Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Christie

Winning Establishment Primary Guarantees Jeb Nothing in 2016

The reasoning behind Jeb Bush’s decision to announce that he would “actively explore” a run for the presidency isn’t hard to figure out. With rumors flying that Mitt Romney was considering making a third try for the presidency as major Republican donors waited to see whether to throw their support to Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or wait for the 2012 nominee to decide on his plans, Jeb needed to act quickly. By announcing so early, he not only dispelled doubts about his own willingness to run but gained a significant advantage in the hidden primary contest that will decide who represents the party’s establishment in 2016. But as much as this was a coup for Bush, the obstacles to victory for him in his party’s nominating contest are far greater than his fans seem to think.

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The reasoning behind Jeb Bush’s decision to announce that he would “actively explore” a run for the presidency isn’t hard to figure out. With rumors flying that Mitt Romney was considering making a third try for the presidency as major Republican donors waited to see whether to throw their support to Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or wait for the 2012 nominee to decide on his plans, Jeb needed to act quickly. By announcing so early, he not only dispelled doubts about his own willingness to run but gained a significant advantage in the hidden primary contest that will decide who represents the party’s establishment in 2016. But as much as this was a coup for Bush, the obstacles to victory for him in his party’s nominating contest are far greater than his fans seem to think.

Last week’s stories about Romney changing his mind had to unsettle the Bush camp largely because they hinged on Mitt’s doubts about both Jeb and Christie’s ability to win the nomination. The prospect of a Romney re-entry into the fray froze many establishment donors in place but the Bush announcement will lead some to join his camp rather than to be left outside once the bandwagon starts rolling. Indeed, by doing so now at a point when Romney is probably nowhere near ready to decide and Christie’s effort has yet to move into action, Bush may have already won the establishment primary even before it began.

Up until recently Bush was the one playing Hamlet about running, with many people believing he would ultimately pass on an attempt to be the third member of his family elected to the White House. But now that he’s all but in it, the pressure will grow on Romney to get in or get out. Christie’s hand is also forced since Bush will hope to win the backing of many of the same financial big shots that are key to the New Jersey governor’s chances of launching a credible campaign. Now that everyone is convinced that Bush is running, the longer Christie, who has still never completely recovered from the blow to his reputation that Bridgegate dealt him, waits to make the same sort of announcement, the harder it will be for him to compete for large donors.

But even if we were to concede that Bush is in excellent position to outmaneuver both Romney and Christie, the assumption on the part of the party’s establishment that they will designate the nominee is mistaken.

The experience of both 2008 and 2012 when relative moderates won the Republican nomination has convinced some that no matter what the party’s grassroots say about establishment choices, sooner or later they will have to accept them. That may have been true when both John McCain and Romney turned aside challengers in those years, but the candidates that Bush will have to beat in 2016 are both more diverse and far more formidable. Moreover, as I noted earlier this month, the real problem for Bush isn’t so much his stands on immigration and education as it is his apparent determination to run against the base.

That a man with a longstanding and well-earned reputation as a principled conservative should find himself at odds with the Republican base is a matter of irony as well as concerning to the Bush camp. But having thrown down the gauntlet to the Tea Party and other elements of the base on the Common Core education program and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, Bush hasn’t left himself much room to maneuver. McCain sought to appease the base on immigration when he ran in 2008 and Romney survived his vulnerability on health care by tacking hard to the right on immigration. If Bush sticks to his current positions on those two key points, he will be hardpressed to win Republican primaries where conservatives will dominate.

It is true that a wide-open race with a large field may favor the one man in it with the most name recognition and money. But if Bush thinks establishment donors represent the critical mass of the GOP, he has lost touch with reality. As much as establishment candidates seemed to beat most Tea Party challengers in 2014, the Republican electorate has gotten more conservative, not less, in the last four years. Moreover, governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich, or Mike Pence may have more appeal to moderate voters than a bigger name who must also labor, as John Podhoretz noted in today’s New York Post, under the burden of being the third Bush and yet another son of privilege at a time when the GOP must concentrate on appealing to middle- and working-class voters. Nor can he count on keeping fellow Floridian Senator Marco Rubio out of the race.

Perhaps Bush’s intelligence, grasp of the issues, temperament, and ability to appeal to the center will prevail in the end. But everything we’ve heard from him lately gives the impression that he has lost touch with his party’s grassroots and isn’t particularly interested in reconnecting with it on any terms except as a conqueror. That isn’t a formula for a primary victory or even one in the general election for any candidate. For good or for ill, six years of Barack Obama in the White House has driven the center of the GOP to the right. Even if he keeps Romney out of the race and leaves Christie in the dust, unless Jeb Bush shows us that he knows that, he’ll never win his party’s nomination.

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Is Romney the GOP’s Best Option for 2016?

The rumors about Mitt Romney considering running for president again have been circulating for months. But a story published by Politico last night makes the discussion seem less of a fantasy on the part of the 2012 Republican nominee’s biggest fans. According to close associates of the former Massachusetts governor quoted in the story by Ben White and Maggie Haberman, Romney is no longer as adamantly opposed to running as he had been in the first year after his traumatic defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Supposedly, Romney has looked over the field of 2016 GOP hopefuls and isn’t, for some understandable reasons, that impressed. But though buyer’s remorse makes Romney look pretty good now even to those Republicans who didn’t like him, it remains to be seen whether he’s any more electable than he was the last time out.

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The rumors about Mitt Romney considering running for president again have been circulating for months. But a story published by Politico last night makes the discussion seem less of a fantasy on the part of the 2012 Republican nominee’s biggest fans. According to close associates of the former Massachusetts governor quoted in the story by Ben White and Maggie Haberman, Romney is no longer as adamantly opposed to running as he had been in the first year after his traumatic defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Supposedly, Romney has looked over the field of 2016 GOP hopefuls and isn’t, for some understandable reasons, that impressed. But though buyer’s remorse makes Romney look pretty good now even to those Republicans who didn’t like him, it remains to be seen whether he’s any more electable than he was the last time out.

To anyone who watched the documentary Mitt on Netflix, the notion that Romney would ever run again for president has always seemed far-fetched. Romney and his close-knit family poured their hearts and souls into two runs for the presidency and when he was beaten in 2012, it seemed unthinkable they would put themselves through that kind of torment again. It was also thought unnecessary since the Republicans have a deep bench of potential candidates who deserved their shot at the big prize more than someone who had already tried and failed.

But as Politico pointed out, Romney is looking at the 2016 field not so much from a global perspective about the party as much as he’s wondering who will fit into the niche he filled in the 2012 primaries: the centrist who can rally the party’s establishment and moderate voters to beat down a challenge from right-wingers who can’t win a general election. From that frame of reference, the question seems to be whether Romney is satisfied that either Jeb Bush or Chris Christie is up to the task and, not without cause, he’s not sure about either.

According to Politico, Romney thinks Bush would be taken apart because of his business dealings in the same way he was bashed for his record at Bain Capital. Bush associates say their man isn’t vulnerable and wouldn’t be as shy about pushing back on the charges as Romney was in 2012. But whether or not Bush runs as the proud capitalist that Romney couldn’t or wouldn’t be, there are other reasons to be skeptical about the son and brother of past presidents.

The conservative base distrusted Romney throughout 2011 and 2012, but the candidate never stopped trying to win them over. While Romney was vulnerable on ObamaCare because of the similar Massachusetts law he passed, he actually tacked hard to the right on the one issue that is driving right-wingers crazy this year: immigration. By contrast, Bush, though possessing a strong conservative record, has been making noises about being willing to run against the base rather than to persuade it to back him. Romney knows that isn’t a formula that is likely to get Bush the nomination no matter how many big donors he has on his side.

The other obvious moderate choice is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor has never completely recovered from Bridgegate but the party’s success in the midterms—especially the elections of GOP governors in part due to his work as head of the Republican Governors Association—put a bit of the shine back on his reputation. But Romney has probably taken a hard look at Christie and concluded, as some other Republicans have done, that his “sit down and shut up” style isn’t likely to stand up under the pressure of a presidential campaign.

