Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mitt Romney

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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The Ridiculous Controversy Over Hillary’s Speaking Fees

Hillary Clinton has made it clear she would like to be treated as a presidential candidate, even though she has yet to announce and make it official. This has obvious advantages: it signals to those Democrats who might otherwise want to run that the Clintons, famous for their grudge-holding, will be scanning the field for those who would stand between the Clintons and the seat of power. They will be making a list and checking it twice.

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Hillary Clinton has made it clear she would like to be treated as a presidential candidate, even though she has yet to announce and make it official. This has obvious advantages: it signals to those Democrats who might otherwise want to run that the Clintons, famous for their grudge-holding, will be scanning the field for those who would stand between the Clintons and the seat of power. They will be making a list and checking it twice.

But it also has its downsides. For example, Clinton is attracting a presidential candidate’s level of press attention. But there isn’t much of interest out of Clintonland just yet. Hillary will wait to express opinions on the issues of the day until she knows who her sacrificial opponents will be and can run all the polling and focus groups she needs to so she can memorize what she’s supposed to pretend to think. Additionally, the Clinton Global Initiative has taken to keeping reporters in the basement and preventing them from going to the bathroom unattended to make sure they don’t accidentally produce any interesting journalism from the organization’s events.

So what does a 24/7 political press have to write about, then? When it comes to Hillary Clinton, the answer is articles like this, from the Washington Post, on the going rate to get Clinton to speak at your college:

So you want to book Hillarypalooza? For starters, you’re going to need some serious wampum — like $300,000 worth, if you’re getting the “special university rate.” From there, things get somewhat easier, assuming you and your team have easy access to lemon wedges, quadrilateral pillows and hummus.

According to internal communications obtained and published by This Very Publication, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s notable requirements include:

  • A case of room-temperature water (still only — no bubbles)
  • A “computer, mouse and printer, as well as a scanner”
  • A lavaliere microphone
  • Chairs with two long rectangular pillows
  • “A carafe of warm/hot water, coffee cup and saucer, pitcher of room temperature water, water glass, and lemon wed­ges,” onstage as well as in a VIP meet-and-greet room.
  • And diet ginger ale and a platter of crudité and hummus in the green room.

The Post story then goes on to ask the question on everyone’s mind: how do Clinton’s demands stack up next to those of 50 Cent, Meat Loaf, the Rolling Stones, and, of course, Van Halen? The story answers that question, comparing contract riders between Hillary and those acts as procured by the website TheSmokingGun.com.

Of course, the famous Van Halen demand for a bowl of M&Ms with “ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES” was to make sure the hosts actually read the whole document. Presumably Hillary actually wants those lemon wedges, bubbleless water, and chairs with two rectangular pillows.

The inevitable question: who cares?

Well, on the merits, hopefully the answer is: absolutely nobody (aside from those contractually obligated to care about Hillary’s lemon wedges). But it’s news anyway, for two reasons. First, Clinton wanted to be treated as a presidential candidate, and presidential candidates’ current professional contracts are of some interest, especially to reporters with deadlines. Second, it feeds an existing narrative about Clinton.

And that’s where this gets dicey for Hillary. Not dicey in the sense that it would actually swing a single vote. Indeed, it’s dreadfully boring, entirely legal, and perfectly appropriate behavior. But as well all know, the mainstream media does not do complexity very well. They need a narrative, and a simple one at that, if they are to be able to process lots of information.

The current narrative about Hillary is one she intentionally created: that the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination should be a coronation, a crowning of the next member of the Democrats’ post-Kennedy royal family. The details likely to be picked up from such stories will conform to that narrative.

To wit: when Clinton gave a speech at UNLV and was paid $225,000 for it, students, “citing the rising cost of tuition,” protested and asked for the money to be returned to the school. But the school didn’t pay for the speech; a nonprofit foundation associated with the school did. And her appearance took in more in donations than the cost of the speech anyway.

At UCLA, her speech was paid for by a private donor. There is literally nothing objectionable about Hillary’s speaking fees. But far juicier to national newspapers than who paid for the speech are details like this: “Top university officials discussed at length the style and color of the executive armchairs Clinton and moderator Lynn Vavreck would sit in,” as well as this: “When university officials decided to award Clinton the UCLA Medal, Clinton’s team asked that it be presented to her in a box rather than draped around her neck.”

Clinton is fair game, and neither her speaking fees nor the stories written about them are out of line. To some extent, she’s walking a mile in Mitt Romney’s shoes. She’s rich and famous and awkward. But unlike Romney, she wants everyone to know at all times how important she is, and that she is to be treated as such. And so the royalty narrative, which she actively feeds, will persist, and it won’t always be flattering. And even when the stories are impossibly dumb and pointless, there won’t exactly be a reservoir of sympathy for the wealthy false populist who wants to be treated like a queen.

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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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Bobby Jindal: One Wonk to Rule Them All?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dem Senate Candidates: Bombs Away!

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

As Politico recounts in a story today, Democratic Senate candidates are finding their inner hawks on the campaign trail, but none more noticeably than Shaheen, the New Hampshire incumbent trying to fend off a challenge from Scott Brown. Shaheen, on matters of war and peace, is a walking focus group:

When she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said at a debate: “I’ll stand with President Bush on national security, the war on terrorism and to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

In a 2008 rematch against then-Sen. John Sununu, after the war had gone south, Shaheen vowed to fight to bring the troops home.

“I would vote to authorize military action if the U.S. or any of its treaty partners are attacked militarily, and to prevent an imminent attack,” she said on a 2008 questionnaire. But “I oppose the Bush doctrine of preemption because it implies that the United States will use preemption as a first option, rather than a last resort.”

Setting aside her obvious ignorance of the Bush doctrine (an ignorance she shares with virtually everyone on the left), we should ask Shaheen: Which way are the winds blowing this time? Answer:

Republican candidate Scott Brown has been hammering Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for failing to understand “the nature of the threat,” as he put it in one commercial that began airing last week.

This has prompted the freshman Democrat to begin quietly running a response ad (her campaign has not released it to the news media), in which she says: “I support those airstrikes. I think it’s important for us to take the fight to ISIL.”

A narrator accuses Brown of playing politics and says, over patriotic music, that Shaheen “always works to keep America strong.”

Even her ads are a study in contradiction. It’s apparently “playing politics” for politicians to campaign on the issues, and yet Shaheen takes the bait and claims that she, too, enthusiastically wants to bomb some folks, as the president might say.

