Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2012 presidential election

Are You Poor Enough to Be President?

If you went to central casting looking for someone who could earnestly defend Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shady financial claims, you could hardly do better than Governor Shamwow himself, Terry McAuliffe. And that’s precisely what Meet the Press did yesterday. Yet in the process of trying to substantiate Hillary’s claim to being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House after Bill’s presidency, the Virginia governor, former Clinton campaign manager, and built-for-QVC traveling salesman did end up making a relevant point about the 2016 presidential election.

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If you went to central casting looking for someone who could earnestly defend Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shady financial claims, you could hardly do better than Governor Shamwow himself, Terry McAuliffe. And that’s precisely what Meet the Press did yesterday. Yet in the process of trying to substantiate Hillary’s claim to being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House after Bill’s presidency, the Virginia governor, former Clinton campaign manager, and built-for-QVC traveling salesman did end up making a relevant point about the 2016 presidential election.

Clinton’s insistence she was broke post-presidency was obviously ridiculous, which is probably why McAuliffe rushed out to defend it:

“I cannot tell you the distress in that family at that time, with all the issues and all the legal fees, banks refusing to even give them a mortgage. So listen, people go through tough financial times,” he said.

McAuliffe’s comments came when asked about remarks from Clinton quoted in his book depicting the former first lady saying “we own nothing” and “it was really horrible” when leaving the White House.

“They had nothing compared to a lot of rich friends,” host Chuck Todd pressed.

But it was the next part of the interview that was more interesting:

McAuliffe pointed to Clinton’s upbringing in an attempt to cast the presumed Democratic presidential frontrunner as someone who knows hardship, noting her “middle-class roots” and that her mother was abandoned.

This is the 2016 presidential election in a nutshell, and Hillary is far from the sole offender. Her Republican rivals are, if anything, even more desperate to project the false populism of poverty.

It recalls a classic McDonald’s commercial in which older diners are engaged in an uphill-in-the-snow-both-ways competition over childhood hardships. If memory serves (I can’t find the clip online), it ends with one elderly diner talking about walking barefoot when the diner behind him snaps “Feet? You had feet?”

The major difference between that commercial and the 2016 campaign is that the candidates are competing for most recent poverty, with the trump card being somehow still poor even today and running for president. At this rate we’ll be lucky if a future nominee doesn’t win the primaries on the strength of a biography that consists of still living with his parents. (On the other hand, being a grown adult who isn’t very good with money does seem to be a presidential prerequisite these days.)

This afternoon, CNN posted an article whose headline asked the following question: “Can a Jos. A Bank suit win the White House?” I bet now you wish we could go back to talking about Chipotle.

The story is about Scott Walker:

Presidential hopeful and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker boasted in New Hampshire last weekend that he shops for suits at Jos. A Bank. It’s famous for its huge discount deals. “All suits — Buy 1 get 3 FREE” reads the site’s current promotions.

Walker is using his everyman wardrobe to resonate with middle class voters.

“The shirt is from Kohl’s. The suit is from Jos. A Bank,” Walker, a Republican, told a crowd in New Hampshire over the weekend.

Walker has actually made his shopping at Kohl’s a regular feature of the campaign. In his defense, there is a point: in a January speech he explained how his wife had to teach him how to shop there properly, by waiting for deals, clipping coupons, and using reward points. Lesson learned, Walker finally returned to Kohl’s to buy a shirt and “the next thing you know they are paying me to buy that shirt!” (I’m sure former Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, whose family started the chain more than a half-century ago, was just delighted to hear it.)

Should we care which candidates shop at Kohl’s? No, we should not. Which is what made encountering the following note in the CNN story a pleasant surprise:

So what suits do other presidential hopefuls wear? Does the suit say anything about them or their policy? We don’t know.

Spokespersons for Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz did not respond for comment. Senator Rand Paul’s spokesperson declined to comment.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that this election is an outlier in this regard. In fact, it’s long been a tradition in American politics to lay claim to the famous American up-from-your-bootstraps work ethic and economic mobility.

And the candidates have perfectly valid reasons to partake in this tradition. Hillary Clinton is doing so because she is very, very rich, a situation made possible partly because the regular rules that apply to “everyday Americans” don’t apply to the Clintons. Hillary would like to shed the image of her as an out-of-touch crony capitalist extraordinaire. The problem is that the image is accurate.

Republicans are doing so both to contrast themselves with the rich and privileged Clintons as well as to continue exorcising the ghost of 2012, specifically Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. Conservatives hope to banish the image of the country club Republican, and are going out of their way to push back on the perennial media narrative of uncaring right-wingers. If the current string of Clinton scandal revelations continues at this clip, however, they won’t have to do much at all to look more relatable than the Democratic royal family they’re running against.

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How Hugh Hewitt Could Shape All the GOP Primary Debates

There were several reasons that Republican primary debates have had such an impact in the last couple of election cycles for those seeking the GOP nomination, including that neither year had a Republican incumbent, the growth in influence of the grassroots, and the participation of non-politicians as candidates. But an additional reason the debates had such an effect was that the mainstream media moderators insisted on asking migraine-inducingly stupid questions. And so the increasing role of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is, as Jim Geraghty notes this morning at NRO, an encouraging development. But I wonder: with an adult in the room like Hewitt, will liberal moderators get serious too?

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There were several reasons that Republican primary debates have had such an impact in the last couple of election cycles for those seeking the GOP nomination, including that neither year had a Republican incumbent, the growth in influence of the grassroots, and the participation of non-politicians as candidates. But an additional reason the debates had such an effect was that the mainstream media moderators insisted on asking migraine-inducingly stupid questions. And so the increasing role of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is, as Jim Geraghty notes this morning at NRO, an encouraging development. But I wonder: with an adult in the room like Hewitt, will liberal moderators get serious too?

Geraghty points out that Hewitt will not only moderate a debate but he has already stepped into that role by subjecting Republican politicians to tough interviews on his radio show, just as he does to those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. If you go in to an interview with Hewitt unprepared, you’ll be left licking your wounds. Geraghty writes:

An obvious observation: Hillary Clinton will never subject herself to questioning from Hugh Hewitt.

And I contend there is no equivalent to Hugh on the Left. (I’d put Jake Tapper and Chuck Todd somewhere in the center region.) There is not a single liberal media personality who enjoys interviewing prominent Democratic officials, offering them tough, challenging questions, tough follow-ups, and making his interview subjects sweat the details.

Members of the progressive aristocracy don’t treat each other that way.

In truth, conservatives are so naturally suspicious of those seeking power, especially establishment figures, that it’s not easy for aspiring Republican nominees to avoid tough questioning along the way from any number of figures on the right, to say nothing of the questioning they get from the left. To state the obvious: this is not good for Hillary, nor is it particularly healthy for the republic to have power-obsessed pols treated like royalty.

But it’ll be interesting to see the effect of what Geraghty calls “The Hewitt Primary” on two other groups involved in the GOP nominating contest: liberal journalists and conservative firebrands. They might seem to be at odds, but they have in fact had a symbiotic relationship in recent years.

Take the 2012 debates. Mitt Romney may have been the best debater of the bunch—polished, wonky, photogenic, and even-tempered. But the most entertaining man on the stage was usually Newt Gingrich, who has a ready command of history, a combative posture, and an unwillingness to play by the media’s rules. (It inspired the great tumblr, “Newt Judges You.”) And Newt was helped tremendously by the fact that his liberal questioners were so willing to set him up, allowing Gingrich to turn the debates into a bonfire of the inanities.

