expanding 2016 GOP Field

The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

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The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Other than those two, the potential candidates who had run presidential campaigns in the past tended to score higher than those who haven’t yet run–a quite logical finding. If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). Walker was involved in a high-stakes national issue: the fight over public unions. And thanks to that, he was subject to a recall election that saw national press and mobilized national liberal groups. Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

And that poll didn’t even include Mitt Romney, who shows up leading New Hampshire polls for the same reason Huckabee polls well in Iowa. And while a Romney candidacy would certainly have its cheerleaders, Huckabee is talking openly about testing those polls:

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls.

Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures.

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

Huckabee had a decent run for an underdog in 2008 and he has a natural constituency, as well as an amiability that translates into votes. The same cannot be said for another retread who is the subject of speculation: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman has a few things going for him: he’s got gubernatorial experience as well as foreign-policy chops from his time as ambassador to China, and he has considerable financial resources at his disposal. But unlike Huckabee, outside of the media Huntsman has no natural base (and the reporters who love him will vote for Hillary anyway in the general). And also unlike Huckabee, Huntsman is almost shockingly unlikeable for a politician.

Huntsman has a general disposition that is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. He does not like Republican voters, and he does not want them to think otherwise. The feeling is mutual: Huntsman’s numbers from 2012 suggest the pool of Huntsman voters is made up entirely of people who are either named Huntsman or owe him money.

And then there is Jindal, a smart, wonky conservative with executive experience and a strong command of the issues. Jindal’s name recognition is so low that he’s forced to be less coy than others about his possible presidential ambitions:

“There’s no reason to be coy,” Jindal said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I am thinking, I am praying about whether I’ll run in 2016. I said I won’t make that decision until after November.”

Jindal has certain strengths: he’s as smart as Huntsman pretends he is, for starters. And he’s far from insufferable about it: he doesn’t project arrogance, just competence. He’s been twice elected governor of Louisiana, so he has experience on the campaign trail. He’s proved himself in a crisis. And he seems to genuinely like interacting with voters.

But his competition would include another impressive, reformist conservative governor in Scott Walker; other young conservatives with poise and presence, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and possibly Ted Cruz; and more experienced social conservatives such as, potentially, Huckabee, Rick Perry, and perhaps Mike Pence. The question, then, is whether Jindal could find some way to stand out from the pack. And with polls like those we’ve seen so far, that roster of rivals is likely to keep expanding.

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Bill and Hillary’s Awkward Iowa Adventure

Hillary Clinton is running for president. And running, as fast as she can, away from Iowa.

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Hillary Clinton is running for president. And running, as fast as she can, away from Iowa.

The former secretary of state was in Iowa over the weekend for outgoing Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry. It’s one of the many Iowa non-campaign campaign events that have made the state’s role in presidential politics both essential and insufferable. And though her husband was on his best behavior, the event still raised the persistent question of whether Bill is helping or hurting his wife’s presidential ambitions.

It’s not a new question, of course: Newsweek asked it in 2007, the last time Hillary was running for president with Bill at her side. But it usually centers on his tendency toward bad behavior and his caddish history with women, at a time when the Democratic Party is running most of its campaigns on its own fabricated war on women. (Monica Lewinsky’s recent return to the news was facilitated by liberals, not mischievous conservatives.)

Yet the Iowa steak fry showed a different side of this possible hindrance: when Bill is doing precisely what the campaign needs of him–generally being the Democrats’ ambassador to anyone who doesn’t live on a coast–he so completely outshines Hillary as to make abundantly clear Hillary’s great weaknesses as a candidate. For one, Bill Clinton likes people. As Michael Barone wrote recently, contrasting the former president with the current one: “If you were in a room with Bill Clinton, he would discover the one issue out of 100 on which you agreed; he would probe you with questions, comments, suggestions; and he would tell you that you enabled him to understand it far better than he ever had before.”

Contrast that with how the Economist describes Hillary’s photo-op at the fry:

Mrs Clinton was the guest star at the 37th and final “Harkin Steak Fry”, a combined outdoor picnic, political fundraiser and gathering of the clans for Iowa progressives, hosted by the state’s outgoing Democratic senator, Tom Harkin. While a crowd of several thousand Democrats waited on a sloping, grassy field below, Mrs Clinton, her husband and Senator Harkin staged a mini-grilling of steaks for the press at a single barbecue grill in a fenced-off enclosure, framed by a handsome tree and a picnic table filled with some patient Iowans. Mrs Clinton gamely posed, pretending to grill a steak that had been pre-cooked for her. After briefly ducking into a small building, she emerged to exchange some careful banter with reporters.