But Shaheen is just a product of a Democratic Party that has not had a coherent approach to national security in over a decade. During President Bush’s first term, Al Gore maniacally accused him of betraying the country. The Democrats then nominated John Kerry in 2004, to make crystal clear they didn’t have the energy to even pretend they cared about national security.

In 2008, Democrats nominated Barack Obama, whose antiwar speech in 2002, lauded by the left, was startlingly unintelligent and Ron Paul-esque in its wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Obama followed the usual fringe leftist critique of blaming Wolfowitz and Perle for manipulating the country into war. He also called them “weekend warriors,” showing he doesn’t know what “weekend warrior” means. He then accused Karl Rove of manufacturing the war to distract the country from the economy and to protect corporate evildoers from public opprobrium. The speech sounded like a raving fusion of Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones. So naturally the Democrats chose him to represent their party.

And then when he won, the script had to be flipped. The president was introduced to reality, and he embraced his power to expand America’s war in the Middle East and Central Asia. He had genuine successes, like the operation to take out Osama bin Laden, which he then made his campaign slogan to the extent that it was actually surprising his nominating convention speech didn’t feature him standing over bin Laden’s body while exclaiming to the audience “Are you not entertained?

Indeed they were entertained. The thousands of Democratic Party voters and activists cheered on targeted assassination. In his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney, Obama taunted his challenger’s lack of appetite for the messy business of spilling bad-guy blood. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, then stepped down and immediately spread the word that Obama was insufficiently hawkish for her, and that, as she rocketed to the top of 2016 Democratic polls, she would take the country further into battle. You only think you’re entertained now, Clinton’s message intimated; you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And that was all before Obama abandoned Iraq and watched ISIS rise, march on territory, and then start beheading Americans. The public may have been war weary, but they won’t stand for being targeted with impunity. Obama did the right thing and agreed to try and push back ISIS and protect the ethnic and religious minority groups whose existence ISIS was trying to extinguish. He also was informed of credible threats against America and acted accordingly.

And Democratic candidates are following suit. The idea of “antiwar liberals” was always something of a misnomer. They were, mostly, anti-Bush or anti-Republican liberals. What matters most to the left is not who is being bombed but who is ordering the bombing. It’s why Jim Webb is probably kidding himself if he believes an antiwar candidate poses a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton. If he wants to know if there’s space on the left for a serious antiwar campaign, he’s going through entirely too much effort by traveling around the country and talking to prospective supporters. All he really needs to do is ask Jeanne Shaheen.

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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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Why We’re Still Obsessing About Romney

When Mitt Romney told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that there was a “one in a million” shot that he would run again for president, the 2012 Republican nominee probably thought he was, once again, shooting down speculation about him considering a 2016 run. But by prefacing it with the words “circumstances can change,” Romney gave pundits enough to restart speculation about his intentions. Those claiming that Romney is reconsidering his plans are almost certainly wrong. But the reason why so many are talking about this tells us a lot more about the GOP’s problems than it does about Romney.

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When Mitt Romney told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that there was a “one in a million” shot that he would run again for president, the 2012 Republican nominee probably thought he was, once again, shooting down speculation about him considering a 2016 run. But by prefacing it with the words “circumstances can change,” Romney gave pundits enough to restart speculation about his intentions. Those claiming that Romney is reconsidering his plans are almost certainly wrong. But the reason why so many are talking about this tells us a lot more about the GOP’s problems than it does about Romney.

That even a savvy political junkie like Chuck Todd would bite on this story and say on MSNBC’s Morning Rundown show today that Romney’s statement “opens the door a crack” to a 2016 run illustrates a few things.

The first is that once the Democratic attack machine that spent a solid year sliming Romney shut down it was possible for a lot of people to start noticing that Romney was not the cartoon villain his opponents claimed him to be. His decency, good humor, and competency look even better because of the ongoing disaster that Barack Obama’s second term has been. After a year and a half of ineptitude, scandals, and foreign-policy disasters, the national buyer’s remorse about giving Obama another four years has softened Romney’s image and given him a legitimacy that the president’s cheering section in the mainstream media denied him when he was a candidate.

But it must also be admitted that one of the reasons so many people continue to try and raise Romney’s name is that none of the likely Republican contenders for 2016 have yet eclipsed the 2012 nomine.

Bridgegate derailed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 2016 juggernaut. Senator Marco Rubio, who seemed the party’s savior at the end of 2012, has had some ups and downs with respect to immigration and sometimes gave the impression that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Jeb Bush appears unlikely to buck his mother’s advice and probably won’t run. Governor Scott Walker is in the fight of his life seeking reelection in Wisconsin. Many in the national party don’t take Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal seriously as a presidential prospect. Senator Ted Cruz is loved by the Tea Party but hated by everyone else in the Senate and viewed as likely to be a disaster in a general election.

Rick Santorum would like the GOP to continue its tradition of nominating the runner-up from the previous primary battle, but he’s finding that most Republicans are as apathetic about his candidacy now as they were before 2012.

The one candidate who has gained ground in the last two years is Senator Rand Paul, who has expanded the libertarian base of his extremist father and shown himself to be a savvy politician even if his isolationist policies are being exposed as ill suited to the times by events in the Middle East. But while it must be conceded that Paul has a plausible chance to be the nominee, mainstream Republican opposition to him remains fierce.

All of which leaves some on the right wondering if they might not be better off trying Romney again. In a more rational world, saying that there’s a one-in-a-million shot of something happening would be interpreted as proof that it won’t, but we are discussing politics, not reason. Yet leaving aside the fact that Romney has made it perfectly clear that he won’t run again, there are good reasons why he shouldn’t even if the former Massachusetts governor changes his mind.

First and foremost is the fact that, as Romney has repeatedly said, he already tried and lost. It’s been nearly 50 years since one of the parties nominated a candidate that had already lost a general election to run for president. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but the odds are it won’t. Were Romney to start making real noises about running, the new respect he’s earned in the media would evaporate and Democrats would restart their smear campaigns about his faith and his business experience. He may have been right about the threat from Russia and much else in 2012, but don’t expect anyone in the media to remember that if he intended to run again.