When Juan Williams suggested that Gingrich’s critique of welfare-state dependency was racist, Newt made mincemeat of the question and the questioner. When John King decided to lead off one debate by invoking tabloid coverage of an ex-wife of Gingrich’s comments, Newt similarly shamed King about the sorry state of the media as evidenced by what moderators considered worthy of debate.

There were others, of course, and it wasn’t only Gingrich. Geraghty quotes Hewitt as saying viewers of debates moderated by him would be “much more likely to hear about the Ohio-class submarine than contraceptives.” It’s a reference to what has become the flagship model of inane questioning of Republican candidates: George Stephanopoulos asking Mitt Romney if states could ban birth control. It was the very definition of a nonsense question, an example of Democratic officials-turned-media personalities steering debates miles away from anything relevant to American voters and into an attempt to partake in the culture wars as an operative and not a journalist.

Republican candidates are also often asked about their views on evolution, though it’s usually clear the journalists asking the question don’t actually understand the topic of evolution in the slightest. Probably the best response to such questions was in 2007 when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed in man-caused global warming. Fred Thompson appropriately said he wasn’t doing hand shows today.

And that gets at something that has been frustrating to Republicans for years: media ignorance of the issues translates into moderators’ total and utter lack of seriousness in questioning those who would be president. The presence of someone like Hugh Hewitt, who has a strong grasp of the issues and wants an intelligent debate, could encourage his liberal co-moderators to behave like adults and study up on the issues. It could also hurt candidates who are relying on “gotcha” questions and moderator nonsense to build their grassroots credibility as a straight-talking truth teller. But overall, it would be better for everyone involved, and the country at large, if everyone followed Hewitt’s example.

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There Is No Such Thing as a Secular Politics

You can learn a lot by running for vice president. Especially if you weren’t a vanquished opponent who tried to win the nomination but simply plucked from Congress and thrust into the national spotlight. Paul Ryan learned a few things while on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012–about policy, about partisanship, about messaging. But perhaps the most important lesson he appears to have learned is this: There is no such thing as a fully secular politics.

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You can learn a lot by running for vice president. Especially if you weren’t a vanquished opponent who tried to win the nomination but simply plucked from Congress and thrust into the national spotlight. Paul Ryan learned a few things while on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012–about policy, about partisanship, about messaging. But perhaps the most important lesson he appears to have learned is this: There is no such thing as a fully secular politics.

Ryan has taken a keen interest in the way public policy and state power interact with those living in poverty in America. It’s a complex subject: sometimes federal policy helps, sometimes it offers a cure worse than the malady. Local communities and local governments get involved as well, and that involvement varies from place to place. So Ryan traveled around the country to try to get a sense of how different approaches play out in different cases. Ryan was keeping generally mum about the project that grew out of those efforts, but now that it’s completed, he talked to Yahoo News about it. It’s not what his critics expected:

Paul Ryan has visited low-income neighborhoods in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere over the past two years to meet with groups and individuals working to help lift people out of poverty.

It’s been a little-publicized affair. Ryan brought almost no press with him on any of the trips. One of the few reporters to accompany him, Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins, last April detailed the Wisconsin Republican’s visit to an early-morning men’s bible study in Indianapolis.

Paul’s critics have complained that these expeditions were part of a politically calculated vanity project designed to soften the GOP’s image and set the congressman — who was the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 — up for a bid for higher office.

But on March 17, Ryan will issue a rejoinder to that accusation in the form of a documentary film on the people he met during his travels to impoverished communities. In fact, he told Yahoo News, part of the reason he chose not to run for president in 2016 was that he wanted to protect this video project from second-guessing about his motives for doing it.

It’s true that Ryan’s critics on the left thought his attempts to alleviate the suffering of others were “part of a politically calculated vanity project,” and it’s also true that Ryan’s critics are, as is clear, not very bright. And they’re pretty cynical. But they’re also, and this is important, clerical figures in the Church of Liberalism.

Eventually the Yahoo story gets around to asking Ryan a highly relevant question: What does this all mean for public policy? Ryan is, after all, an influential congressman:

In each episode in the “Comeback” series, faith or individuals make the crucial difference in the lives of people who need help, not government. …

“We need to disaggregate it, we need to decentralize it, and we need to acknowledge that government has a very important role to play but it is circumspect and limited and it needs to be in concert with, not in contention with, these good works that are happening out there in America,” Ryan said. “The best thing the government does is bring resources to the table, but sometimes the worst thing it does is it displaces and it takes over and it displaces good works.”

The problem was never that Ryan wanted to dismantle government’s necessary role, or have civil society completely replace the federal government. It’s that government sees civil society as competition, and rejects it.

Liberalism, especially in the age of Obama, is a deeply religious movement. Obama has been explicit from the beginning that he sees himself as healer and redeemer. Much of the time this administration is engaged in redemptive politics, but when it comes to health-care and poverty, the president plays the healer.

Other religions are rival faiths. The leviathan may be the god that failed and keeps failing, but it’s the only one they’ve got. And the state is a jealous god. So no, you can’t have religious exemptions to laws the healer enacted, because these are religious edicts. The left has demonized Ryan not because he’s wrong (he’s often unquestionably correct on the facts) but because their deity–the state–views him as a false prophet.

It’s Ryan, not his leftist critics, who sees the issue with proper compassion and humility: “The big takeaway is listen and learn, because people speak things differently,” Ryan told Yahoo. “They have different experiences, and they do hurt in different ways. And I think it’s really important to try and glean another person’s perspective, so that you’re better informed and you can learn from it.”

But to the glorious state there is only one truth.

A truly secular politics might or might not be theoretically possible. But it’s not what we have, and it’s not on the menu. Ryan talks about the value of faith and community in solving problems. And the left views this as a threat because he’s bearing witness to a competing spirituality, the expression of which must be driven from the public square.

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Chris Christie’s Lesson: That Door Doesn’t Stay Open Forever

If you want to pick a moment when Chris Christie’s star was at its brightest, the New Jersey governor’s first term had a wealth of choices. But I don’t think any of them topped the end of the question-and-answer session at his Reagan Library speech in the fall of 2011. This was Christie’s “moment.” And though that moment has passed, it’s instructive to recall its high point to understand the lessons that other candidates can learn about the timing of presidential campaigns.

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If you want to pick a moment when Chris Christie’s star was at its brightest, the New Jersey governor’s first term had a wealth of choices. But I don’t think any of them topped the end of the question-and-answer session at his Reagan Library speech in the fall of 2011. This was Christie’s “moment.” And though that moment has passed, it’s instructive to recall its high point to understand the lessons that other candidates can learn about the timing of presidential campaigns.

The penultimate question asked of Christie–just to give a sense of how he was received out in California–was from a self-described “Jersey girl” whose family was back in the Garden State. “I just want to let you know that you make us so proud to be New Jerseyans and so proud to be Americans,” she said. And then she added: “And my Italian mother, she told me to tell you that you’ve got to run for president.” Christie joked that if she was so proud to be a New Jerseyan she ought to get back to Jersey to her family: “Getting more taxpayers, one at a time,” he said with a smile.