The Duchess of Chappaqua can only pretend to grill a steak, just as she can only pretend to know what a grill is. She was nice enough to go sans tiara to mingle with the press while pretending to mingle with the commoners, but she might have done better not to act as though visiting a remote Amazonian tribe whose language she couldn’t hope to understand.

And where was Bill during all this? Practically crowd surfing:

Ex-President Bill Clinton could hardly be dragged from the press, cheerfully ignoring aides who kept calling “OK, guys, thank you” to reporters, as if we were holding their boss captive, and “Got to go eat a veggie burger” (a reference to Mr Clinton’s heart-conscious vegan diet). He had thoughts to offer on the mid-term elections (Democrats are in better shape than people think) and his red gingham shirt, a gift from his wife (“I worried I looked like a tablecloth in a diner,” he confided).

There is no question Hillary has benefited from her husband’s success, so there is a limit to the debate over whether Bill’s a help or a hindrance. Additionally, the type of weaknesses often matter in politics more than anything. Hillary has an obvious aversion to the commoners. She is not a people person, and does not appear to like the voters whose support she needs. She does not like the press, though they would step in front of a train for her. And the Democratic Party she seeks to lead is, more than ever, disgusted by freethinking individualism and nonconformist behavior. So every interaction with the voters is, for Hillary, a mine field.

And it doesn’t help, either, that the Democrats’ identity politics necessitate a total lack of humor. Their comedians become court jesters at the thought of another Clinton presidency; Stephen Colbert, in his move to late-night television, will go from impersonating Bill O’Reilly to impersonating Giacomo.

It is into this stuffy, grievance-filled atmosphere that Hillary will send Bill, the last liberal not named Brian Schweitzer who can smile without being prodded by an aide to do so. The message from Hillary’s campaign is simple: You probably don’t like me, and I don’t like you; but my husband’s a funny guy, and he’s the free toaster you get by signing up for Hillary.

Is it a winning slogan? Don’t be so eager to write it off. For one thing, this sort of campaign phoniness is usually a hindrance in the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, especially during a primary contest. But if Hillary’s campaign continues into 2016, there won’t be a primary contest. Iowa voters won’t choose Martin O’Malley over Hillary because she doesn’t grill her own steaks. It’s doubtful heartland voters would choose O’Malley over a root canal, in fact.

Does it hold Hillary back in the general election? Like every version of this question, the answer depends on who her opponent is. But a more interesting question is whether it helps or hurts Hillary to have Bill on the campaign trail with her. Voters may like talking to Bill, but at a certain point they’re going to notice that like actors need stunt doubles, their would-be president needs a schmooze double.

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Deep Bench? None in GOP Stand Out for ’16

Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

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Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

The Iowa poll confirms the cliché about name recognition since the runaway leader in the survey of possible GOP presidential candidates is Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has been a favorite in the Hawkeye State since winning the caucus there in 2008. But it’s been several years since the talk show was active politically and there is no indication that he will run. If we eliminate him we see that the leader is Rep. Paul Ryan with only 12 percent supporting him. The rest of the field is in single digits with none of the big names, such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Perry making much of an impact. Nor has Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012 in a huge upset after months of beating the bushes in rural counties, retained much support as he comes in as the preference of only three percent.

There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in these poll figures.

The good news is that 2016 shapes up to be a competitive and interesting race. No imposing frontrunner with deep pockets will be there to scare off talented candidates who want to test the waters. The GOP has to hope that in contrast to the chaos of 2012, with a more rational debate and primary schedule this time, the party will be able to run a competitive race that will produce a presidential candidate with the political moxie to effectively challenge Hillary Clinton.

The bad news is that although Republicans have spent much of the last two years bragging about their deep political bench, the roster of GOP presidential wannabes may not be as bright as they thought. By this time, somebody in the field should have been capable of impressing early state voters and caucus-goers as a potential keeper. But so far, none seems to stand out in contrast to the others.

Each would-be candidate has had his ups and downs. Christie might have been in a very strong position by now but Bridgegate derailed his potential juggernaut. Paul remains a strong candidate but ISIS and various other global crises have made his neo-isolationism a lot less attractive to the GOP mainstream. Rubio had a bad 2013 and the conservative base may never forgive him for backing an immigration reform bill. The others haven’t broken through yet and even old familiar names like Jeb Bush don’t seem to be attracting more than token support.

While this is good news for journalists who love a close horse race, it needs to be emphasized that this is really unexplored territory for Republicans who have a historical tradition of liking front-runners, especially those who have run and lost before. You have to go back to 1940 when dark horse Wendell Wilkie edged New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey to get the right to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term to find a GOP presidential race that was as wide open as the one we will witness in 2016. In every presidential contest since then, there has been at least one or two genuine frontrunner types or former candidates who dominate the race. That means that whoever does emerge from this battle will almost certainly at least start the 2016 general-election campaign as a heavy underdog to Clinton.