More to the point, a Romney candidacy would throw away the one clear advantage the Republicans have going into the 2016 race. Any Republican running against Hillary Clinton is going to seem like a fresh-faced outsider in comparison to that veteran of more than 20 years of Washington political infighting. Anyone, that is, other than Romney. In spite of his ability to raise money and the trust he has earned from many on the right because of his dogged underdog fight against Obama, Romney would come across as a tired, if likeable retread. That isn’t going to be a winning formula against the person who will be touted as America’s potential first female president.

Republicans, especially conservatives, have good reason to feel some remorse about Romney. Many of them spent most of 2012 trashing him as a RINO instead of doing everything they could to help him beat Obama. That wasn’t the reason he lost. The odds against any Republican going up against the first African-American president were always almost insurmountable and once the economic tailspin in late 2011 turned into the more stable situation of 2012, Obama’s reelection was probably guaranteed. The awful reality of an Obama second term has inspired a surprising amount of nostalgia for Romney’s gallant efforts. But that’s no substitute for a competent and competitive 2016 candidate.

Republicans need to re-focus on their party’s deep bench. All of the possible GOP candidates will be underdogs against Clinton. But there are many with genuine promise and there’s plenty of time for them to hit their stride in the next two years. Romney deserves the love he’s belatedly getting from Republicans, but looking forward rather than backward is the GOP’s only path to victory in 2016.

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No, Virginia, There Is No Swing Voter

If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

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If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Whatever your answer is to the original philosophical question, it should remain unchanged in this version. Swing voters, like political “independents,” are rarely more than science fiction.

That is not to say that voters never change their minds. It’s that when they do so, they tend to trade one opinion for another, not graduate from being undecided (no matter what they tell pollsters). More evidence for this comes from Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman, who takes to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog to explain the results of his latest political science survey, conducted along with coauthors David Rothschild, Sharad Goel, and Doug Rivers.

At the blog, Gelman quotes the study’s abstract:

How can election polls swing so much given the increasingly polarized nature of American politics, where switching one’s support between candidates is a significant move? We investigate this question by conducting a novel panel survey of 83,283 people repeatedly polled over the last 45 days of the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign. We find that reported swings in public opinion polls are generally not due to actual shifts in vote intention, but rather are the result of temporary periods of relatively low response rates by supporters of the reportedly slumping candidate. After correcting for this bias, we show there were nearly constant levels of support for the candidates during what appeared, based on traditional polling, to be the most volatile stretches of the campaign. Our results raise the possibility that decades of large, reported swings in public opinion — including the perennial “convention bounce” — are largely artifacts of sampling bias.

He adds:

The short story is much of the apparent changes in public opinion are actually changes in patterns of nonresponse:  When it looked like Romney jumped in popularity, what was really happening was that disaffected Democrats were not responding to the survey while resurgent Republicans were more likely to respond.

Gelman also notes a bit of humorous backstory:

This is a big deal and it represents a major change in my thinking compared to my 1993 paper with Gary King, “Why are American Presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable?” At that time, we gave an explanation for changes in opinion, but in retrospect, now I’m thinking that many of these apparent swings were really just differential nonresponse.  Funny that we never thought of that.

That original question, though, arguably has accrued more relevance over the last two decades. It also seems like a fascinating reversal of process. Polls always carried with them a sense of scientific authority (today they are just plain fetishized). So even though the variability of polls in many elections just didn’t seem right, there wasn’t much more to that. The numbers said one thing and instincts or personal experience another. The numbers always won out. Gelman and Co. have flipped the script in a way.

The polling “swings” are consequential, however. As the authors note in their paper, they inspire a narrative of momentum and create a bandwagon effect:

For example, the Romney campaign saw a surge in donations and volunteers in the days following the debate, attributed in part to his perceived viability. Moreover, of the $400 million raised in the month between the debate and election day, donors making rational investment decisions would have likely directed some of their contributions to tighter senatorial elections if they did not believe the race for president was so close. Further, in an age of highly targeted campaign strategies (Hillygus and Shields 2009), misunderstanding voter intent likely affects decisions ranging from state-by-state spending (over $650 million was spent in that final month) to the general tone of the candidates. Finally, major poll movements often extend into the wider world, affecting, for example, stock and commodity prices (Snowberg, Wolfers and Zitzewitz 2007).

This helps explain why Barack Obama’s campaigns have been so successful. In both 2008 and 2012, the GOP presidential nominee was not exactly beloved by the party’s base. Obama had no such struggles. As I wrote here last month, we may scoff at the methods by which the Obama team fires up the Democratic base, but it is undeniable that firing up the base is an important component of a successful campaign.

In 2012 especially, it appeared bizarre that Obama had abandoned “independent” voters for Big Bird and birth control–a strategy that relied on the angry left to power the campaign. There’s a good reason to ignore independents: as I’ve argued before, they don’t exist, at least not in the numbers the media thinks. The country is deeply polarized; according to Pew, “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history.” Vote swings are not the result of swing voters, and campaigns should plan accordingly.

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OFA the Undead: A Political Zombie’s Lessons for Conservatives

Mary Katherine Ham called attention last night to a rather humorous ongoing correspondence between Organizing for Action and the Washington Post. OFA is the perpetual Obama reelection campaign, which has been retooled to act as a campaign organization without a campaign. It’s an organizational zombie, which reflects the Obama administration’s own attitude toward their perceived value in the permanent campaign, even when there are no elections left (they even run the Barack Obama Twitter account). But there are lessons, I think, for conservatives in OFA’s story.

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Mary Katherine Ham called attention last night to a rather humorous ongoing correspondence between Organizing for Action and the Washington Post. OFA is the perpetual Obama reelection campaign, which has been retooled to act as a campaign organization without a campaign. It’s an organizational zombie, which reflects the Obama administration’s own attitude toward their perceived value in the permanent campaign, even when there are no elections left (they even run the Barack Obama Twitter account). But there are lessons, I think, for conservatives in OFA’s story.

The basic story is that, as Ham notes, Post political blogger Philip Bump wrote a piece in May that called attention to the fact that OFA was a purposeless shell, aimlessly wandering the country and unable to make a legislative impact on its pet political issues. Bump wrote about OFA’s announcement that with the midterms approaching and the need to maximize fundraising to candidates, it will stop accepting large donations. “Even without that news,” he added, “it’s not clear how much longer OFA will survive.”