But the final question was from another woman in the audience, and here is what she said:

Governor Christie, all kidding aside. I’ve been listening to you tonight. You’re a very powerful and eloquent speaker. You know how to tell the American people what they need to hear. And I say this from the bottom of my heart, from my daughter who is right here and my grandchildren who are at home: I know New Jersey needs you, but I really implore you, I really do–this isn’t funny–I mean this with all my heart. We can’t wait another four years to 2016. And I really implore you, as a citizen of this country, please sir, to reconsider. Don’t even say anything tonight–of course you wouldn’t–go home and really think about it. Please. Do it for my daughter. Do it for our grandchildren. Do it for our sons. Please sir, we need you. Your country needs you to run for president.

Christie’s poll numbers were through the roof in his first term, and he even won the occasional Tea Party presidential straw poll. For 2012.

And that’s the point: in politics, as in much else, timing is everything. Christie’s moment was in 2012. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t feel ready at that time, and it’s admirable that he chose not to run when he believed he owed it to New Jersey to stay put. But that was the open door, and it’s closed now.

Even former supporters in Iowa, as the Associated Press reported a few days ago, are cool to Christie:

Four years ago, seven big-money donors and leading Republican activists from Iowa loaded into a private plane and headed to New Jersey for an urgent meeting with Chris Christie. Their message: Run, Chris, run.

The group from the lead-off caucus state failed in that mission to persuade the brash New Jersey governor to jump into the 2012 race for president. This time around, Christie’s White House ambitions no longer appear to be an issue. But those once-eager Iowans aren’t as keen to throw their support his way.

“It’s a brand new ballgame,” says donor Gary Kirke. “There’s a lot more people in the race, and a lot has happened since then.”

So what happened? Well, we had a scandal (Bridgegate), but that was after Christie’s reelection campaign ran head-smack into Hurricane Sandy. His embrace of President Obama on the eve of the 2012 election was emblematic of his falling out with conservatives, even as it was the foundation of his own reelection landslide. He still likely would have won without it, but the Christie mystique needed a big win to meet expectations, and his handling of the storm’s aftermath provided the fuel for just such a win. The reality of governing a very blue state as a Republican is not particularly conducive to also being a Tea Party hero.

Another aspect of Christie’s fall from conservative grace was the quality of the field in each election. In 2012, Christie was not the first “savior” that activists and donors thought might rescue the GOP from a bevy of weak candidates. There was also, among voters on the right, a sense of urgency in seeking to prevent a second Obama term. This time around, it’s an open seat. And the class of prospective candidates is strong.

But the key point is that we knew all this years ago. It was never going to be a surprise that stronger candidates would emerge in 2016, that Christie’s reelection campaign would have to tack to the center, that governing New Jersey requires a certain amount of cooperation with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, that Christie’s tough-guy approach was bound to find a more sympathetic target than public unions, or that style-centric flavors of the week are soon eclipsed by the next new thing.

That last one is something Barack Obama understood, to his credit. Could Obama’s career have survived losing in 2008 or passing on the race in a nod to Hillary’s “turn”? Sure. But at that point, he was nothing but a speech. And that speech would have been quite stale by the time 2016 rolled around. He wouldn’t have been the young, JFK-like smasher of the status quo. And his essential boringness, bitterness, and lack of knowledge of the issues would have been impossible to hide for another eight years.

2008 was Obama’s moment. 2012 was Christie’s. It doesn’t seem fair for Christie to be punished for his display of humility. But that’s presidential politics. Timing is everything.

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Dem Electoral College Hysteria to Hypocrisy

Back in 2011, Democrats were up in arms about a proposal being floated by Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature that would have split the state’s Electoral College votes in presidential elections. The plan would have divided the vote by congressional district rather than having them determined on a winner-take-all statewide basis. This scheme was widely denounced by liberals as nothing less than the moral equivalent of the 2000 Florida recount that some Democrats still falsely claim was stolen from Al Gore. Today, Nebraska is considering doing the opposite: changing to a winner-take-all used by 48 of the states and scrapping the existing law which would divvy up their votes the way the Pennsylvania GOP wanted to do. What did liberals think about that? They are defending the existing law to the last ditch as a sympathetic article in the New York Times reported over the weekend.

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Back in 2011, Democrats were up in arms about a proposal being floated by Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature that would have split the state’s Electoral College votes in presidential elections. The plan would have divided the vote by congressional district rather than having them determined on a winner-take-all statewide basis. This scheme was widely denounced by liberals as nothing less than the moral equivalent of the 2000 Florida recount that some Democrats still falsely claim was stolen from Al Gore. Today, Nebraska is considering doing the opposite: changing to a winner-take-all used by 48 of the states and scrapping the existing law which would divvy up their votes the way the Pennsylvania GOP wanted to do. What did liberals think about that? They are defending the existing law to the last ditch as a sympathetic article in the New York Times reported over the weekend.

Currently Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that divide their Electoral College votes by congressional district. This is not a theoretical construct since, as the New York Times noted, Barack Obama won one Electoral College vote in deep-red Nebraska in 2008 because he won a majority in a district that encompasses Omaha. However, Republicans in the legislature want to put an end to any possibility of a repeat performance by Hillary Clinton. Democrats think this wrong and believe, as their state chairman said, that Republicans are trying to “deny our constituents of the right to be relevant in a national election.”

He’s right about that, but the same could have been said of members of his party four years ago when they screamed bloody murder over the GOP plan to give voters in the many districts where Republicans are the majority that same right to relevance. Of course, if that were to happen, Republicans would be given more than a single or even a few stray votes but would, in all likelihood win the majority of Pennsylvania’s 20 votes. The Huffington Post recalled the Pennsylvania Republican scheme shortly after Barack Obama’s reelection and gamed out the results if, as they called it, the “Republican Vote-Rigging Plan” were implemented with Romney getting a 273-262 win rather than Obama prevailing by 332-206.

Because Democrats often tend to be concentrated in cities and districts where they win by lopsided margins rather than being evenly distributed around the country, the GOP has a natural advantage in the competition for control of the House of Representatives. Liberals claim this is purely the product of gerrymandering, but it is more the result of the Voting Rights Act requiring the creation of majority-minority districts that herd Democrats into a few constituencies rather than spreading them out.

Thus, while letting each district have its say sounds good, it might increase the chances that the loser of the popular vote would win the Electoral College, and that is something no one in either party should want to see happen again.

Thus, national Democrats should be weighing in to support Nebraska Republicans, lest their silence be considered tacit support for a reversal of the law in other states where it would do their party far more damage than the potential loss of a single vote. But, as you may well expect, the silence from Democrats, especially the same liberal organs that waxed hysterical about the Pennsylvania scheme, is deafening. Even worse, as some of the quotes in the Times piece illustrate, the party is giving tacit support to efforts to preserve the status quo in Nebraska. Indeed, if the 2016 election turns out to be close, they’ll be fighting hard to steal that single Cornhusker vote that was merely the icing on Obama’s cake in 2008.

Pennsylvania Republicans have wisely not sought to revive what turned out to be a destructive and futile debate in 2011. But their counterparts in Nebraska should not be intimidated into giving up their efforts to join the other 48 winner-take-all states by liberals claiming they are being unfair. If Democrats aren’t going to put principle over partisan interest, there’s no reason for them to do so either.