If so, it is hardly out of the question that Romney might be thinking it is up to him to be the standard-bearer for moderate Republicans in the next cycle.

In his favor is not only the fact that he has done it before as well as that he would have no trouble raising all the money needed for another presidential run. There is also the buyer’s remorse factor about 2012 that has caused many people who didn’t vote for Romney to acknowledge that they made a mistake. Many of the things that he was widely mocked for advocating—such as concern about Russia—proved prescient.

Just as important in terms of winning the nomination is the fact that conservatives are by no means as hostile to him as they were during the primaries. Romney’s valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful battle against Obama causes many on the right to view him as something of a martyr to the effort to unseat the president.

But before the GOP goes into a collective swoon about the possibility of a third Romney attempt at the presidency, a few other facts also need to be discussed.

The first is that although Romney is bound to have learned from his experiences, his performance as a candidate was less than inspiring. Romney is a good man but he has always lacked the natural political instincts needed for such a formidable task. His gaffes combined with his unwillingness to talk more about who he is as a man or to defend his business career were all fatal mistakes.

Second, the debate between the Jeb Bush and Romney camps about which one would be more vulnerable to attacks on their investment businesses misses the point. Republicans need to be sensitive to the fact that it doesn’t help the cause of the party promoting economic freedom to be represented by plutocrats. The future of the party isn’t on Wall Street but in attracting enough middle- and working-class voters who don’t like the Democrats and their big-government approach to the economy and health care and support the rule of law on issues like immigration. Only such an appeal will offset the Democrats’ growing advantage with minority voters.

Third, the factors that undermined Romney in 2012, including the disaffection of the party’s base to his candidacy, haven’t disappeared. Once he starts running again, the sympathy generated by his loss will dissipate on the right and conservatives will demand to know why running the same guy who lost in 2012 would work any better in 2016.

Contrary to the analysis of the big donors who are longing for another Romney run, there are other possibilities for victory other than him, Bush, or Christie. Rather than dismissing the rest of field as insignificant, the cast of promising Republican governors such as Scott Walker, who could energize Tea Partiers and the establishment and business communities, needs to be given their chance to plot a new GOP approach without any of the baggage that Romney carries around with him.

Just as important as that, Romney’s assumption that he could bulldoze conservative challengers again the way he did in 2012 is also probably mistaken. Ted Cruz won’t be as easily beaten as Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. And Rand Paul can’t be ignored the way Romney did his extremist father Ron when he was running for the nomination.

Romney’s intelligence and decency make him a more plausible president than most other potential Republican candidates. Having run twice, the presidential bug is still inside him and probably always will be. If he does run, he’ll be tough to beat. But he’s far from the shoo-in his friends think he is. Nor is it certain that he would do better in the general election than his respectable loss in 2012.

Those assuming that Romney is the answer to all of the Republicans’ problems are mistaken. So too is any assumption on his part that America is waiting to make amends for its mistake in not electing him president in 2012.

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Early 2016 GOP Coronation Not in the Cards

The Republican Party’s largest donors all seem to have the same idea. They’d like the 2016 presidential nomination race settled early on in the cycle. And, if you believe the reporting of the New York Times (and in this instance, it may be accurate), they’d like it to be one of the following three candidates: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or, wait for it, Mitt Romney. The conceit of the article is not crazy. If a critical mass of GOP fat cats gets together on a candidate, the odds will shift in favor of that person. But there’s a big problem with this thesis. As crucial as money is to any presidential candidate, those three aren’t the only ones who will head into 2016 with cash on hand. And given the large field of potential and even credible Republican candidates, the notion that a winner can be anointed early in the year with out a nasty and messy fight is not that good. Personally, I doubt one of that trio will be the nominee, but if one of them does win, they’ll have to fight for it.

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The Republican Party’s largest donors all seem to have the same idea. They’d like the 2016 presidential nomination race settled early on in the cycle. And, if you believe the reporting of the New York Times (and in this instance, it may be accurate), they’d like it to be one of the following three candidates: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or, wait for it, Mitt Romney. The conceit of the article is not crazy. If a critical mass of GOP fat cats gets together on a candidate, the odds will shift in favor of that person. But there’s a big problem with this thesis. As crucial as money is to any presidential candidate, those three aren’t the only ones who will head into 2016 with cash on hand. And given the large field of potential and even credible Republican candidates, the notion that a winner can be anointed early in the year with out a nasty and messy fight is not that good. Personally, I doubt one of that trio will be the nominee, but if one of them does win, they’ll have to fight for it.

Part of the desire to get behind Bush, Christie, or Romney is the very rational idea winning in November will require them to nominate a relative moderate rather than the likes of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and a gaggle of other would-be Republican presidents on the right. But though the GOP nomination has gone to the most mainstream moderate running the last two times (John McCain and Romney), 2016 will be a bit different.

In 2012, Romney’s fiercest competition came from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Though both of them did far better and lasted longer than most pundits (including me) thought they would, they were no match for Romney’s money or his ability to pose as the most electable candidate (which he was, although that just meant he was fated to lose to President Obama by a smaller margin than any other Republican running). This time around Bush, Christie, and Romney may be able to make the same kind of argument about electability if stacked up against Hillary Clinton, but they will be facing a much more formidable group of opponents.

Candidates like Paul and Cruz will be well funded and have a vocal and organized base of supporters. And even if we dismiss a host of other candidates now being discussed such as Dr. Ben Carson or Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as unlikely to make it past the first primaries, or think others such as Mike Huckabee or Paul Ryan won’t run, those fixated on the moderate big three are ignoring the potential that one or more of a group of well regarded GOP governors including Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Mike Pence may be poised to break through in a crowded field in which no single candidate is likely to dominate. Of those, Walker will be dangerous because of his ability to appeal to both movement conservatives and to mainstream Republicans. Kasich has the credentials and the heretical stands on some issues like immigration (at least from the point of view of some conservatives) to compete with the big three for establishment support. All these calculations also ignore the fact that Marco Rubio may be just as capable of appealing to moderates and those who care about foreign policy even if he may have lost his erstwhile Tea Party backers because of his support for immigration reform.

All of which is to say that even if all the big donors got behind either Bush, Christie, or Romney, their path to the nomination would still be steep and hard.

As for the specific chances of those big three, it’s foolish to make any hard and fast predictions this far in advance of the first primaries and caucuses. But I believe Bush’s seeming belief that he cannot just finesse the conservative base as Romney did in 2012 but actually run against it and win the nomination is science fiction, not political science. The thin-skinned Christie has to prove to me that he can thrive on a national presidential stage without blowing himself up before I’ll think he has a prayer of overcoming the serious doubts about him on the part of most conservatives. As for Romney, it’s possible that all those writing or spreading rumors about him running again know more about his intentions than I do. But until he announces, I’m going to take him at his word and believe that he and his family have had enough of the electoral rat race and that he will allow the next generation of Republicans to take a crack at the big job after he tried and failed to get it twice. If he does run, even many conservatives who couldn’t stand him before will feel some degree of sympathy for the man they know would have been a better president than Obama. However, the assumption they’ll flock to him ignores the fact that there will be other fresher faces that may look better to both activists and voters once they get over their remorse about Romney being short-changed by history in 2012.

Seen in that light, those among the large donors to the Republican Party who are thinking now to lie back and wait for the race to develop rather than rushing in and hoping that early support for a frontrunner will give them access and prestige to the eventual winner have the right idea. The field is too large and there are simply too many variables to make any rational prediction about how it will all play out. An early decision on the nominee would make it easier for that person to prepare to battle the Democrats. But as things stand now, that is something that is not in the cards.

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Big Labor’s Big Bluff

For interest groups seeking to be courted by political campaigns, there are two avenues to attract the necessary attention from the candidates. The first is to be valuable enough, and more valuable than their competitors, in the service of getting a politician elected. The second is to be convincingly courted by both sides, or to be courting both sides themselves.