OFA, coming from its formative experience as an Obama campaign machine, handles bad press about as well as you would expect the humorless president’s cultish fan clubs would. They challenged Bump over the next couple months to acknowledge and grade their work. He did, and he found that he was right. They’re a joke:

Organizing For Action has spent two months sending emails to the Post, trying to convince us of its effectiveness. (They were unhappy with this post asking how long the organization could survive.) So, we decided to look at what the group’s executive director, Jon Carson, was sending us. To catalog it. To do exactly what Carson apparently intended: Evaluate their work.

In short, we were not terribly impressed. …

By the most important metric, the group is largely ineffective. Of the priorities above — which, according to the group’s mandate, are meant to bolster federal efforts — none has seen national legislative action. The president introduced new restrictions on carbon pollution, but that was an executive action, not legislation. Immigration reform has stalled; there hasn’t been a national minimum wage increase. All of these things are difficult, given the opposition the president faces from Republicans in Congress, but that’s the point, right? Encourage people to take action in their communities? Bottom up change and all that?

Nonetheless, there are a couple things conservatives can learn from OFA’s good days and bad.

The first is that they should not dismiss OFA’s raison d’être. Though we often criticize the means by which the Democrats drum up support from their base–I regularly knock the White House’s “war on women” and took a shot at the pitiful attempts to get the GOP to talk impeachment–rallying the base itself is something conservatives should get used to, and the Obama campaign was very good at it.

Conservatives have tended to recoil a bit from the politicization of everything, and with good reason. But getting involved in partisan politics in a democracy is, as our Pete Wehner noted a couple weeks ago, a noble effort. I’m often reminded of the Jews in DP camps after World War II organizing themselves into political parties, ready to combat the tyranny they were subjected to not with more tyranny but with party politics as practiced by free men–even before they were truly free.

The instinct to organize and vote in or out policies and politicians according to your values and principles is the right way to change what needs changing. Liberal activism often has the feel of mob rule because that’s exactly what it is–except when those same activists who spend their time ostracizing the people they disagree with or destroying the livelihood of a thought criminal show up to the polls and vote. It’s terrible that liberals want to undo the protections in the First Amendment. But they give their authoritarian dreams hope of becoming reality by electing senators who actually introduce their wish lists as bills in Congress. Boosting turnout and organizing political action is the way they do that. Conservatives can’t expect to stop them by hoping John Roberts finds his spine.

The other lesson for conservatives is that the OFA zombie is a very leftist creature. I don’t just mean the politics, which are shallow and conventionally liberal. Its walking dead routine is the logical result of applying the liberal world view to any such organization. It becomes a bureaucracy that never disappears and simply prowls the night desperate for something to feed on.

Conservatives should learn not only from the left’s strengths but their weaknesses. This was a lesson conservatives may have learned from the spectacular failure of the Romney campaign’s get out the vote program. It had many problems, but one was surely its overly hierarchical command structure.

The Tea Party is best placed to relate to the organizing of the left because it is a grassroots movement that got candidates elected to Congress. The existence of a Tea Party Caucus is a good example of how these organizations get bureaucratized and then stuck in place, ultimately working against their own best interests thanks to their obsession with their brand. But there’s still a lot the right can learn from an Obama campaign organization that now seems to be plodding off, arms outstretched, into the sunset.

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Romney Beats Obama and 2016

Republicans are chortling this week over a new CNN poll that shows that if a new presidential election were to be held today, Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama by a 53 to 44 percent margin. Democrats dismiss this as merely the normal second-term blues while the GOP sees it as buyer’s remorse that bodes well for the midterms. Both may be right, but either party would be foolish to mortgage their futures on these results.

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Republicans are chortling this week over a new CNN poll that shows that if a new presidential election were to be held today, Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama by a 53 to 44 percent margin. Democrats dismiss this as merely the normal second-term blues while the GOP sees it as buyer’s remorse that bodes well for the midterms. Both may be right, but either party would be foolish to mortgage their futures on these results.

This is not the first poll to show a reversal of the last presidential election. In November 2013, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that Romney was favored by a 49-45 percent margin. The further decline of the president’s popularity in the new poll demonstrates just how far we’ve come from November 2012 when Obama won by a clear 51-47 margin that, thanks to a series of close victories in almost every swing state, translated into a 332-206 Electoral College landslide.

Obama thought he could be the exception to the iron rule of the presidency that dictates that virtually every occupant of the Oval Office will rue the day he won reelection. But neither his historic status as our first African-American president nor his decision to swing hard to the left on policy issues and to distract the public by harping on income inequality and the minimum wage helped him avoid an inevitable slide into lame duck status.

Try as they might to minimize the shift in the polls, Democrats can’t pretend that this is anything other than a decisive negative verdict from the public about the course of Obama’s second term. Over the course of the last 19 months, a rash of scandals (IRS, Benghazi, spying on the press and the VA) have undermined the credibility of the government. The ObamaCare rollout illustrated the incompetence of the president’s team and, despite the White House’s touchdown dances, set the stage for even more trouble in the future once the unpopular individual and employer mandates begin to be enforced. The crisis at our southern border was in no small measure the result of Obama’s miscalculated attempts to promote immigration reform. A host of foreign-policy disasters involving Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Hamas terrorists in Gaza was exacerbated by the ineptitude of the president’s new foreign/defense policy team of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. All these have undermined America’s prestige abroad and sapped confidence in Obama’s ability to govern or effectively promote America’s values and interests.

The president also believed that he could survive scandals and setbacks because of the unpopularity of his congressional opponents. But not even a disastrous government shutdown orchestrated by Tea Party stalwarts or the fumbling of golden opportunities to break open the scandal stories by overly partisan grandstanding House committees was enough to preserve the popularity of a president who is now widely seen as having run out of steam and ideas.

All this bodes ill for a Democratic Party that already had the odds stacked against it in the 2014 midterm elections. While it doesn’t appear that Republicans are able to leverage any single issue into the focus for a genuine wave election in the way that anger about ObamaCare lifted the GOP in 2010, the only truly national issue in 2014 appears to be discontent with Obama. Indeed, without the ability to claim their opponents will do the president’s will, the Republicans’ increasingly good chances of winning control of the Senate would be diminished.

But anyone on the right who thinks buyer’s remorse about Obama, which is perhaps also enhanced by a rethinking of the way the Democrats smeared Romney—a flawed politician who is also one of the finest men in contemporary American public life—means the Republicans have the edge heading into 2016 are not thinking straight. And that’s not just because the same CNN poll shows Romney trailing Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic nominee, by an even greater margin (55-42) than his 2012 loss to Obama.