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Mitt Romney and His Decision Not to Run

During the last few months of the 2012 presidential election, I took a leave of absence in order to work for Mitt Romney, after having gotten to know him in previous years. So I thought it might be worth offering some perspective on him in light of his decision not to run for the Republican nomination in 2016.

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During the last few months of the 2012 presidential election, I took a leave of absence in order to work for Mitt Romney, after having gotten to know him in previous years. So I thought it might be worth offering some perspective on him in light of his decision not to run for the Republican nomination in 2016.

Governor Romney is one of the finest individuals ever to run for president. His basic decency and personal kindness are often mentioned, though too often in an obligatory manner. That shouldn’t be. Character is the paramount quality in a person, and Governor Romney is solid gold in that regard. His core integrity is the most important thing, I think, to know about him. It is telling that to a person, those who have worked for Mitt Romney speak about him in the most respectful and affectionate ways.

It was Mitt Romney’s fate to face a man who, as a sitting president, brought enormous advantages to the 2012 presidential race, which explains why so many other Republicans took a pass on it. Barack Obama has been a failure as a president, but he is a supremely gifted politician. He was born to run, and he ran a very effective — if brutal and dishonest — campaign against Governor Romney. Still and all, Governor Romney turned in the most impressive and convincing debate performance in modern presidential history, when even Mr. Obama and his aides conceded that the former Massachusetts governor trounced the president.

Governor Romney made some mistakes during the campaign for sure; he has been quite open about that. But the main problem, in my view, was our inability to convey to the American people the intellectual and personal qualities Governor Romney possessed that would have made him an outstanding president. The gap between who he is and how he was perceived was unusually wide. The very positive reception of the documentary Mitt indicated that the true Romney is enormously impressive and likable. And his love for America is deep and unqualified. It is impossible, for example, to think of Mr. Romney traveling to foreign capitals in order to denigrate the United States. As president he would never attempt to elevate himself at the expense of his country.

It’s worth considering, too, that Governor Romney won the nomination of his party despite not being a natural politician in the way, say, Bill Clinton was. Governor Romney excelled in business; that was what came most readily and easily to him. (I find it odd, and a bit troubling, that these days success, especially in business, is viewed by many people as something to hide and apologize for, rather than being evidence of hard work and human excellence.) For Governor Romney to succeed in politics required hard work of him. He did that, and more, and he rose higher than most politicians ever do. But it wasn’t an effortless climb; it took concentration of mind and will.

I’d add this: Governor Romney, in defeat, did not become resentful or embittered, as others have. He didn’t blame other people for his failure or become brittle. Instead, he accepted the loss with equanimity and class.

As time has passed, it’s become obvious to more and more people, I think, that in re-electing Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney, the American people made a significant error in judgment. That happens from time to time, and we have surely paid a price for that mistake, and will for some time to come.

Governor Romney would have loved to have been president and he possessed the qualities to excel at it. But from what I know about him, he doesn’t need the presidency to feel he has led a full and meaningful life. Which probably made his decision on Friday, as difficult as it must have been, easier than it might have been.

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General Romney Refights the Last War

A year away from the first primaries in 2016 and without having actually declared for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be in full campaign mode. Yesterday he was at Mississippi State University for a speech and a photo op with the school’s successful football coach eating pulled pork sandwiches, the sort of stunt that one usually sees in an election year instead of the closed-door fundraising that generally characterizes campaign activities this far in advance of the voting. But Romney’s message was not only that he was interested in running. His main point is that he has learned the lessons from his defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Romney joked about his wealth and talked about the need for outreach to minorities and working-class voters. Those are good ideas but the notion that correcting the mistakes of 2012 gives him a good argument for the presidential nomination next year is a fallacy. As much as the Republicans do need to learn from their errors, refighting the next war with the tactics that might won the last one is a mistake that failed generals always make.

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A year away from the first primaries in 2016 and without having actually declared for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be in full campaign mode. Yesterday he was at Mississippi State University for a speech and a photo op with the school’s successful football coach eating pulled pork sandwiches, the sort of stunt that one usually sees in an election year instead of the closed-door fundraising that generally characterizes campaign activities this far in advance of the voting. But Romney’s message was not only that he was interested in running. His main point is that he has learned the lessons from his defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Romney joked about his wealth and talked about the need for outreach to minorities and working-class voters. Those are good ideas but the notion that correcting the mistakes of 2012 gives him a good argument for the presidential nomination next year is a fallacy. As much as the Republicans do need to learn from their errors, refighting the next war with the tactics that might won the last one is a mistake that failed generals always make.

Most Republican activists as well as the pundit class haven’t given Romney much love since he made it clear late last month that he was interested in a third run for the presidency. But despite the negative reviews, Romney is still polling well in primary and caucus states. Even GOP voters who were never enthused about him in the first place regard him with some affection due to the strong fight he gave Obama and the fact that much of what he said in the campaign, especially about foreign policy, proved to be true. His critique of Hillary Clinton on a whole range of issues is also very much to the point. Nor can there be much doubt that he can raise all the money needed for a serious run even if Jeb Bush snatches up most of the establishment’s biggest donors. Mock him all you like but unlike many of those mentioned as possible candidates, Romney is a credible contender, especially in a crowded and highly unpredictable field.

But Republicans still need to be wary of the “I learned my lesson” routine.

Even if Romney does everything right that he did wrong the last time—and that includes not making gaffes that wrote off much of the electorate—that doesn’t get him very far in the next election.

Republicans may have needed a more minority-friendly candidate in 2012 and the same quality will be helpful in 2016. But the circumstances have changed.

In one major sense, that’s all to the good for the GOP. In 2012, they were up against a historic candidate who didn’t have to do or say much to justify support because merely voting for him made a lot of Americans feel good about correcting historic injustices. Obama’s electoral magic will not be on the ballot and even if Hillary Clinton will have her own brand of history that she will be trying to make as the first female president, it won’t have the same resonance with many voters as Obama’s efforts. Whereas Obama was a brilliant campaigner (albeit a poor president), Clinton is as much of a gaffe machine as Romney.

Moreover, Democrats won’t be running on hope and change with Clinton at the top of their ticket. Rather it will be an attempt to recycle the old Clinton magic with a feminist touch.

That is exactly why it would be a mistake for Republicans to run a recycled candidate against her.

Just as important, the assumption that Romney learning how to talk about his wealth or even his faith will help him win the next time is a profound misunderstanding of both the previous election and the next one.

Fewer such mistakes might have helped Romney in 2012, but even a perfect GOP candidate might have fallen short against Obama. Even more to the point, having a candidate who knows how to talk about being a plutocrat or even a millionaire investor isn’t the problem. The problem is avoiding nominating someone who can be falsely characterized as a member of the ruling class in this manner. The same is true in terms of minority outreach since those who were so offended by it or any other of his mistakes won’t forget Romney’s 2012 lurch to the right so quickly.

We don’t know yet what all of the most important obstacles to Republican victory will be in 2016. Each election presents its own set of challenges based on the circumstances of the moment and the dynamic of the candidates. But whatever the answer will be, obsessing about 2012 won’t get you even halfway to victory. Indeed, too much concern about the election that was recently lost almost certainly ensures that the next will also be a disaster.