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For interest groups seeking to be courted by political campaigns, there are two avenues to attract the necessary attention from the candidates. The first is to be valuable enough, and more valuable than their competitors, in the service of getting a politician elected. The second is to be convincingly courted by both sides, or to be courting both sides themselves.

Plenty of interest groups hedge their bets and court both sides: business, finance, gun-rights groups, etc. But what happens to an interest group that no one believes is on the fence, and which is also highly unlikely to sit out an election? Such is the fate of the unions, if a Politico story on the unofficial campaign of the unofficial Democratic Party frontrunner is right. The subheadline claims that “Union leaders vow they won’t be taken for granted in 2016.”

In fact, they will. Politico reports:

Frustrated by President Barack Obama and wary of Hillary Clinton’s perceived closeness to Wall Street, several leading figures in organized labor are resisting falling in line early behind the former secretary of state as the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee.

Top officials at AFL-CIO are pressing its affiliates to hold off on an endorsement and make the eventual nominee earn their support and spell out a clear agenda. The strategy is designed to maximize labor’s strength after years of waning clout and ensure a focus on strengthening the middle class, but it could provide an opening for a candidate running to Clinton’s left to make a play for union support.

“We do have a process in place, which says before anybody endorses, we’ll talk to the candidates,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview. That could postpone an endorsement until the second half of 2015, he said.

“The big question we want to know is, ‘What’s the agenda?’” added Trumka. “We don’t want to hear that people have a message about correcting the economy — we want to know that they have an agenda for correcting the economy. If we get the same economic [plan] no matter who the president is, you get the same results.”

Let me explain to Trumka how this will play out. His organization will endorse Hillary for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the AFL-CIO will pull out all the stops to help get her elected in the general. Trumka can stomp his feet all he wants, but the only extra attention he’ll get is from his downstairs neighbor.

The unions are not going anywhere, and here’s why. They have become a liberal interest group, and nobody believes they’ll even cast a glance across the aisle. In the primaries, it will make no sense to back a challenger to Hillary because they almost surely won’t win, and the Clintons are infamously petty and vindictive. Death, taxes, and Clintonian grudges are the three sure things in this world. They will retaliate. If Trumka thinks he’s getting a cold reception now, just wait until he tests the Clintons’ patience and their memories.

And no one believes for a moment Trumka’s up for grabs in the general. He could argue, however, that the unions are about more than just money and endorsements. They are a key get-out-the-vote ally, and they can magnify turnout, which has been the key for Democrats in general elections. Trumka can, theoretically, threaten to hold back these efforts, since the midterm election disasters of recent years have shown the Democrats just how important presidential-year turnout is for them.

This won’t happen either. Two of the GOP contenders who would be strongest in a general election are candidates for whom the unions have developed a deranged level of hatred: Scott Walker and Chris Christie. One of the most important unions in Trumka’s organization is currently the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Think they would sit this one out?

And Christie and Walker aren’t the only high-profile candidates with anti-public-union credibility. Bobby Jindal sure looks to be running for president this time around. And those three–Christie, Walker, and Jindal–represent the anti-public-union zeitgeist of the modern Republican Party. One is from New Jersey, one Wisconsin, the other Louisiana. Reining in public unions is not a regional fixation and it is not a fringe position in the GOP. If someone besides those three is to get the Republican nomination, in all likelihood they will press to demonstrate their bona fides on this issue along the way as well.

Trumka will view the upcoming presidential election–especially if Walker is the nominee–as nothing less than a battle for the unions’ very survival. He will say so, and he will use intemperate language in the process. He will emit a blinding rage, and give the impression that he is experiencing some sort of extended meltdown. What he will not do is withhold his support from the Clinton machine, nor will he convincingly pretend to.

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The Republicans Hillary Fears–And the Ones She Should

In 2008 the early race for the GOP presidential nomination was shaped by the belief that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee. While this certainly did not cost Republicans the election–preparing earlier for Obama would likely not have yielded a different party nominee or changed the outcome of the general election for John McCain–it was evidence of a misreading of the electorate and the challenges ahead. It’s possible now that Hillary Clinton, presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016, is making the same mistake.

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In 2008 the early race for the GOP presidential nomination was shaped by the belief that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee. While this certainly did not cost Republicans the election–preparing earlier for Obama would likely not have yielded a different party nominee or changed the outcome of the general election for John McCain–it was evidence of a misreading of the electorate and the challenges ahead. It’s possible now that Hillary Clinton, presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016, is making the same mistake.

The Hill reports that Clintonland is preparing for four Republican candidates “who worry Hillary.” They are: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker. The act of preparing ahead of time is wise; Clinton does not appear to have a nomination fight on her hands, so she might as well concentrate on defining her possible Republican challenger before he can do so himself. Additionally, she can’t possibly concentrate on every GOP candidate, because to do so would be to concentrate on none.

So she must settle on a group she feels poses the biggest threat to her. Has she chosen wisely? Yes and no. But mostly no.

Bush and Christie are obvious picks for her, because they would, theoretically, be strong general-election candidates. Both have name recognition and would have an easy time raising gobs of money, which is what Hillary will do herself. They are also intelligent, well-versed on the issues (though they’ll have to play catchup on foreign policy against the former secretary of state), and could potentially appeal to minorities in ways other Republicans don’t (Bush to Hispanics, Christie to African-Americans).

And yet, the path to the nomination for either of them seems a long and winding road, to say the least. Bush may not even run, and he might not even be the Floridian Hillary should fear most. Marco Rubio’s name does not appear in The Hill’s story; on paper Rubio matches Bush’s strengths but surpasses him on foreign policy. Christie is almost certainly running, or at least planning on it. Neither is beloved by the conservative base, nor is the field weak enough for a Romney-like candidate to once again jog to the nomination.

It’s hard to imagine how Hillary ends up facing either Bush or Christie in the general election. Additionally, because they have high name recognition, her early attempts to define them for the voters won’t be as fruitful as they might be against lesser-known challengers.

What about Rand Paul? Although he is popular with conservatives, he too faces a tough road to the nomination (though an easier road, probably, than Bush or Christie would have) that only gets tougher if he doesn’t have Jeb Bush in the race.

In Paul’s favor, however, is his ability to connect with younger voters and his willingness, like Christie, to talk to minority communities instead of at them. Paul walks the walk, too: he supports criminal-justice and sentencing reform, for example. In this, he would pose something of a threat to Hillary. But he would still be an underdog both in the primaries and in the general election, where he would likely run to Hillary’s left on foreign policy and national security. That’s not an easy sell, no matter how “war weary” the voters are.

So there’s an element of rationality in Hillary’s concern regarding Bush, Christie, and Paul, though there’s an opportunity cost in preparing for longshot nominees. Clintonland’s decision to prepare for Scott Walker, on the other hand, is entirely rational and prudent.

We don’t yet know how Walker will play on the national stage. And it’s far too early to label anyone a frontrunner. But on paper Walker is an outstanding candidate. He’s a two-term governor. He’s deeply admired by the base but doesn’t scare the establishment. He is a successful reformer. He hails from a state that supported Obama twice but which he could realistically hope to flip. He proved he can–like Christie–take on the unions and win. And he’s a happy warrior, not a dour scold or a bully.

No one’s a shoo-in, including Walker. But it makes sense for Hillary to try to solve the riddle that has bedeviled the Angry Left thus far. And it also helps in her bid to increase Democratic turnout and fundraising to have someone that has inspired a permanent psychotic break among the liberal base.

But the opportunity cost to preparing for the others is still notable. Ted Cruz has a far clearer path to the nomination than Bush or Christie, and probably Paul as well. So does Rubio. You might even be able to say that about popular social conservatives like Mike Pence and Mike Huckabee. Bobby Jindal is popular enough among the base to make a run at the nomination too (though he, like Cruz, would be a longshot in the general).

It makes some sense for Hillary to prepare for candidates she thinks would be strong opponents. But that has meant, so far, that she’s mostly preparing for candidates she is highly unlikely to face.