It is possible that one or two of the current bunch scrambling for attention will break through in 2015 and enter the primary season as something resembling a frontrunner. But for now, it appears to be a struggle in which none have anything that looks like a clear advantage. Since even the best of them have little experience on the national stage, questions about whether this deep bench is equal to the task of running for president are entirely legitimate.

That’s why the buzz about Mitt Romney returning to the fray seems to be about more than buyer’s remorse about President Obama’s dismal second term or guilt on the part of conservatives that trashed their 2012 nominee but now realize the former Massachusetts governor wasn’t so bad after all. In a race where none of the contenders have a real political or financial advantage, a candidate with the name recognition and the fundraising prowess of Romney might sweep the field again as he did last time.

This isn’t an argument for Romney running again. A third trip to the well might not yield any better results for him than the previous one. He’s right to say, as he continues to insist, that it’s time for some one else to step up and take their turn. But it must be conceded that in a race this open, anything can happen. Instead of celebrating the diversity of riches in their candidate roster, Republicans need to be wondering which, if any of them, can step up and show they’re ready to tangle with Clinton. Right now, the sports cliché about all prospects being suspects seems to apply to the GOP field.

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Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the End of the Isolationist Moment

Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

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Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

In recent weeks, Paul’s drift away from the views shared by his father and the legions of libertarian extremist supporters that he has inherited from him has escalated to the point where the senator has opened himself up to charges of flip-flopping.

Paul seemed to be riding the wave of revulsion against the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan last year when his filibuster helped make him the new darling of the GOP. While the senator has consistently maintained that he is a realist in the mode of James Baker rather than an isolationist, there was no doubt about his desire to pull back from engagement in the war on Islamist terror until recent developments made it obvious that such stands were not as popular as he thought.

For example, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed published in June he stated the case that “America shouldn’t choose sides in Iraq” and that there was, “no good case for U.S. intervention now.” But three months later, he’s singing a different tune. Last week in a TIME magazine article, he not only proclaimed that he “was not an isolationist” but went on to claim “if I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.”

Paul’s apologists will, as is their job, attempt to spin the two pieces as somehow representing the same position. But for those of us who are not determined to rationalize every twist and turn that he must follow in his quest for the presidency, the contradiction is pretty obvious. Though he remains opposed to “nation building,” the Rand Paul of 2010, let alone 2013, would be scratching his head about his criticism of President Obama for “disengaging” in Iraq. Put it down to Paul putting his finger in the wind and rightly determining that sticking to his non-interventionist line after the ISIS beheading would be a problem for most conservatives.

All of which partly explains Cruz’s recent emphasis on his own, more mainstream foreign-policy views. On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Cruz not only enunciated positions critical of Obama and in favor of a more muscular U.S. foreign and defense policy that is consistent with traditional GOP stands that Paul has opposed. He also made it clear that he thinks the distance between Paul and himself on that issue is significant enough to create a real opening for him in 2016.

While more marginal (at least in terms of their chances of winning the nomination) Republicans such as John Bolton and Rep. Peter King have stated that they would run if there was no clear advocate of a strong foreign policy in the field to oppose Paul, Cruz is thinking the same thing. Since there is not much to differentiate him from Paul on domestic issues, the Texan thinks his consistent support of Israel and position in favor of re-asserting American power in the world gives him the chance to assume the Reaganite mantle in Republican primaries.

Is he right?

Cruz has some clear strengths, but also liabilities. He is the hero of Tea Partiers who love his willingness to confront Democrats on every issue, to refuse to play by the rules of the old Senate game about going along in order to get along. But what Tea Party activists see as a commitment to principle, other Republicans view as a mad commitment to suicidal tactics like last year’s government shutdown. Cruz’s unwillingness to acknowledge that mistake makes him anathema to the GOP establishment as well as others who see him as a loose cannon. But his mainstream foreign-policy views could give him an opening with these sectors of the party, including major donors even if he must be considered, at best, as an extreme long shot.

But whether Cruz’s 2016 hopes are realistic or not isn’t the point of recent developments. What we’ve seen in the last few months is the crackup of the libertarian alliance that looked to have a decent chance to take over the Republican Party last year as war weariness and suspicion of the Obama administration seemed to turn the Republican worldview upside down. With Paul retreating from not only his father’s extremism but also from some of his own “realist” stands and Cruz leading a faction of the Tea Party into what he hopes will be a foreign-policy debate in which he will champion the cause of a strong stand in the Middle East, it appears the isolationist moment in American politics is over.

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