Romney has earned a respectful hearing from Republicans. But the more he talks about last time and the tactics that would have won the last election, the less GOP voters should be paying attention to what he says.

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Ben Carson’s Outsiderism for Its Own Sake

On the occasion of its tenth anniversary in 2006, Slate invited some of its critics to temper the “self-congratulation” with some humbling criticism. Jonah Goldberg’s contribution was to knock Slate for turning its own penchant for contrarianism into a caricature. “Contrarianness is a great and good thing—when driven by reason and facts. But contrarianness for its own sake is often the very definition of asininity.” Unfortunately, this description soon became apt for a certain archetype of Republican presidential candidate as well–a role currently filled by the increasingly absurd Ben Carson.

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On the occasion of its tenth anniversary in 2006, Slate invited some of its critics to temper the “self-congratulation” with some humbling criticism. Jonah Goldberg’s contribution was to knock Slate for turning its own penchant for contrarianism into a caricature. “Contrarianness is a great and good thing—when driven by reason and facts. But contrarianness for its own sake is often the very definition of asininity.” Unfortunately, this description soon became apt for a certain archetype of Republican presidential candidate as well–a role currently filled by the increasingly absurd Ben Carson.

Here are three things that are true: Washington D.C. is a bubble; the mainstream media is biased against conservatives; and the political class is often too far removed from the ethos of the private sector. And so, conservatives have an admirable and instinctive attraction to “outsiders.” In part, this is because they are; conservatism is the American counterculture. So outsiderism is often a breath of fresh air. But outsiderism for its own sake seems to lead too many conservatives to abandon the very critical thinking that makes their conservatism so valuable in the first place. And candidates like Carson take advantage of that.

Carson has, in the past, made extreme comments. His points of comparison for modern liberal big-government policies have included slavery and Nazism. And yesterday, speaking at the Republican retreat, he had this to say about America’s founders and the current crop of terrorist organizations waging war against the West:

“A bunch of rag tag militiamen defeated the most powerful and professional military force on the planet. Why? Because they believed in what they were doing. They were willing to die for what they believed in,” Carson told a luncheon audience of national committee members. “Fast forward to today. What do we have? You’ve got ISIS. They’ve got the wrong philosophy, but they’re willing to die for it while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness. We have to change that.”

Carson then preemptively criticized the press, whom he said would seize on the comments.

The last sentence there is as important to the story as the controversial comments themselves. Carson not only makes extreme statements; he says them knowing they’ll be considered extreme and believes this is its own form of validation.

Carson, true to form, starts out with something that is true: political correctness is eroding the West’s respect for its own identity. Then he says something insane, by comparing our own political correctness unfavorably to ISIS, which enforces a much stricter political correctness by cutting off people’s heads. Carson then completes the formula by pretending that the backlash to his comments proves his point.

The problem here is that Carson and his supporters, in the quest to puncture the D.C. media bubble, have created a situation just as problematic. In Carson’s world, the more criticism he receives the greater the righteousness of his declarations. There appears to be no way to break this loop.

In its writeup of Carson’s latest comments, CNN adds:

It’s that very penchant — for frank and often controversial comments — that has made him so popular with the GOP base, and turned the retired neurosurgeon into a rising conservative star who just last month polled third in a CNN/ORC survey of the potential GOP presidential field.

I don’t know if the first contention is true. It sounds right, but any statement on why conservatives support a candidate for president should have more to it than equating correlation with causation. As for Carson’s own polling, I don’t think it’ll hold up. I wish I could say that’s because his views will be recognized as amateurish demagoguery. But more likely it’s because of the quality of the prospective 2016 field.

In 2012, the volatile GOP nominating race was appropriately dubbed the “bubble primary” by ABC News. Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich all spent time getting a sudden boost of support as the “not-Romney” candidate. Early in the race, some viewed Tim Pawlenty as the one to watch; others thought Michele Bachmann was being vastly underestimated; still others wanted Chris Christie to jump into the race. Before the election got underway, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (who didn’t end up running) and Jon Huntsman were the ones who scared many Democrats the most.

These posts used to include a statement along the lines of “with the caveat that we don’t know who will actually be running…” but we know much more about the field now. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul are in. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal are not too far behind. And Marco Rubio, Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, and even Mitt Romney are obviously strongly considering it. This is not a field in which boomlets are likely to fall into people’s laps; they will have to be earned.

The quality of the field is an obstacle for Ben Carson, who wouldn’t have been nominated even in 2012 and stands less of a chance in 2016. And the grassroots conservatism of many of the candidates this time around undercuts the idea that he’ll be kept out by fearful insiders. Outsiderism for the sake of outsiderism won’t win in 2016, but that doesn’t mean an outsider won’t.

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Rivals Should Heed Santorum’s Appeal to Working Class Voters

The 2016 Republican presidential race continued to be clarified today when Rep. Paul Ryan announced that he was passing on a run for the nomination. Whether it was due to Ryan’s interest in making a difference as chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the coming years or because his running mate on the 2012 GOP ticket Mitt Romney entered the race, Ryan’s exit from the race is the first major withdrawal of a potential contender. But Romney isn’t the only 2012 retread eager to try his luck again. As the New York Times reports, Rick Santorum came out swinging today against all of his most prominent rivals for the Tea Party and social conservative vote. But while Mike Huckabee and Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio may not be shaking in their boots about Santorum, they would probably be well advised not to entirely dismiss him.

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The 2016 Republican presidential race continued to be clarified today when Rep. Paul Ryan announced that he was passing on a run for the nomination. Whether it was due to Ryan’s interest in making a difference as chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the coming years or because his running mate on the 2012 GOP ticket Mitt Romney entered the race, Ryan’s exit from the race is the first major withdrawal of a potential contender. But Romney isn’t the only 2012 retread eager to try his luck again. As the New York Times reports, Rick Santorum came out swinging today against all of his most prominent rivals for the Tea Party and social conservative vote. But while Mike Huckabee and Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio may not be shaking in their boots about Santorum, they would probably be well advised not to entirely dismiss him.

Santorum should be forgiven for having an attitude these days. Almost all pundits, including me, gave him short shrift in the lead-up to the 2012 primaries but he proved us all wrong. His indefatigable campaigning and a deft touch when it came to appealing to social conservatives and working-class voters allowed him to ascend to the first tier of GOP candidates when several other better funded and better known Republicans fell by the wayside even before the voting started. Santorum narrowly won the Iowa Caucus (though we would not know that for several days) and then went on to beat eventual nominee Romney in a dozen more states enabling him to claim the dubious title of runner-up in a race where only first place counts.

Since, by tradition, Republicans like to nominate someone who has already tried and waited his turn, Santorum might have thought he’d get some respect heading toward 2016, but he’s gotten none. The deep GOP bench of new faces, successful governors, as well as establishment heavyweights like Jeb Bush and Romney have caused Santorum, who still wants to be president as much as he ever did, to be overlooked again.

He thinks this is unjust and attacked Huckabee as a tax and spend big government liberal who doesn’t deserve to win back the Iowa social conservatives who backed him in 2008 and then switched to Santorum in 2012. He denounced Cruz and Paul as “bomb throwers” who get nothing done in the Senate. He refrained from trashing Rubio, whose work on foreign-policy issues has to engender the former Pennsylvania senator’s respect, but that’s probably only because he might assume the Floridian won’t choose to compete with Jeb Bush for his state’s donors. Santorum also thinks the trio of freshman senators have no business running for president with such thin resumes, a point that should resonate with critics of Barack Obama’s administration.