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The GOP Governors’ 2016 Derby

Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

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Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

As I noted last week, the assumption that governors make better presidents than, say, senators gets a mixed verdict from history. But the current crop of GOP governors do have a strong argument that their distance from Washington dysfunction and records of accomplishment stand them in good stead in any presidential race. The problem is not only that each of them also has their own set of liabilities but also that the sheer volume of contenders with a gubernatorial resume line makes it difficult for any one of them to credibly claim the mantle of the chief non-Washingtonian candidate of good governance.

Christie’s difficult path to the nomination is already well documented. While he may be in the process of putting the Bridgegate accusations behind him, the antipathy of the party’s conservative base for Christie is a formidable obstacle. So, too, is the difficulty of imagining someone with his irascible nature (“sit down and shut up”) and thin skin surviving on the stump amid the intense scrutiny of a presidential race.

But while doubts about the resurrection of Christie’s once high presidential expectations are well founded, the same skepticism ought to apply to the other governors preening for the national press this week. Chief among them is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who seems to be the flavor of the month after his huge reelection victory in perhaps the most crucial swing state in the country. But Kasich, with his equivocal stance on Medicare and ObamaCare as well his more moderate views on immigration is no more likely to be liked by the base than Christie, leaving him competing for establishment support with Christie and a flock of others.

Those others include Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who will have a stronger claim on the base while also being able to connect with moderates. Indiana’s Mike Pence is similarly situated, albeit without the folk hero status Walker earned among conservatives with his epic battles with unions and the unsuccessful liberal attempt to recall him. But as much as both men are veteran politicians, they are untested outside of their states leaving even their fans uncertain as to how they’d fare in a presidential campaign.

Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is another smart Republican governor with conservative credentials, but his efforts to edge out onto the national stage haven’t been universally successful. Buying into the notion that an intellectual southern governor/social conservative with as little charisma as he demonstrates can make the leap to the first tier in the primaries requires more religious faith than political acumen.

As for others, we also need to realize that the overlap between these candidates is a big problem. Whether or not you think Texas Governor Rick Perry has a shot at doing better in his second try for the presidency (after a wince-inducing and disastrous 2012 campaign), he is up against the fact that he will be competing for support with another Texan, Senator Ted Cruz, who has much a better chance of exciting Tea Partiers and other conservatives than Mr. “Oops.” Walker, Kasich, and Pence will compete for the title of leading Midwest governor making it difficult for any of them to seize a niche and make it their own.

That’s why outsiders like Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson are spinning scenarios in their heads about a path to the nomination even if their claims are far more dubious than those of potential competitors. The same applies to would-be establishment standard bearers like Jeb Bush and Christie. Yet Bush would also face competition in Florida from Senator Marco Rubio and Walker must also deal with the possibility that Rep. Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsin resident, will run.

Only Senator Rand Paul seems to have a constituency locked up—the libertarian crowd he seems to have inherited from his outlier father Ron—but there is doubt as to whether they will follow him blindly if he continues to edge closer to mainstream views on foreign policy in order to be more presentable.

But Kasich’s recent boomlet should also remind us about what will be the key factor in winnowing this field down to those who have an actual chance: gaffes. Kasich has stayed at home in Columbus the past few years far away from national media centers and earned a reputation as a good governor. But his past as a fast-talking, albeit relatively moderate conservative congressman and then as a sometime replacement host on Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly show makes it more than probable that Kasich will eventually say something that will undermine a presidential campaign. The same is true of the rest of this crowd. If it’s hard to know what will happen in the next year during the run-up to the start of the 2016 primaries, it is because we don’t know which of the candidates will sink themselves with a stray remark.

Seen in that light the competition for the 2016 nomination isn’t so much a cattle call for a bunch of governors as it is a demolition derby that will probably determine the outcome via gaffes and self-destructive impulses. All these governors have a chance but the one that is best at avoiding mistakes is the one who will get a shot at winning.

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Must Republicans Nominate a Governor?

Flush off his third election victory in four years, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasn’t shy about telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this past Sunday what he thinks the Republican Party should do in 2016: nominate a governor for president. Walker was clearly thinking of himself when he said that, but it’s a theme that his ally/antagonist New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also sounded (though doubtless he was thinking of a different name on the top of the ticket) as well as other less self-interested observers. But while the arguments for putting a person with executive experience outside of Washington in the Oval Office seem conclusive, the assumption that a governor is the only possible choice may not hold up under scrutiny or the travails of the presidential campaign trail.

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Flush off his third election victory in four years, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasn’t shy about telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this past Sunday what he thinks the Republican Party should do in 2016: nominate a governor for president. Walker was clearly thinking of himself when he said that, but it’s a theme that his ally/antagonist New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also sounded (though doubtless he was thinking of a different name on the top of the ticket) as well as other less self-interested observers. But while the arguments for putting a person with executive experience outside of Washington in the Oval Office seem conclusive, the assumption that a governor is the only possible choice may not hold up under scrutiny or the travails of the presidential campaign trail.

Walker’s case for nominating a governor is based partly on the notion that a president must be a proven executive, partly on the general disgust most Americans have for the inhabitants of Washington D.C. and partly on the ideological preference of conservatives for devolving power to the states away from the federal government:

SCOTT WALKER: We offer a fresh approach. Any of us, now 31 governors across the country have the executive experience from outside of Washington to provide a much better alternative to the old, tired, top-down approach you see out of Washington D.C. We need something fresh, organic, from the bottom up. And that’s what you get in the states.

CHUCK TODD: You’re not deferring to Paul Ryan, then? It sounds like you believe a governor, not a member of Congress should be the Republican nominee?

SCOTT WALKER: Paul Ryan may be the only exception to that rule. But overall, I think governors make much better presidents than members of Congress.

The first question to ask about this thesis is historical. Have governors always been better presidents than members of the Senate or House?

Conservatives start this discussion by citing the obvious example of Barack Obama, a senator with not even much experience on the Hill who never ran anything before arriving in the White House and has, in their view, run the country straight into the ground since then. In that sense, if one leaves aside his unique historical status as our first African-American president, we can view him as a latter-day Warren Harding, another senator who presided (albeit briefly before he died in office) over a government that was a disaster. By contrast, some of the most effective presidents in our history have been governors. Examples from the last century include Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt.

But not all governors make good presidents and not all good presidents were governors.

Leaving George W. Bush out of the discussion (liberals think him the worst president since Nixon or Harding while conservatives believe history will judge him more kindly), the name of Jimmy Carter should stand as a definitive rebuke to those who say all governors are better presidents than other individuals. And while he still has many admirers, Woodrow Wilson also strikes me as a cautionary tale for those who laud gubernatorial virtues, though it can be argued that his memory is more of an argument against electing university presidents than governors.

As for non-governors who were effective in the White House, there is Dwight Eisenhower, who proved a career as a staff officer in the U.S. Army was as good a preparation for the presidency as it was for leading the Allied Expeditionary Force against Hitler’s Nazi empire. Even more counterintuitive for the Walker-Christie thesis is Harry Truman, who was only a senator and yet proved capable of running the country and making the sort of executive decisions on foreign policy, military, and domestic issues that are the epitome of managerial accountability (“the buck stops here”). Less convincing is the example of Lyndon Johnson, who demonstrated that knowledge of how Congress works could enable a president to achieve an ambitious legislative agenda while still being hopelessly ill-prepared for crucial foreign-policy issues.

These comparisons, like all presidential rating games, make for fun arguments but don’t tell us much about what is truly important in a future president. Though being a governor is probably the best preparation for the presidency, it must be recognized that operating a successful state house doesn’t remotely compare with the enormous burdens of running the United States of America. For all of the good qualities governors like Walker or John Kasich in Ohio, Mike Pence in Indiana, or even Rick Perry of Texas bring to a presidential campaign, such persons have no idea of the intense scrutiny that goes with running for the White House. Just as Perry, who flopped as badly as anyone in history in his 2012 presidential run, showed us that being governor didn’t mean he was ready for the challenge, so, too, might even as battle-scarred a politician as Walker fail to be ready for prime time. As for Christie, the different expectations for potential presidents make it hard to imagine anyone who likes to tell rude questioners to “sit down and shut up” navigating through the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire. The same applies to senators who may not be prepared for the rigors of the presidential election gauntlet.