In the 21 months since the last presidential election, Republicans have exploited Obama’s failures but they have yet to address the chronic demographic problems that undermined them in 2012. It should be remembered that most conservatives spent that year serenely confident that Obama was certain to be defeated. But the ability of Democrats to mobilize minorities and unmarried women to turn out in unprecedented numbers doomed Romney even though the president failed to make a good case for reelection. Part of that is rightly attributed to Obama’s personal popularity and his historic status. Indeed, the best thing the GOP has going for it in 2016 is that Obama won’t be on the ballot again. But none of that helps Republicans win all the battleground states they lost in 2012 if they are unable to get a greater share of those demographic groups that shunned them the last time around.

There are no simple answers to that problem. Merely passing an immigration reform bill that gives illegal immigrants a path to citizenship won’t do it, especially since the debacle on the Rio Grande shows the perils of attempting to legislate that without first securing the border. Nor can Republicans win single women by abandoning their principles on social issues. Similarly, the GOP needs to be wary of advice from liberal pundits calling for them to disassociate from their own conservative and Tea Party base even if some of their ideas—like Sarah Palin’s talk about impeaching Obama—should be ignored.

The solution to the problem does involve going back to some of the issues raised in COMMENTARY by Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson in March 2013 when they spoke of “saving” the party with new thinking that understood that merely channeling the politics of the 1980s would not work. It also involves listening more to people like Romney running mate Paul Ryan who continues to chart a reformist course that embraces a message of economic growth and a recognition that the GOP must reach out to working class Americans, not just Wall Street.

The recognition by a majority of Americans that two terms of Obama was a dreadful mistake is a good start for Republicans. But in and of itself it won’t help any Republican beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 unless the party does the hard work of rebuilding that all parties must do after they’ve been out of power.

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The Buck Stops Here, But It’s All Their Fault

Charles Blow of the New York Times wins today’s disingenuousness award for his column in defense of President Obama. The subject: does President Obama deserve his reputation for blaming either the previous administration or congressional Republicans for the nation’s problems?

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Charles Blow of the New York Times wins today’s disingenuousness award for his column in defense of President Obama. The subject: does President Obama deserve his reputation for blaming either the previous administration or congressional Republicans for the nation’s problems?

Blow huffily responds that this president is, in fact, a latter day Truman, a “habitual blame taker.” For example, President Obama said in a 2013 interview that “ultimately, the buck stops with me.”

But, as Blow neglects to mention, the president immediately added: “And, you know, I’ve said before—and I continue to say—you know, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get Congress—and Republicans in Congress in particular—to think less about politics and party and think more about what’s good for the country.” That is, when it comes to preventing selfish and unpatriotic Republicans from destroying the country, President Obama takes full responsibility.

To be sure, Blow finds other places in which Obama invokes Truman. For example, in 2012, Obama shared what Blow calls “his philosophy of presidential responsibility”: “as president of the United States, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m responsible for folks who are working in the federal government and, you know, the buck stops with you.”

However, as Blow chooses not to say, Obama was there in the midst not of taking responsibility for anything but of demanding that Mitt Romney take the blame for what Bain Capital did when Romney was not actively managing it.

In two of the other six quotations Blow hand-selects to prove that President Obama is positively eager to take responsibility for what happens on his watch, the president is at best holding himself accountable for (some day) cleaning up the mess that somebody else made. Concerning the bonuses A.I.G. executives, the president did say, again, “the buck stops with me,” but only after saying “We’ve got a big mess that we’re having to clean up. Nobody here drafted these contracts. Nobody here was responsible for supervising A.I.G.”

Concerning the slowness of the recovery, here it is again: “the buck stops with me.” President Obama said that in response to Wolf Blitzer, who had just reminded him of a statement he made when he took office: “if I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” Obama’s responded, “when I came into office, I knew I was going to have a big mess to clean up and frankly, I think the mess has been bigger than I think a lot of people anticipated.” In other words, he took responsibility for pulling America out of the mess the previous administration had made, a responsibility he would perhaps have already fulfilled, he added, were it not for Congress (i.e. the Republicans): “we’re going to need folks to move off some of these rigid positions they’ve been taking in order to solve these problems.”

So in the week Charles Blow presumably spent googling up quotations that would demonstrate “how outrageously untrue” it is that the president rarely takes responsibility for failures, he was able to find exactly two cases in the past six years—one concerning the health-care website—in which President Obama held his administration accountable without blaming a Republican in the next breath.

Of course, President Obama was not to blame for all the problems he inherited. But that we are still discussing the “Bush hangover” in the middle of his second term is a testament less to the scope of the difficulties the country faced when the president took office than to the refusal of this administration to concede that its policies and leadership have anything to do with the foreign and domestic difficulties the country still faces.

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Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney”: How Buyer’s Remorse Works

Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

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Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

Henry begins by spelling out the challenge of losing a presidential election and then not only winning the nomination again but winning the general election as well. (The model is Nixon.) Henry breaks down the case for Romney into three categories:

  • Romney is re-emerging as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
  • There is no natural 2016 GOP nominee and the field is highly fractured.
  • All failed nominees other than Romney were career politicians.

Does Romney qualify as someone who isn’t a “career politician”? I can see both sides of this debate. The other two claims seem to me arguments against Romney, if anything. His “re-emergence” as the de facto leader of the party is really his re-emergence as a respected figure of the establishment–an establishment which so happens to be locked in a rather nasty public battle with the party’s conservative grassroots.

In that context, a Romney nomination is unthinkable. Romney was really the last of the “next in liners” with regard to the party’s nominating process. His loss was the end of turn taking and the beginning of the party’s turn to its next generation.

And that brings us to the second point. The field is “highly fractured” not out of weakness but strength. The field of possible 2016 candidates is far more dynamic and in line with the party’s emerging identity than the 2012 field. Romney was preferable even to many conservatives over Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. It’s doubtful the same would be said for Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, or Bobby Jindal.

There are times when an elder statesman is the appropriate candidate. There’s a much stronger case for a Romney candidacy without the Romney, however. The case for Romney is really about buyer’s remorse–it would be the GOP telling the electorate “we told you so.” But as Henry himself intimates, the electorate doesn’t actually need to be told that. The buyer’s remorse is real, and it’s because they realize now that voting for the birth-control-and-Big-Bird candidate was a fairly irresponsible thing to do.