This didn’t bother those potential candidates much with some, like one of Paul’s representatives, answering with a reminder that Santorum was ousted from the Senate in a 2006 landslide and has spent most of his time since then trying to get elected to a much higher office.

While the jury is out on whether Huckabee’s long stint as a Fox News host will have helped or hurt his chances for a political comeback, both Cruz and Paul will arrive in Iowa with built-in national constituencies after years of being in the center of national debates. Santorum may also have to compete against figures like Rick Perry and, more importantly, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who can make compelling cases as outsiders who have governed states successfully.

So it will take more than Santorum flashing some of the sharp elbows he occasionally showed during his 12 years in the Senate to get past newcomers to the GOP presidential derby that will start ahead of him in the polls and in the ability to raise money. Indeed, given that the talent level in the 2016 Republican field seems to be far greater than the 2012 version where Santorum shined, it can be argued that he has virtually no chance to repeat his limited success, let alone beat out both sets of conservative and establishment candidates for the nomination.

But Santorum still shouldn’t be ignored. That’s because, alone of all the 2012 GOP candidates, Santorum sought to speak for working-class voters as well as their socially conservative values in a way that was persuasive as well as strategically smart.

In 2012, Republicans proved that running a man who could be caricatured as the man on the Monopoly box come to life isn’t a good idea. If they are to win in 2016, they’ll need to engage the interest and the support of the sort of Reagan Democrat whose vote is up for grabs in most elections. There may be others, notably Walker, who may be better able to strike this tone. But the ability to harness Tea Party principles to the sensibilities of ordinary, non-wealthy voters is a must if Republicans expect to win. Until other Republicans prove that they’ve learned the lesson Santorum taught us in the last primary season, he deserves to be treated as a serious candidate, albeit an extremely long shot, in a crowded Republican field.

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Mitt and Jeb Are Right About Each Other

Much to the surprise of those who thought Mitt Romney was done with presidential politics after failing to defeat Barack Obama’s bid for reelection, the 2012 Republican nominee is indicating that he is running again. Last Friday’s announcement to supporters that he is seriously considering jumping into the fray for 2016 was necessitated by Jeb Bush’s recent announcement. Any further delay would have been fatal to his hopes as Bush is rapidly working to secure the support of major financial donors from the party’s establishment faction who might otherwise be expected to give to Romney. This will alter the course of the battle for the nomination, but what we need to unpack today is the rationale for each candidate and the nature of the critiques these two not dissimilar heavyweight contenders are making of each other. What many Republicans who are sympathetic to both men must admit is that they are both right about each other.

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Much to the surprise of those who thought Mitt Romney was done with presidential politics after failing to defeat Barack Obama’s bid for reelection, the 2012 Republican nominee is indicating that he is running again. Last Friday’s announcement to supporters that he is seriously considering jumping into the fray for 2016 was necessitated by Jeb Bush’s recent announcement. Any further delay would have been fatal to his hopes as Bush is rapidly working to secure the support of major financial donors from the party’s establishment faction who might otherwise be expected to give to Romney. This will alter the course of the battle for the nomination, but what we need to unpack today is the rationale for each candidate and the nature of the critiques these two not dissimilar heavyweight contenders are making of each other. What many Republicans who are sympathetic to both men must admit is that they are both right about each other.

If reports about Romney’s statements to his past and perhaps future backers are true, the former Massachusetts governor thinks Bush isn’t the right candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016. Romney believes that it is foolish for the GOP to ask Americans to vote a third member of the same immediate family into the White House within a span of three decades especially after the way George W. Bush limped out of the presidency in January 2009 in the wake of the Iraq War and a financial collapse. Though there is no indication that he has any personal dislike for Jeb or any of the Bush clan, he also seems to think Jeb faces the same liability for his participation in the investment world. The Romney camp believes Bush faces severe challenges in his quest for the nomination because of his support for the Common Core education program and his more liberal approach to immigration reform.

Even more to the point, Romney may believe any Republican who runs against the base, as Bush has seemed to signal that he will do, is not likely to be able to beat back the challenge from Tea Party and other conservative contenders that would be less electable in November.

But those criticisms are matched by Bush’s thinking about a third try by Romney for the White House. Jeb and his backers see another Romney candidacy as exactly what the party doesn’t need. Romney had his chance and failed, in no small measure because he was a poor retail politician who lacked the ability to tell his own very good story convincingly or to defend himself against smears about his business career. Indeed, Bush’s early steps taken toward the nomination—including resignation from corporate boards, the massive early release of his emails while governor, and ten years of tax returns—indicate that he has studied Romney’s campaign closely and has no intention of making the same mistakes. He also believes that Romney’s pandering to the party base during the primaries helped sew the seeds of his defeat in November, leading him to think that the only path to victory for Republicans lies in nominating someone with a strong conservative record who is nevertheless willing to take centrist stands.

These are strong arguments, but the problem for Republicans listening to their respective appeals is that both men are right.

Romney understands all too well the difficulty of trying to arouse the base if is convinced the party’s candidate doesn’t represent their views. The assumption that the establishment candidate always wins in the end may be unfounded in 2016 when a far more formidable array of conservatives will be running. And though the reputation of George W. Bush has risen considerably during the six miserable years of the Obama presidency, he’s also not wrong to assert that there is something profoundly unsettling about the GOP embracing a political dynasty of this sort. If the Democrats are, as seems almost certain, going to nominate a Clinton, the Republicans’ best opportunity should be with a talented and fresh face, not another Bush, albeit one that is as talented and serious as Jeb. Though his name is famous, we also don’t know how well Jeb will do under the pressures of a presidential campaign since he has never personally done it before.

Nor is it clear that even Bush’s attempts to forestall or pre-empt a Democrat assault on his character will succeed since that party’s attack machine will be primed and ready to smear no matter what he does to prevent it. Having already been thoroughly slimed by the Obama reelection campaign, it is possible to argue that Romney won’t be as badly hurt by another round of low blows. Indeed, having lost gamely while battling long odds and making assertions that were subsequently proven to be true, Romney may start out the race with a degree of sympathy from the mainstream media accorded no other Republican (even if it is likely that those good feelings will disappear once it’s clear he is running again).

But Bush is also right that another Romney run is unlikely to yield a better result than the last attempt. Bush may not be the freshest face on the Republican bench, but it is surely fresher than that of a man making his third run for the presidency. Presidential fever is something that few politicians get over and Romney’s decision to run seems motivated as much by ambition as any genuine belief that no other Republican can win. Even if he has absorbed some of the lessons of his defeat, no amount of analysis can fix Romney’s basic defects as a candidate. We all know he is a very good man but it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to think that he will be a better or wiser candidate in 2016 than he was in 2012 or 2008.

So where does that leave the GOP?

Having Romney and Bush both in the race will make it harder for anyone else to run in the hidden establishment primary, meaning that a Chris Christie candidacy is looking like even more of a long shot than it did a few weeks ago. It also ought to encourage conservatives to jump in since it will mean there will be no repeat of the 2008 and 2012 races where a single well-funded moderate was able to overwhelm a split conservative faction. The presence of Romney makes the race even more unpredictable and should tempt figures like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who combines Tea Party support with stands that endear him to the establishment to think that perhaps 2016 will be a year in which a non-establishment candidate who is not considered a bomb-thrower can win.