A resume as a government executive is important. The GOP needs no novices who want to parachute into politics (sorry, Dr. Ben Carson). The ability to distinguish oneself from Washington dysfunction or the impression that they are part and parcel of the same corrupt federal establishment is also a key selling point especially if you are planning on running against a woman like Hillary Clinton.

But a successful Republican nominee needs more than that. They’ll need a principled vision of America’s future, both at home and abroad and the guts to stand up to the chattering classes who clamor for more government. A governor might fit that bill but so might a senator. That’s why we need tough campaigns to sort out the presidential wheat from the political chaff. Perhaps the person the Republicans need is a governor. But we won’t know that until all these would-be presidents put themselves to the test against equally talented candidates from other backgrounds. Being a governor or even an ex-governor (like Jeb Bush) will help. But it is no guarantee of electoral victory, let alone a competent presidency.

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Why Scott Walker Doesn’t Need a Landslide

The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

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The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

That is, the failure to win a convincing referendum on his tenure as governor is a major red flag for his presidential hopes. The best article making this case from the right (who Walker would have to win over in a primary) comes from Ramesh Ponnuru, writing at Bloomberg View. There are bound to be real obstacles to a Walker bid, and some of them are indeed wrapped up in how Walker has handled–and in some cases, perhaps mishandled–his reelection campaign. That’s one reason the accusations that Chris Christie, as head of the Republican Governors Association, supposedly left Walker high and dry rang hollow. If Walker’s opponent was underestimated, it wasn’t by Christie; it was by Walker.

Here’s the crux of Ponnuru’s argument:

For one thing, Walker’s struggle raises the question of whether a politician can make a credible run for the presidency after barely winning over his own state’s voters. The last two presidents each won their states convincingly before they ran. George W. Bush won 68 percent of the vote to be re-elected governor of Texas in 1998, and Barack Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Illinois to become a senator in 2004.

Walker, assuming he wins, won’t have numbers anywhere close to those. And if he decides to seek the 2016 nomination, he’ll have to make the best of it. The argument he could make to Republicans nationwide is that he took risks to get conservative reforms enacted in a liberal state, and he succeeded. The closeness of his recall campaign and his re-election are a testament, he could say, to his boldness.

There’s another way Walker is different from Bush and Obama. Bush said he would be a “uniter, not a divider,” and Obama said he’d “change the tone” in Washington for the better. A candidate as demonstrably polarizing as Walker — his anti-union reforms sparked huge protests and an occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol — won’t be able to run that kind of campaign.

I think Ponnuru is right on the particulars but wrong on the implications.

It’s true that both Obama and Bush had won resounding statewide victories before running for president. And historically, candidates who lose their home state in a presidential election usually lose the election too. But Walker’s ability to win over Wisconsin’s voters means he’d put the state in play in a presidential election. Unlike Bush and John McCain, whose home states were red, and Mitt Romney, who never had a chance to win Massachusetts, that gives Republicans a chance to expand the map. Walker’s close election means it is precisely the kind of state Republicans have to learn how to win if they want to end their slide in presidential elections.

It’s easy to convince Texas to keep public unions in check, and it’s impressive but arguably irrelevant to convince New Jersey voters to back such a platform, as did Chris Christie. New Jersey is not going red any time soon, so Christie’s success offers an example of how to win over public opinion on union issues, but doesn’t change the Electoral College calculus.

Speaking of Christie, Ponnuru’s second point is also worth delving into in order to make a crucial distinction. Ponnuru writes that Walker can’t make the claim to be some kind of postpartisan uniter. His agenda is divisive. But there’s a difference between a personally divisive candidate and a divisive agenda–and there are also differences between types of divisive agendas.

Christie is an example of someone with a divisive personality. Walker is not. Walker is personable and relatable, not combative. He’s a happy warrior. His agenda is divisive, but that’s for a good reason: it’s an actual governing agenda, and the defenders of the self-enriching status quo will always fight real reform.

Walker’s opponents made the issue divisive because they completely lost their minds. Democratic state senators actually fled the state, like criminals and cowards, rather than participate in the democratic process that would have led to an outcome they didn’t like. His opponents could barely speak a full sentence that didn’t have the word “Hitler” sprinkled generously throughout. I’ve seen the unions threaten the lives of people I know who they discovered supported Walker.

But the fact remains: anti-public union policies are gaining steam and support in blue and purple states, despite the divisiveness caused by union leaders and their most ardent supporters experiencing a psychotic break over sensible reforms. Entrenched interests cannot be given a heckler’s veto.

And the lesson here is that while the Wisconsin electorate is polarized, so is the national electorate. Liberal interest groups and the media (but I repeat myself) will paint any Republican agenda as the end of the world. The vapid Obama campaign managed to make Big Bird a divisive issue, to say nothing of the “war on women” or race-baiting. Any Republican running on anything resembling a conservative agenda will get this apocalyptic treatment from the left. The candidate might as well make it worth the trouble and actually stand for something.

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Better Safe than Sorry

Now, I’m no epidemiologist, but I am the mother of three grown children, so I know a little something about people catching viruses from other people. And call me crazy, but I have to sympathize with the Equinox gym member who isn’t happy about the possibility of working out in the company of former ACLU Honcho Norman Siegel, Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox’s lawyer. Yes, the likelihood of anyone catching Ebola from him is slim, and, yes, the reaction is based on fear. But shouldn’t we be just the teeniest bit afraid? And isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

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Now, I’m no epidemiologist, but I am the mother of three grown children, so I know a little something about people catching viruses from other people. And call me crazy, but I have to sympathize with the Equinox gym member who isn’t happy about the possibility of working out in the company of former ACLU Honcho Norman Siegel, Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox’s lawyer. Yes, the likelihood of anyone catching Ebola from him is slim, and, yes, the reaction is based on fear. But shouldn’t we be just the teeniest bit afraid? And isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

I myself certainly don’t relish the idea of riding the bike trail with Nurse Hickox; or standing next to Dr. Nancy Snyderman in the takeout line; or going bowling with Dr. Craig Spencer.

Especially Dr. Spencer, who actually carried the virus with him the whole time he was gallivanting around New York City but–we are told, so far–only became contagious in that magical instant when a symptom decided to materialize.

Common sense tells me that, incubation periods, “self-monitoring,” airport screenings, bodily fluids, and droplets aside, your odds of contracting Ebola would be 100 percent greater if you ran into one of these people than if they had stayed home–or in a hospital quarantine tent–where they belong.

One might have thought that medical professionals, particularly medical professionals who have seen first-hand the ravages of Ebola, would be super-duper conscientious about even the minuscule possibility of spreading it–to even one person.

Apparently not.

So, go for it Govs. Christie and Cuomo.

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Christie Shouldn’t Bother Apologizing

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has never apologized for doing it before this and he isn’t starting now. When Christie told a Democratic heckler at an event commemorating the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy to “sit down and shut up,” it was more or less business as usual for the abrasive Republican who has said pretty much the same thing to opponents for years to the applause of his many fans. Yet with Christie giving indications that he is going ahead with a 2016 presidential run, the run-in with a noisy critic got the kind of negative attention that usually spells trouble for a national candidate. The dustup raises the question of whether it is time for him to start toning down the tough guy act. The answer here is that he shouldn’t bother trying.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has never apologized for doing it before this and he isn’t starting now. When Christie told a Democratic heckler at an event commemorating the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy to “sit down and shut up,” it was more or less business as usual for the abrasive Republican who has said pretty much the same thing to opponents for years to the applause of his many fans. Yet with Christie giving indications that he is going ahead with a 2016 presidential run, the run-in with a noisy critic got the kind of negative attention that usually spells trouble for a national candidate. The dustup raises the question of whether it is time for him to start toning down the tough guy act. The answer here is that he shouldn’t bother trying.