Barack Obama tends to run extremely shallow campaigns. Manufactured war on women controversies and episodes of messianic self-love are usually all you get. But the electorate seems to have assumed that the ideas would come later–that, at some point, Obama would think seriously about the issues of the day, end the perpetual campaign, and start governing. What they got instead was grade-school name calling. On foreign policy, his dithering and disastrous “leading from behind” led to chaos and disintegrating borders. The response of the international community to this was predictable. No one takes Obama seriously, and his diplomatic endeavors have mostly been laughed out of the room.

What they reasonably hoped was that this would stop after Obama’s reelection, when he had no more elections ahead of him. They have learned the hard way the president had no such intentions. Thus their buyer’s remorse is pretty strong, but also much less relevant to 2016. Just because they wish someone else had won in 2012 doesn’t mean they would prefer Romney to someone who isn’t Obama in a future election. Buyer’s remorse doesn’t really work that way.

But they do have an understanding of the consequences of the president’s world view, and it happens not to be too different from the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. She was, after all, the president’s secretary of state, who managed the Russian “reset,” ignored some allies while haranguing others, and presided over the light-footprint model of state intervention that resulted in the death of an American ambassador in Libya.

It turned out that Romney was right about a whole lot, both on domestic policy and especially foreign policy. Perhaps that’s the road map future candidates will follow: not to mimic all of Romney’s policy prescriptions, but to concentrate on where and why he was right and how polling shows these areas to be weaknesses for the current ruling Democrats. That doesn’t mean they’d need to run Mitt Romney in order to make those arguments, but does explain why we’re having this conversation to begin with.

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Is Hillary Ashamed of Her Vast Wealth?

In Hillary Clinton’s recent interview with the Guardian, she gave an interesting answer when pressed on whether her exceedingly rich lifestyle is in conflict at all with her party’s class warfare. “But they don’t see me as part of the problem,” she said, “because we pay ordinary income tax.”

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In Hillary Clinton’s recent interview with the Guardian, she gave an interesting answer when pressed on whether her exceedingly rich lifestyle is in conflict at all with her party’s class warfare. “But they don’t see me as part of the problem,” she said, “because we pay ordinary income tax.”

Such is the mind of the leftist: good works are done through the government. She didn’t say she’s a good example of the deserving rich because she gives charity. She said she pays her taxes. She surrenders enough of her money to the government, and therefore she gets to keep the rest, no complaints. It’s a bit of a non sequitur: if the concern is income inequality, paying your taxes doesn’t exactly get at the root of the issue, does it?

But then Clinton protested too much: “and we’ve done it through dint of hard work,” she continued. No one really doubts Clinton herself earned her salary as secretary of state, but that’s not where most of the family wealth comes from. It comes from, instead, wealthy donors shoveling money at the Clintons, often through speaking fees. Paying Bill Clinton millions of dollars to talk about himself is honest work, sure–but it’s doubtful the public thinks the Clintons had it tough.

That’s the upshot of the Washington Post’s story laying out just how the Clintons amassed all this post-presidential wealth:

Bill Clinton has been paid $104.9 million for 542 speeches around the world between January 2001, when he left the White House, and January 2013, when Hillary stepped down as secretary of state, according to a Washington Post review of the family’s federal financial disclosures.

Although slightly more than half of his appearances were in the United States, the majority of his speaking income, $56.3 million, came from foreign speeches, many of them in China, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom, the Post review found.

The financial industry has been Clinton’s most frequent sponsor. The Post review showed that Wall Street banks and other financial services firms have hired Clinton for at least 102 appearances and paid him a total of $19.6 million.

Since leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton has followed her husband and a roster of recent presidents and secretaries of state in this profitable line of work, addressing dozens of industry groups, banks and other organizations for pay. Records of her earnings are not publicly available, but executives familiar with the engagements said her standard fee is $200,000 and up, and that she has been in higher demand than her husband.

Here’s the thing: It’s actually OK that the Clintons are filthy rich–at least it’s OK with conservatives. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that the Clintons are rolling in money basically handed to them by the lords of American finance and Wall Street’s heavy hitters. That’s because contrary to the left’s hysterical propaganda, the financial industry is not evil; it in fact creates wealth and jobs, not to mention keeps New York humming along.

It’s perfectly fine if the Clintons go home to a giant vat of cash from Goldman Sachs and swim around in it, Scrooge McDuck-style. It’s good exercise! And there’s nothing criminal about being paid to hang out at fancy resorts and make jokes and hobnob in return for gobs and gobs of money. But the Clintons leave the impression that something’s not quite right by the way they try to spin their fees. For example:

The Clintons also sometimes request that sponsors pay their fee as a donation to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the family’s nonprofit group that leads global philanthropic initiatives. Hillary Clinton is doing this with her $225,000 fee for a speech this fall at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, according to her office.

Oh come on. The American people don’t enjoy having their intelligence insulted so brazenly. And again, there’s really no reason to be rude: the Clintons did not steal their fabulous wealth. They were paid more money than most Americans can even imagine to show up, say a few words, and maybe take some pictures. They can be proud of the lives they’ve made for themselves. The Clintons are very, very rich–completely out of the orbit of most of the country, to say nothing of the planet.

Sure, it’s not as though–like, say, Mitt Romney–the Clintons were creating jobs or helping businesses adapt to new climates, or turning around failed ventures. And it’s also true that the Clintons are generally paid tons of money just because they’re the Clintons. But trading on celebrity isn’t illegal.

Now, of course it’s possible that voters won’t love the fact that the Clintons essentially used their political power and connections, not to mention the fact that many donors believe Hillary will be the next president, to convince the wealthy to give them lots of money. But what’s the alternative? That the Clintons would get private-sector employment creating wealth, learning skills, helping local communities, and making sure workers have jobs and benefits? Liberals treated the last guy who tried that like he was the spawn of Satan. The Clintons are acting this way because they hope to capture the Democratic Party nomination, and they know their audience.

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Iraq, Another Grim Point for Romney

At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

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At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

The crumbling of Iraq, of course, isn’t the first event to vindicate a maligned Romney debating point. Back when he pronounced Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Obama derided Romney as a Cold Warrior 20 years past his sell-by date. The president, for his part, was busy touting his “reset” with the Kremlin. But the American public soon took up the fight against Vladimir Putin’s human-rights abuses—and then Russia invaded Crimea. Thus came headlines explaining “Why Obama Got Russia Wrong (and Romney Got It Right).”