But most of all, the entry of Romney into the race will mean a tremendous struggle for the hearts and minds of the GOP center. Having gotten in first and with his family’s network behind him as well as having the support of many other establishment types, Bush must be considered as having the edge until proven otherwise. But he must also worry that the two will ultimately knock each other off and let someone new, whether or not they are more electable, have a chance.

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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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GOP Establishment Should Fear Cruz Run

Yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz gave a major foreign-policy speech at the Heritage Foundation critiquing the disastrous nature of what he labeled as the “Obama-Clinton” approach to the subject. His desire to lay out his foreign-policy views in detail at such a venue as well as his focus on Clinton was a clear indication of something that is not exactly a secret: he’s planning on running for president in 2016. Members of his party’s establishment, which generally despises him as much as his fellow senators and the liberal media, do not take Cruz’s ambition too seriously. But as much as it seems unlikely that he will be taking the presidential oath at the Capitol in January 2017, that establishment should be a lot more afraid of Cruz than they seem to be. Anyone who thinks he will not be a formidable primary contender is paying more attention to the media caricature of Cruz than the facts.

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Yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz gave a major foreign-policy speech at the Heritage Foundation critiquing the disastrous nature of what he labeled as the “Obama-Clinton” approach to the subject. His desire to lay out his foreign-policy views in detail at such a venue as well as his focus on Clinton was a clear indication of something that is not exactly a secret: he’s planning on running for president in 2016. Members of his party’s establishment, which generally despises him as much as his fellow senators and the liberal media, do not take Cruz’s ambition too seriously. But as much as it seems unlikely that he will be taking the presidential oath at the Capitol in January 2017, that establishment should be a lot more afraid of Cruz than they seem to be. Anyone who thinks he will not be a formidable primary contender is paying more attention to the media caricature of Cruz than the facts.

Let’s start by conceding that Cruz’s well-earned image as a Senate bomb-thrower and his truculent public personality makes him a poor bet as a general-election candidate. Being a true believer is an asset in a primary but his uncompromising style won’t win many independent or crossover voters. Just as important, Cruz not only sounds ornery much of the time, he generally looks it too–and in the television era it’s far from clear that Americans will ever again elect someone who doesn’t strike them as being nice or personable. But let’s put those issues aside for a moment and consider Cruz’s chances of winning the Republican nomination in a context in which liberal media bias as well as the imperative of winning the center won’t be as decisive as they would be in a general election.

It should be understood that while many in the media and among the partisans of the so-called moderates in the putative GOP presidential field think Cruz is just another version of past Republican candidates that were more gadflies than serious contenders, he is nothing of the sort. Cruz is no Michele Bachmann, a candidate who quickly imploded because of her penchant for embracing crackpot causes (like her opposition to a vaccine against cervical cancer) after enjoying a couple of months in the summer of 2011 during which it seemed as if she might get as far as Rick Santorum eventually did during the 2012 primaries. Cruz is good at playing up the down-home charm, a brilliant debater (a former college champion), and a savvy political tactician with a strong command of the issues and policy options on both domestic and foreign policy. If you’re going to make comparisons to 2012 candidates, imagine someone with the folksiness of Rick Perry (albeit in a Cuban Texan version), the passion of Santorum on populist and social conservative issues, the debating skill of Newt Gingrich, and the wonkish grasp of details of a Mitt Romney and you have a fair idea of what Cruz brings to the table.

Cruz’s ability to rouse the Tea Party base should also not be underestimated. While that constituency has been widely derided in the last couple of years as the GOP establishment managed to fend off challenges to many incumbents from Tea Party types, the grassroots conservatives have not disappeared and will turn out to support someone who can inspire passion. Cruz can do that for the exact same reasons that he appalls the establishment. The Texan can approach every key conservative issue, whether it is ObamaCare or immigration, with a laser-like precision that more easygoing or moderate candidates can’t match.

Cruz won’t win votes from those who don’t like Washington dysfunction. Republican governors are likely to win those votes. But having never given an inch or compromised on anything during his first two years in the Senate, neither will it be possible to accuse him of selling his soul to get ahead as is the usual rap on House or Senate veterans.

As for being able to organize a serious campaign, Cruz will be no latecomer to the party. He’s been working toward this goal for some time and it’s not likely that he will be caught short on organization. It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party faithful can give him enough money to fight to the end in the absence of him becoming the cause of a major donor the way Sheldon Adelson bankrolled Gingrich or Foster Friess subsidized Santorum. But Cruz is not the sort to be outworked so those who think he can’t raise enough cash are probably making a mistake.

Will that be enough to help him fend off a large number of other conservatives vying for the same voters? We don’t know, but the way he parachuted into Washington in January 2013 and quickly became the darling of the right indicates that he must be considered a serious threat to edge out others before they even get started. More to the point, Cruz is probably ideally positioned to win early primary and caucus states and then rake in the cash that will follow those victories before he tries to best the other first-tier candidates in the contests that follow. At worst, barring a mishap, I think he should be slotted in as likely to be part of a large field’s first tier.

Is he a lock to be able to carry out that scenario? Not necessarily. There will also not be as many debates in 2016 as there were in 2012, meaning that he won’t have as many opportunities to display his bulldog style or to eviscerate opponents in public. And the later primary schedule that year will make it easier for establishment types to wait before joining the race.

But the point here is that while Cruz may be considered an outlier in the Senate chamber, he’s likely to play better on the hustings in Iowa and other early states than establishment types think. Cruz may shoot himself in the foot in the next year and find others supplanting him among Tea Partiers and the rest of the party. But any assumptions on the part of the establishment that he will crash and burn is a huge mistake. Cruz may not be president but his path to the Republican nomination is no pipe dream.

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Changing Demographics and the GOP

In his most recent column, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz summarizes data from the demographer William Frey, author of Diversity Explosion. According to Mr. Frey, “the United States is in the midst of a pivotal period ushering in extraordinary shifts in the nation’s racial demographic makeup.”

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In his most recent column, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz summarizes data from the demographer William Frey, author of Diversity Explosion. According to Mr. Frey, “the United States is in the midst of a pivotal period ushering in extraordinary shifts in the nation’s racial demographic makeup.”

Among the highlights found in Mr. Balz’s column:

  • We’re witnessing the rapid growth among Hispanics, Asians, and multiracial populations. All are expected to double in size over the next 40 years. We’re also seeing declining growth rates and rapid aging of the white population, the result of both lower birth rates among younger white Americans and the advancing age of the Baby Boom generation.
  • We’re seeing the continued growth of the black middle class and the migration among black Americans from North to South, reversing the historic South-to-North wave of migration in the 20th century.
  • By later in this century, there will be no majority demographic group in the United States.