In discussing this incident it should be acknowledged that videos of similar Christie smack downs are not hard to find. They are what made him a YouTube star with a national following. Even many GOP conservatives who now despise him for his supposed moderation and who will never forgive Christie for his embrace of President Obama days before the 2012 presidential election used to cheer every time they saw the governor bulldoze anyone who had the temerity to ask a question he didn’t like. If we haven’t seen as much of this from him lately it is because the post-Bridgegate version of Christie has been a lot more subdued than previous incarnations. Getting back to yelling at critics, be they Democrats, teachers, union leaders, or ordinary citizens who didn’t fawn all over him shows that Christie is feeling more like himself these days now that he has been proven to have had no role in the bizarre scheme to cause a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge last year.

Moreover the attention paid to the screaming match shows that he is still a major political star even if his name is nowhere on the ballot this November. The fact that Democrats and liberal groups were doing everything they could to treat the incident as proof that he isn’t fit to be president shows that they fear him as a general-election opponent. Moreover, at this stage of the 2016 election cycle where name recognition and keeping yourself in the public eye is vital it’s fair to say that no publicity is bad publicity as long as it doesn’t involve a scandal. And for all of the huffing and puffing about the awfulness of the confrontation, yelling at someone who is behaving as rudely as Christie’s heckler was doesn’t count as a scandal. Had he apologized as if it was some grievous offense, it would have been more damaging to him than his defiance since it would have shown that he knew that he was out of line and made things even worse the next time it happened, something that is about as certain as the sun rising in the east tomorrow morning.

But even if this wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to Christie, the real reason why he shouldn’t bother apologizing isn’t such good news for the governor: No matter how good or bad his behavior will be over the course of the next two years, he isn’t going to be elected president either way.

His periodic screaming fits caused by his well known thin skin and intolerance of critics would be a major problem for anyone who wants to be president. As we’ve noted in this space before, the public may well tolerate and even like a candidate or an officeholder who doesn’t fit into the usual mold or who acts out every now then. But what will fly when you’re a Northeast governor won’t necessarily work when you’re asking the people to give you control of nuclear weapons instead of just a battalion of state troopers. If Christie were ever to compete seriously as a first-tier candidate in Republican primaries or in a general election, his lack of what is generally considered to be a presidential temperament would be a huge problem. The pressures of a presidential campaign and the certainty of hecklers and critics at every stop would force the thin-skinned governor to either alter his style in a manner that would cause him to lose much of his appeal or lead to daily blowups that would be entertaining but not have a good outcome.

To imagine that a candidate who has done so much to embitter the base of his party would ever win its presidential nomination is to engage in science fiction, not political science. While there is a path to that nomination for someone who isn’t a Tea Partier or dyed-in-the-wool social conservative, Christie has gone too far for that person to be him. Though he may run and can raise the kind of money to put on a credible campaign, it is hard to conjure up a scenario by which the truculent governor winds up outlasting the deep and talented field of Republican presidential contenders.

So Christie should just go on being himself, yelling at anyone he likes. Doing so will be easier on his digestion, good for journalists who cover him, and won’t stop the governor from winning an office to which he will never win election anyway.

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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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Leadership Vacuums and Ebola Quarantines

Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo have taken quite a beating in the last couple of days from both the White House and the liberal mainstream media. The governors of New Jersey and New York became the objects of the scorn of the mainstream media for having, in the words of the New York Times editorial page, “fed panic” by seeking to impose mandatory quarantines on health-care workers returning from West African missions to treat Ebola patients. This was, we were told, a “dangerous” politically motivated overreaction. But amid the rush to pooh-pooh the threat to public health from the deadly virus, the governors’ critics are missing the point. In the absence of a strong and clearly competent response to the problem from Washington, local leaders are obliged to take steps that will definitively assure the public that government is doing what it can to keep them safe. Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder that the intense focus on the disease has influenced both public opinion and hurt President Obama’s party in the midterm elections.

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Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo have taken quite a beating in the last couple of days from both the White House and the liberal mainstream media. The governors of New Jersey and New York became the objects of the scorn of the mainstream media for having, in the words of the New York Times editorial page, “fed panic” by seeking to impose mandatory quarantines on health-care workers returning from West African missions to treat Ebola patients. This was, we were told, a “dangerous” politically motivated overreaction. But amid the rush to pooh-pooh the threat to public health from the deadly virus, the governors’ critics are missing the point. In the absence of a strong and clearly competent response to the problem from Washington, local leaders are obliged to take steps that will definitively assure the public that government is doing what it can to keep them safe. Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder that the intense focus on the disease has influenced both public opinion and hurt President Obama’s party in the midterm elections.

Let me confess that my initial reaction to the first inklings of a threat to Americans from Ebola over the summer was about as complacent as the Times is now, even after the number of cases diagnosed has increased. I assumed the Centers for Disease Control would do its job and that the federal government would do its job without too much fuss and that any alarm about the situation was foolish. But you don’t have to be tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist to have noticed that, like most of what passes for governance from the Obama administration, the response from the to this crisis did not exactly inspire much confidence that they knew what they were doing or had spent much time preparing for various Ebola scenarios.

So it is little wonder that when the first case popped up in the Greater New York area both governors felt that merely sitting back and waiting for the CDC to do the right thing and trusting in the federal government apparatus would be imprudent. Nor, one imagines, was that what most of their constituents wanted them to do.

It may well be true that keeping those who may have been exposed to the virus in quarantine for weeks is unnecessary. It may also be true that scientists believe that the infection can’t spread until the victims start displaying symptoms. But these are the same people that told us that no one was in danger and that it wouldn’t spread. Moreover, the angry response from the CDC to the attempt to create a more comprehensive quarantine seems to be primarily motivated by a desire to squelch criticism rather than a reasoned approach to a problem about which they have already seemed uncertain at times.

While I am normally very sensitive to the imposition of government power with such dispatch or depriving anyone of their liberty, it should be remembered that the primary purpose of government is to defend the lives of its citizens. In this sense, Christie and Cuomo seemed to be acting with sound instincts and not as hysterical spreaders of panic as their critics claimed.

Even more to the point, if anyone has been playing politics with Ebola it has been the administration and its cheering section in the press which, as is the case with the Times, seem more worried about the public’s perception of government incompetence than they are about the problem. Stopping panic is a good idea. Suppressing reasonable criticism of a government that was slow to act is not, and that’s what seems to be behind most of the criticisms of the governors.

As for the health workers themselves, the world owes them a debt of gratitude for being willing to put their lives on the line in West Africa to help the sick. And it is possible that stricter quarantines may discourage some from joining in the effort. But taking actions to assure the public that there is no danger from them on their return from the infected zone is not a political stunt. It is the best kind of public policy. Rather than working overtime to try to convince us that there’s nothing wrong, President Obama and the rest of the federal government should be acting as if they understand that the American people aren’t stupid and can’t be hushed into silence when they know something bad is afoot. The public senses a leadership vacuum and though the governors’ moves were not above criticism, they deserve credit for trying. Which is more than you can say about the president and his minions.

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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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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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Why Did We Learn About Christie’s Innocence From a Leak?

The news that the federal investigation of Bridgegate will absolve New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of any involvement in the bizarre scandal is the most important development in a story that has lingered since the beginning of 2014. But the fact that we learned about it from a leak, rather than a formal announcement of some sort, should raise some eyebrows and raises as many questions as it provides answers to those interested in the story.

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The news that the federal investigation of Bridgegate will absolve New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of any involvement in the bizarre scandal is the most important development in a story that has lingered since the beginning of 2014. But the fact that we learned about it from a leak, rather than a formal announcement of some sort, should raise some eyebrows and raises as many questions as it provides answers to those interested in the story.

If, after nine months of digging into a scandal that, as far as we know, involves no dead bodies, stolen money, or bribery, the Justice Department is still puttering around the affairs of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it’s worth asking what’s taking so long and what are the motives of those sitting on the findings that are apparently conclusive.

But it should also be remembered that what is being investigated here isn’t all that mysterious. With the vast resources of the government at their disposal, it’s hard to imagine exactly what it is about the traffic jam that is taking so long to figure out.