That’s not all he got right. While the Obama administration plays Let’s Fake a Deal with Tehran, it’s worth recalling another Romney line of foreign-affairs analysis: “Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. If Obama gets that wrong, belated acknowledgment of his error won’t quite cut it.

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Hillary’s Rules of Engagement for 2016

It’s doubtful that anyone who watched the cringe-inducing moment on Election Night 2012 when Karl Rove refused to believe President Obama had won Ohio would ever again think of the veteran strategist as a political genius. Rove, whose guru status was earned by piloting George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and managing his reelection, is still a major player in GOP politics with an influential PAC and is a regular presence in the media. But his ham-handed effort to raise the question of Hillary Clinton’s health damaged him more than it did her. Though everyone agrees that a presidential candidate’s health is fair game for comment, the blowback from the New York Post’s Page Six report of remarks he made about her having possible “brain damage” isn’t likely to convince anyone not to vote for the former secretary of state and first lady and made it harder to take Rove seriously as an analyst.

But that’s not the spin coming from much of the left today. Rather than merely joining much of the mainstream media including a number of leading conservative voices in scratching their heads at Rove’s poor judgment, liberals are using his gaffe not so much to defend Clinton but to prepare the ground for a general counter-offensive against any criticism of the likely Democratic candidate for president in 2016. According to Peter Beinart, Rove’s comments were just the latest example of his “dirty tricks.” Raising Hillary’s health in this manner was, he thought, a calculated attempt to smear the Democrat favorite.

While Beinart is right to note that “defining” one’s opponent in a pejorative fashion has become an integral part of American politics, the furious pushback from Clinton’s camp and the universal outrage from liberals about Rove’s temerity in even discussing any possible flaws in her armor smacks of something other than high-minded disdain for gutter politics. If Rove’s comments were, as Beinart suggests, among the first shots fired in the 2016 campaign, it appears most of the bullets are flying not at the Democrat but at her detractors. Like the outrage on the left about the notion of Clinton being forced to answer questions about Benghazi or why she failed to designate the Boko Haram Islamists as terrorists two years ago, the main point to be gleaned from this dustup is not the nastiness of the GOP but a strategy in which any and all criticism of Clinton is viewed as just another dastardly instance of a Republican war on women.

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It’s doubtful that anyone who watched the cringe-inducing moment on Election Night 2012 when Karl Rove refused to believe President Obama had won Ohio would ever again think of the veteran strategist as a political genius. Rove, whose guru status was earned by piloting George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and managing his reelection, is still a major player in GOP politics with an influential PAC and is a regular presence in the media. But his ham-handed effort to raise the question of Hillary Clinton’s health damaged him more than it did her. Though everyone agrees that a presidential candidate’s health is fair game for comment, the blowback from the New York Post’s Page Six report of remarks he made about her having possible “brain damage” isn’t likely to convince anyone not to vote for the former secretary of state and first lady and made it harder to take Rove seriously as an analyst.

But that’s not the spin coming from much of the left today. Rather than merely joining much of the mainstream media including a number of leading conservative voices in scratching their heads at Rove’s poor judgment, liberals are using his gaffe not so much to defend Clinton but to prepare the ground for a general counter-offensive against any criticism of the likely Democratic candidate for president in 2016. According to Peter Beinart, Rove’s comments were just the latest example of his “dirty tricks.” Raising Hillary’s health in this manner was, he thought, a calculated attempt to smear the Democrat favorite.

While Beinart is right to note that “defining” one’s opponent in a pejorative fashion has become an integral part of American politics, the furious pushback from Clinton’s camp and the universal outrage from liberals about Rove’s temerity in even discussing any possible flaws in her armor smacks of something other than high-minded disdain for gutter politics. If Rove’s comments were, as Beinart suggests, among the first shots fired in the 2016 campaign, it appears most of the bullets are flying not at the Democrat but at her detractors. Like the outrage on the left about the notion of Clinton being forced to answer questions about Benghazi or why she failed to designate the Boko Haram Islamists as terrorists two years ago, the main point to be gleaned from this dustup is not the nastiness of the GOP but a strategy in which any and all criticism of Clinton is viewed as just another dastardly instance of a Republican war on women.

In 2012 Democrats devoted more effort to smearing Mitt Romney than in defending Obama’s poor record as president. It worked, as by the time voters went to the polls that November Romney, who is one of the most decent men to run for the presidency in recent memory, had been tarred as a rapacious capitalist as well as a high school bully and a man who tied his dog to the roof of his car. That Republicans failed to defend him adequately or to highlight what a mensch he actually was is to their discredit. But perhaps their real mistake was in acting as if those attempting to cut him down had a right to do so.

Clinton’s defenders are, however, not making that mistake.

While paying lip service to the notion that the health of presidential candidates is fair game, the counterattack to Rove’s remarks has not been so much about the inaccuracy of the Post’s quotes (and Rove says he was misquoted) but to depict him as a bully who is cleverly (!) trying to intimidate the Democrat frontrunner. If Rove’s decision to inject Hillary’s health into the political discussion was as premeditated as liberals assert, neither is it an accident that the left is so determined to squelch even the merest hint of a debate about any potential problem for Clinton.

Rather than stick to the facts about her health—which I hope is as good as her spokesman says it is—or to claim that she made no mistakes on Benghazi or Boko Haram, not to mention the other terrible blunders she committed as secretary of state like the Russia reset, Clinton’s defenders are doing something different. What we are witnessing now is proof that they are prepared to answer any attacks with a scorched earth approach that will make any mainstream conservative think twice before trying to muss up her hair, let alone make a point about her supposedly glittering resume for high office. Anyone making any attack on her, whether reasoned or as goofy as Rove’s comments, will be the subject of the kind of opprobrium that was once only leveled at other candidates.

What Democrats are doing now is to establish rules of engagement that will insulate Clinton in much the same manner that Obama was protected by charging his opponents with racism no matter what the substance of their criticism. Though Rove doesn’t deserve much sympathy, his demolition is a warning shot fired at the GOP to show that all criticism of Hillary will be treated as a dirty trick or a sexist assault on the first female president.