As for politics:

  • In 2012, for every 10 votes Mitt Romney won, nine came from white voters. Barack Obama won eight out of every 10 votes cast by a minority voter.
  • In 2008 and 2012, minority voters provided the key to victory for Mr. Obama in seven states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Colorado. It was also decisive in Indiana in 2008 and Wisconsin in 2012.
  • Changing demographics have afforded Democrats opportunities to compete in states that once were reliably Republican. That’s already happened in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. Democrats may also become more competitive presidentially in states like Arizona (because of the Hispanic population) and Georgia (because of the growing African American population).
  • Mr. Frey points to six northern states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa—whose demographic makeup may be better for Republicans. Their populations are older and whiter than those in the newer battlegrounds of the Sun Belt, and their electorates are composed of more white, blue-collar voters. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have been reliably Democratic in recent presidential elections (Ohio and Iowa have been more competitive).

It’s certainly true that Republicans have done extremely well–historically well–in the last two midterm elections. The GOP is now the governing party in America, if you take into account the political composition of the Senate, the House, governorships, and state legislatures. It may also be true that Barack Obama is sui generis; his appeal to rising demographics may not translate to other Democrats nearly as well as it did for him. Still, Republicans are kidding themselves if they don’t acknowledge that changing demographics are working to the disadvantage of Republicans. As William Frey told Balz, “In the longer term, [Republicans] absolutely have to be much more open to minorities and make a much more serious attempt to deal with Hispanics.”

Exactly how to do this remains an open question. But that it needs to be done is undeniable, at least if the GOP hopes to win on the presidential level on a consistent basis.

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Did Obama Unite the GOP on Immigration?

Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

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Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

In the past, Obama has been fairly skilled in dividing Republicans against themselves, especially on the issue of immigration. And one might have expected something similar this time as well. Republicans are not, after all, of one mind in how to respond to the executive action he plans to announce tonight. Obama has twice scuttled immigration reform, once as senator and prospective presidential candidate and once as president as well, because the issue was thought to hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters.

The issue also seemed to weaken the Republican presidential fields. In 2012 Rick Perry stumbled badly over an immigration question at a primary debate and never really recovered. And for 2016, prospective candidates found themselves on different sides of the issue: Marco Rubio helped get comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate, Rand Paul wavered but ultimately voted against it, and Ted Cruz was opposed.

That, and the fact that reform died in the House anyway, was a setback for Rubio. The Florida senator had since recovered some of his earlier momentum thanks in part to the president’s vast array of foreign-policy blunders, and the president’s executive amnesty is likely to help the two GOP rising stars who voted for immigration reform last year: Rubio and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

Immigration hawks will still remember their votes for the reform bill. But the president’s actions do two things that will help them. First, it removes some of the fear the grassroots might have in what action a hypothetical President Rubio might take on immigration. That is, if amnesty is already done, then the only things that are left are issues that Republicans tend to broadly agree on, such as border security.

It’s true that comprehensive immigration reform was unlikely to pass the House in the near future anyway, but Obama has essentially taken the part of it that conservatives like the least off the table. There’s no looming threat of amnesty; it’s here. Having already supported immigration reform, Rubio will get some credit from Hispanic voters. But will his opposition to executive amnesty lose them?

That’s where the second aspect of Obama’s miscalculation comes in. By making such an obvious power grab, he has made opposition to his actions intellectually much simpler. The words “king” and “emperor” have been thrown around; Ted Cruz even referenced Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline today, as if Obama would even know who that is:

“When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end to that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” he said, using the beginning of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline.

Even Democrats seem to have no idea how to explain how the executive amnesty is legal.

Which is to say: it’s very easy to criticize this move without attacking immigrants–though the media, surely, will attempt to conflate the two. And doing so also enables Republican candidates to come out strongly against Obama’s power grabs more generally, and his immigration actions specifically, to a conservative audience in the same way they would do so to a general-election audience, without having to flip-flop or triangulate.

Obama has been criticized for this power grab by even traditionally supportive left-leaning media, such as the Washington Post and the Economist, because of the precedent it would set and the left’s fear of reprisals. This debate isn’t about the policy anymore, and anyone who pretends otherwise is selling something. Obama has given even supporters of immigration reform a way to oppose amnesty without opposing immigration in itself.

Obama has made the conversation about the damage this act would do to American democracy. That’s very comfortable terrain for Republicans, who are thus far more united on this issue than they would otherwise be.

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Race-Baiting and the Democrats’ Future

With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

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With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

The answer from Democratic operatives eager to preserve the party’s Senate majority as well as to lay the foundation for another smashing presidential win in 2016 would probably be something along the lines of declaring that all’s fair in love, war, and politics. If getting African-Americans to the polls requires cynically recycling racial incitement, then so be it. Moreover they see it as no more nor less ethical than Republican hacks employing concerns over issues like gay marriage or immigration in order to get their base to turn out.

But just as Republicans have learned the lesson in recent election cycles that excessive pandering to social conservatives has unforeseen consequences in the form of damaging blowback with moderates and independents, so, too, Democrats need to be wary of becoming the party of race incitement.

Waving the bloody shirt of Ferguson seems like a good idea to those who believe, not wrongly, that many African-Americans view such incidents as evidence of the enduring legacy of the nation’s history of racism. But the line between sending subtle hints about such issues and outright race baiting has clearly been crossed when, as Hagan did, Republicans are falsely accused of playing a role in killing young African-Americans. Nor did Landrieu do herself any favors by publicly complaining about the treatment of blacks and women in the contemporary south.

Both parties desperately need their bases to be enthusiastic about elections if they are to win. But both also need to remember that winning electoral majorities requires more than mobilization of true believers. Republicans have become obsessed with appeasing their core voters and paid for it at times by being slammed, often unfairly, as overly identified with extremists. But it seems never to occur to Democrats that over-the-top appeals to their base will exact a cost with the rest of the electorate.

In the past two years, we’ve heard a great deal of Democratic triumphalism about how changing demographics will ensure them an unshakable electoral majority for years, if not decades, to come. But as much as they certainly benefit heavily from the overwhelming margins they rack up among blacks and Hispanics, the notion that this alone will create a permanent Democratic hegemony in Washington is spurious. In the end, all parties must win over the vital center of the American public square. As Ronald Reagan proved, they need not sacrifice their ideology or their principles to do so. But when they go too far, they inevitably run aground.

That’s the real danger of a reliance on race baiting for the Democrats. It’s not just that African-Americans will grow tired of such obvious exploitation but that by linking themselves so firmly with such dubious tactics and extreme rhetoric, they drown out any reasoned arguments they might put forward for their party.

In 2008 and 2012, Democrats were able to rouse their base with positive messages of empowerment that revolved around the historic and deeply symbolic candidacies of Barack Obama while at the same time offering an effective if ultimately spurious promise of hope and change to the entire country. But in 2014, as Obama’s popularity has waned and then collapsed, they are forced to do verbal gymnastics as candidates seek to distance themselves from the president and his policies while simultaneously seeking to appeal to minorities that still revere him with negative race-based slurs about Republicans.

Thus, even if these tactics work to turn out blacks—and it is by no means clear that it will come anywhere close to the 2012 levels that Democrats desperately need—the party may be doing itself real damage with the public in ways that will harm their presidential candidate in 2016. As with other misleading memes they have beat to death, such as the spurious war on women that Republicans are supposed to be waging, Democrats are finding that they are fast exhausting the electorate’s patience and are running out of ideas. As much as playing the race card seems like a foolproof if unsavory tactic, it may not be as smart a move as they think it is.

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Dems Prepare for World Without Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santorum and the Myths About 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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