Even WNBC’s sources, which are, we are assured, government officials and not connected to the Christie camp in any way, say the federal probe of Bridgegate is not concluded. This is an interesting fact in and of itself since it shows that, as is their practice in all too many of their cases, having found that the intended object of their investigation is innocent, the Justice Department investigators are desperately searching for a way to indict someone for something, even if it has nothing to do with the bridge.

In other words, the effort to find out who it was that decided to close lanes on the bridge and set off days of traffic jams that inconvenienced many thousands of citizens has probably turned into a fishing expedition in which the FBI may be looking for something that can be called a crime even if the original scandal is not one.

That prospect is bad enough because it demonstrates again the power of the feds to nail anyone who gets in their cross hairs, even if they have to invent a new crime to justify their waste of time and money on an investigation that had run into a dead-end. But the length of the investigation and the refusal of the Justice Department to wind up a matter that is not, as far as anyone knows, actually about anything more serious than a wacky revenge plot involving a local New Jersey political feud between the governor’s office in Trenton and the mayor of Fort Lee is curious.

Yet the decision of some on the inside of the probe to leak the principal findings of their work is even more curious. Why did they do it?

The first reason that comes to mind is the possibility that higher-ups in the Justice Department are deliberately slow-walking the investigation or stalling the release of its findings. The most likely motive for such shenanigans is obvious. The longer the investigation continues, the more damage is done to Christie, a Republican that many in the administration rightly fear as a dangerous opponent for the Democrats in 2016.

Is that an unreasonable suspicion? No doubt Attorney General Eric Holder’s defenders will insist that it is outrageous to even suspect him of doing anything like that. But the highly political way Holder has conducted the affairs of the Justice Department, including its involvement in voter ID cases in which it has taken up the partisan talking points of the Democratic Party, makes it clear that politics is always at the top of the agenda at Justice these days. A slow-walking of the probe also allows Democrats in the New Jersey State Legislature to continue their own lengthy and predictably pointless and inconclusive dive into the Bridgegate mess whose only purpose is to embarrass and/or damage the governor.

That may not be true. But there is also no reason for the Department to be sitting on the main results of any Bridgegate investigation. If the leaks are correct and Christie has been found to be innocent in the scandal then that needs to be formally announced and not kept under wraps for a moment longer. If investigators are now trying to lay some other crime, real or imagined, at the feet of someone else in his administration, that needs to be put on the table immediately as well.

The unnecessary traffic jams caused by some political mischief makers was an outrageous abuse of power but no matter who did it, it has never been exactly clear that it was a crime as opposed to something that is merely outrageous rather than illegal. It shouldn’t take this long to answer that question or the one about the authors of the bridge decision. The longer the Justice Department continues their part in this farce, the more it is becoming clear that in this affair, it may be that the investigation is a bigger scandal than the traffic jams.

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Bridgegate, the Media, and Lessons for 2016

The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

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The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

That means that if Christie really is exonerated–which he has been insisting he would be for months–conservatives should expect the leftist press to choose a new target. Although the coverage of this scandal leaves the mainstream press looking utterly humiliated, they won’t be humbled. A good precedent is when the New York Times concocted false accusations against John McCain in 2008 intended to destroy not just his campaign but his family; after the story was called out for the unethical hit job it was, especially on the right, then-Times editor Bill Keller responded: “My first tendency when they do that is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.”

Getting called out for bias only makes the media more likely to give in to its vindictive instincts. This is the press version of an in-kind contribution, and those contributions don’t go to Republican campaigns.

In January conservative media watchers were passing around the statistics that showed the lopsided coverage the media was giving “Bridgegate” vs. the IRS scandal. One of the charts, which showed dedicated coverage over a fixed period of time, bothered reporters. In one of the unconvincing “defenses” of his fellow journalists, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza objected:

The comparison made in this chart in terms of coverage is not an apples to apples one.  The IRS story broke on May 10. That’s a full 52 days before the Media Research Center began counting the minutes of news coverage devoted to it. The Christie story, on the other hand, broke in the Bergen Record on Jan. 8, the same day that MRC began tracking its mentions in the media.

What Cillizza actually demonstrated, unintentionally, was a far worse aspect of the coverage that was tougher to quantify but jumps off the screen from Cillizza’s post. And that is the general lack of interest on the part of reporters in digging into the government’s shocking misconduct–you know, practicing journalism. The lack of curiosity has been astounding.

As our Pete Wehner wrote the other day, forget basic reporting: the press ignored a genuine piece of Benghazi-related news when it fell in their laps. That’s how the IRS developments happened too. The initial story was announced in the IRS’s attempt to get out in front of a report that had discovered the abuse of power and was going to detail its findings. The IRS decided to try to spin the news in advance to take control of the story.

And the recent revelations of the IRS’s ongoing strategy of destroying evidence during the investigation were brought to the public’s attention by the group Judicial Watch, which has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents. The latest piece of news, that Attorney General Eric Holder’s office tried to coordinate a strategy with House Democrats to blunt the impact of future revelations about the IRS’s illegal targeting scheme, came to light because Holder’s office accidentally called Darrell Issa’s office instead of Democrat Elijah Cummings.

The difference in media coverage was only part of the story, then. The more serious part was that the media is just not doing their jobs when the target of the investigation is the Obama administration. That doesn’t mean all reporters, of course, or that they’re ignoring all stories. But the pattern is pretty clear: when we learn something about Obama administration misbehavior, it’s generally not from reporters, many of whom eventually get hired by the Obama administration.

The other aspect of the coverage gap is the type of story. Surely Cillizza thinks a staffer closing lanes on a bridge, however indefensible, is a different caliber of story than the IRS, at the encouragement of high-ranking Democrats, undertaking a targeting scheme to silence Obama’s critics in the lead-up to his reelection. Cillizza was right, in other words: conservatives weren’t comparing apples to apples. But he was wrong in thinking that stacked the deck in favor of conservatives’ conclusion; the opposite was the case.

We’ve already seen this with other prospective GOP 2016 candidates. When Wisconsin prosecutors initiated a wide-ranging “John Doe” investigation intended to silence conservative groups and voters in Wisconsin and level false allegations against Scott Walker, the media ran with the story. It turned out that the investigation was so unethical that those prosecutors now stand accused broad civil-rights violations. But the point of the coverage is to echo the false allegations against Walker, not to get the story right. So the media moved on.

And they moved on to Rick Perry, who was the target of an indictment so demented that only the most extreme liberals defended it. The point of the case, though, was to get headlines announcing Perry’s indictment. This one may have backfired because it was so insane that, aside from former Obama advisor Jim Messina, Rachel Maddow, and a couple writers for liberal magazines, the left tried to distance themselves from it. But the fact remains: Rick Perry is under indictment.

The criminalization of politics is part of the left’s broader lawfare strategy. This is the sort of thing repellent to democratic values and certainly should draw critical attention from the press. Instead, they’ve chosen to enable it.

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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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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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Christie’s Gambling Double-Down and 2016

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in Mexico last week on a trip that was aimed at improving his foreign-policy credentials but undermined his reputation for frankness by refusing to talk about immigration while south of the border. But upon his return he did even more damage to his prospects for 2016 by announcing a decision to allow Atlantic City casinos and New Jersey racetracks to allow betting on sports. In doing so, the governor not only doubled down on a failed bet that gambling revenue will save the state but also gave more ammunition to opponents who are already convinced that he is not a conservative.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in Mexico last week on a trip that was aimed at improving his foreign-policy credentials but undermined his reputation for frankness by refusing to talk about immigration while south of the border. But upon his return he did even more damage to his prospects for 2016 by announcing a decision to allow Atlantic City casinos and New Jersey racetracks to allow betting on sports. In doing so, the governor not only doubled down on a failed bet that gambling revenue will save the state but also gave more ammunition to opponents who are already convinced that he is not a conservative.