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The GOP and the Question of “Experience”

In a clever combination of concern-trolling and hypocrite-hunting, Politico has a story asking if youth and inexperience will be stumbling blocks on the path to the 2016 nominating contest for the GOP’s rising stars. Specifically, the story is concerned about Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. In trying to make the argument extend beyond “hey, these Republicans are inexperienced and so was Obama,” a bit of goalpost shifting is required:

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are each in first Senate terms. None has executive experience. Two are in their early 40s, and one is barely in his 50s. Like Obama before 2008, they have spent too little time in Washington to build a robust legislative portfolio. And yet, like Obama, each is viewed as a fresh-faced star in his party at a time when many voters are looking for something new.

If “robust legislative portfolio” is the standard, then sure. But both Paul and Rubio are more impressive senators than Obama was–especially Rubio, who passed comprehensive immigration reform despite his party being in the minority while Obama, as a senator, famously torpedoed immigration reform. And that might be because of those three GOP senators, only Cruz would be as inexperienced on Election Day as Obama was in 2008. Additionally, it’s pretty silly to compare Rubio, who has been at the forefront of manifold policy reform efforts of late, with Obama, who worked as hard on equivocation as Rubio, Paul, and Cruz do at taking a stand on principle.

It also has much to do with contrast. The GOP ran two nominees against Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The former had experience in war and in the Congress, the latter in the private sector. Obama had neither, so it’s not surprising that the GOP highlighted that difference in the general election. But the conservative grassroots don’t feel the same way, and they were unhappy with both of those GOP nominees. And that’s why this is less of an issue in the primary. As Politico writes:

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In a clever combination of concern-trolling and hypocrite-hunting, Politico has a story asking if youth and inexperience will be stumbling blocks on the path to the 2016 nominating contest for the GOP’s rising stars. Specifically, the story is concerned about Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. In trying to make the argument extend beyond “hey, these Republicans are inexperienced and so was Obama,” a bit of goalpost shifting is required:

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are each in first Senate terms. None has executive experience. Two are in their early 40s, and one is barely in his 50s. Like Obama before 2008, they have spent too little time in Washington to build a robust legislative portfolio. And yet, like Obama, each is viewed as a fresh-faced star in his party at a time when many voters are looking for something new.

If “robust legislative portfolio” is the standard, then sure. But both Paul and Rubio are more impressive senators than Obama was–especially Rubio, who passed comprehensive immigration reform despite his party being in the minority while Obama, as a senator, famously torpedoed immigration reform. And that might be because of those three GOP senators, only Cruz would be as inexperienced on Election Day as Obama was in 2008. Additionally, it’s pretty silly to compare Rubio, who has been at the forefront of manifold policy reform efforts of late, with Obama, who worked as hard on equivocation as Rubio, Paul, and Cruz do at taking a stand on principle.

It also has much to do with contrast. The GOP ran two nominees against Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The former had experience in war and in the Congress, the latter in the private sector. Obama had neither, so it’s not surprising that the GOP highlighted that difference in the general election. But the conservative grassroots don’t feel the same way, and they were unhappy with both of those GOP nominees. And that’s why this is less of an issue in the primary. As Politico writes:

While Obama’s meteoric ascent to the White House may give each of the Republican senators hope, a relatively thin résumé can be a major liability, especially when the field could include current and former governors, such as Jeb Bush of Florida or Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who can claim executive experience.

In addition, the GOP has a long track record of nominating presidential candidates with established national profiles who are seen as next in line — whether it was Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.

You can see the problem here. The GOP is moving away from next-in-linism anyway, but even if it weren’t, who would be the next in line? Arguably Paul Ryan, a 44-year-old member of the House. As for the field of governors, this is where Politico makes a good point–though the grassroots seem pretty energetically opposed to Jeb Bush, so his inclusion on that list makes less sense.

Indeed, the point is stronger if you exclude Jeb. Including Bush would make it easier for conservative voters to stay away from the “establishment” candidate. Taking Bush out of the lineup blurs the distinction a bit. If anything, the conservative grassroots have been too instinctively suspicious of (congressional) experience. Witness, for example, the quote Paul’s advisor gave Politico: “We have had great presidents who were governors, and terrible presidents who have been governors. Often the problem with senators who run for office is not that they haven’t been here long enough, it’s the exact opposite: Too often, they have been in Washington too long.”

The sense of entitlement is something the Tea Party has fought to root out of the party, and rightly so. The tendency to primary sitting congressmen has been a key expression of this, and a Jeb Bush candidacy would be its perfect target in 2016. But if Bush doesn’t run, the Politico argument is stronger. Neither Scott Walker nor Mike Pence is an establishment figure, certainly not the way Chris Christie was shaping up to be.

Although Pence has among the best resumes of the prospective candidates, I’m not sure his time as governor will have nearly the impact on the conservative electorate that Walker’s would, since Walker’s successful battle against the public unions became a national story and thus a cause célèbre, resulting even in a recall campaign against him–which he won as well.

The “experience” argument on its own almost certainly isn’t a game changer. But if the contest doesn’t include Jeb or Christie, a candidate with executive experience could also be a candidate with appeal to the base, making experience more valuable as a possible tie breaker. But throw in a genuinely moderate establishment candidate, and it could make the experience argument less, not more attractive to the base.

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Union Leader’s About-Face on School Choice

Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

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Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

My change of heart boiled down to this: I realized my opposition to opportunity scholarships was based on prioritizing adult interests above those of kids. As a former union leader, I made maintaining union influence and power a greater priority than meeting the educational needs of parents and students. But seeing firsthand the positive impact that D.C.’s federally funded voucher program had on many families — especially those of color and limited means — compelled me to rethink my position.

He then gives three reasons why school vouchers work:

First, it puts more power back in the hands of parents, where it belongs. I think we can all agree that parents should have the biggest voice in deciding what type of school is best for their child. Second, expanding school choice helps level the playing field by giving low-income families the same options as high-income ones. Opportunity scholarships will be a godsend for disadvantaged families who cannot afford private school, or to move to a community with better public options. Third, and most importantly, opportunity scholarships work. Similar programs in other states report greater levels of student achievement and parental satisfaction.

Let us hope that his former colleagues will have a similar change of heart. At the very least, his litmus test of what benefits students should become the key litmus test for anyone concerned about the state of public education in the United States, whether they are parents, community leaders, non-unionized teachers, or, indeed, teachers’ unions as well.

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