Christie earned his reputation as a straight talker largely because he was willing to confront municipal unions and refused to continue to fund a Hudson River tunnel project that the state couldn’t afford. But his strong support for an increased reliance on gambling to revive a faltering Atlantic City economy did not get the same national attention. But instead of helping bring the resort back, the massive investment on the part of the state in gambling did nothing to save businesses that were already doomed. The closing of two large casinos in the resort at the end of the summer season was a severe blow to Christie’s policy. The collapse of the new Revel casino was a particular embarrassment since, as Breibart.com noted when its demise was announced, Christie had put $260 million in state tax rebates in the scheme to build it.

The collapse of the $2 billion project on Christie’s watch cannot be entirely blamed on the governor but he does bear responsibility for the state’s role in the mess. Nor was that the only government connection. The New Jersey state pension board invested another $300 million in a hedge fund with a stake in the casino.

But the problem here isn’t just the gloomy business environment in the shore resort. It’s that rather than honestly facing the city’s problems and seeking a diversification of investment that might give the place a chance, Christie insisted on pouring more money into gambling at a time when there was already ample reason to believe Atlantic City’s time as a gambling boom town was over. With neighboring states like Pennsylvania building their own resorts as well as competition from Indian reservations, Christie’s foolish investment in even more gambling was never going to work. But, as savvy state political observers noted, it was popular with unions that stood to gain jobs in the short term from the investments.

Yet even if we are prepared to give Christie a pass for his mistake in betting on gambling in the past, his latest gambit—legal sports betting—shows him and New Jersey to be hopelessly addicted to gambling revenue.

Christie, who is joined in support for sports gambling by some state Democrats, thinks allowing betting on major sports is the ticket to save an industry that is over-saturated in the region. Given the massive amounts of illegal betting on sports, especially football, the notion of allowing the state to get a share of that bonanza makes some sense. But, as was already amply proven over the last 30 years, Atlantic City is not Las Vegas. What works in the latter may not prove profitable in the former. Moreover, the major sports leagues have already tied up the state’s efforts to get in on the action in court. That’s why Christie’s announcement that the state would not prosecute casinos and racetracks that allowed sports betting caught these operations by surprise since they know any money spent on this may be a sunk cost if the courts rule against them.

Just as important for Christie, if he persists in this policy it will mean that his battles with some of the most popular sports businesses in the nation will be going on when he is presumably planning to run for president. The idea of campaigning in states where he needs the support of evangelicals and conservatives while putting the weight of his state behind efforts to expand gambling will make it even harder for him to pretend that he is someone who shares the values or the interests of core Republican voters. The leagues will argue, with some justice, that what Christie is doing would put the integrity of America’s most beloved pastimes in jeopardy. That he will be pursuing that crusade merely in order to pay for New Jersey’s government rather than seeking to trim it will also not play well in GOP primaries.

Christie may believe that Bridgegate won’t hurt him and that he can fake his way through foreign-policy questions that betray his lack of experience as well as his paucity of knowledge about such questions. But his gambling dependence problem is not something that can be wished away in a conservative primary. In a field where he may face candidates who have better conservative credentials, a betting habit won’t help Christie close the sale with Republicans.

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Cuomo and the Bridgegate Precedent

Today, the investigation of questionable conduct in undermining the work of a New York state ethics commission stopped being a tiff between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Times. When the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issues a letter saying that it believes commissioners are being influenced to give false statements, Cuomo’s problem has become a matter of legal peril rather than bad public relations. But don’t expect this story to dominate the news cycle the way New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problems did a few months ago.

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Today, the investigation of questionable conduct in undermining the work of a New York state ethics commission stopped being a tiff between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Times. When the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issues a letter saying that it believes commissioners are being influenced to give false statements, Cuomo’s problem has become a matter of legal peril rather than bad public relations. But don’t expect this story to dominate the news cycle the way New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problems did a few months ago.

Ironically, the blowup in the Cuomo investigation comes just a day after Politico ran a feature asking whether Christie had recovered sufficiently from the Bridgegate mess to return to his former status as a formidable Republican presidential contender. The jury is out on that question but Cuomo’s legal problems and the relative lack of interest in the story by the cable news channels that were all-Bridgegate all-the-time at the start of 2014 raises some interesting questions about media bias.

The first point to be made about federal investigation of the way Cuomo’s office sabotaged the Moreland Commission before the governor disbanded it is that it is a lot more serious than the batty decision to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge last fall.

As I wrote on Monday, Cuomo empowered the commission to investigate the endemic practice of pay-to-play in state government that has made Albany an ethics cesspool for decades. But, as the New York Times reported last week, as soon as it started poking around into businesses that were linked to the governor, the word went out from the governor’s office to cease and desist. Cuomo’s appointees followed orders, though apparently some members of the commission protested since they had foolishly thought the governor was serious when he told them to ferret out corruption. Seeing that the commission was going to be a problem and not the sort of harmless stunt that would make a show of his concern for probity, he quickly disbanded it.

Not unreasonably, this has prompted the Justice Department to look into the matter. At the very least, some people on Cuomo’s staff may be in peril of obstruction of justice charges that will taint the governor’s office. But given his own reputation as a political bully with a predilection for issuing threats to political opponents and allies alike, it is not unreasonable to suspect the chief executive may also be involved in efforts to quiet witnesses or perhaps even involvement in the original effort to stop the investigation of a firm that had helped him get elected. That all has yet to be determined, but the willingness of the Times to buy into this scandal with the sort of space and prominent placement and the decision of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District—who is, by the way, a Democrat and an Obama appointee—to double down in the charges with the latest letter illustrates the seriousness of this problem.

In other words, Cuomo is in big trouble and not just media-firestorm trouble but in the kind of legal problem that ends political careers in disgrace.

But, as consumers of our 24/7 news cycle may have noticed, despite the involvement of the country’s liberal flagship newspaper, this Ethics Comissiongate (suggestions for a better scandal “gate” moniker will be welcomed) is still flying below the radar on the same stations that obsessed over Bridgegate.

To state this fact is not to assume Cuomo’s guilt or to deny the seriousness of Bridgegate. The bridge scandal was an example of what happens when small-minded officials and staffers use the great power that has been put in their hands to maliciously inconvenience ordinary citizens in order to pursue petty feuds against other political figures. Anyone involved in plotting this piece of lunacy deserves all the opprobrium that can be rained down on his or her worthless heads.

It is also true that Bridgegate resonated with the public because it illustrated another side of Christie’s well-known public behavior. His penchant for bluntly scourging his critics and punishing his foes was seen as amusing and made him a YouTube star when it was limited to foils like union officials and obnoxious liberals. But even if the genesis of the traffic jam cannot be directly linked to Christie, it is fair to note that those staffers who were involved seemed to be acting in a manner that was consistent with the governor’s instincts. That is something that is always going to be held against Christie and, as Politico noted, his ongoing arrogant behavior toward friends and foes alike merely adds fuel to the fire. This far out from the 2016 contest, it is impossible to know whether Christie still has a chance. But Bridgegate will remain a problem for him if only because it is the sort of scandal that is easily understood (everybody hates traffic jams and has cursed those who create them) and is prime fodder for TV comics.

Cuomo’s legal peril is not quite as comedic or visceral in nature. But it is far more serious. The willingness of the governor to allegedly quash a subpoena on a firm that was a campaign vendor is a classic example of corruption. The governor’s effort to spin this, perhaps aided by an effort to coach witnesses to echo his denials, is, at best, suspicious, and very likely criminal in nature. That means Cuomo can forget about running for president someday and should instead concentrate on staying out of federal prison.

But instead of panels endlessly examining the evidence and pondering the political implications, most of the media yawns. At its peak, Bridgegate got more coverage than other more serious scandals such as the IRS’s discriminatory treatment of conservative groups, government spying, Benghazi, or even wrongdoing at the VA. So it is hardly surprising that Cuomo’s woes aren’t generating the same wall-to-wall attention. Could the reason for that be that Christie was a Republican and these other scandals involve Democrats and the Obama administration? Anyone who can’t connect those dots hasn’t been paying attention to the way the media works.

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