Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential election

Jeb Is Christie’s Problem, Not the Cowboys

Almost exactly one year after the Bridgegate scandal sucked the air out of his 2016 presidential boomlet, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is being criticized today for something equally bizarre. The video of the governor’s joyous embrace of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after their favorite football team won a playoff game yesterday quickly went viral causing some to speculate whether his closeness with a man who is widely despised will further undermine his efforts to win the White House. Such speculation is patently ridiculous. But those who are wondering today whether Christie’s once bright hopes are fading aren’t off base. Jeb Bush’s recent decision to all but declare his intention to run for the presidency has to some extent pre-empted the field in the hidden primary to gain the support of the GOP establishment. Though we’re a year away from the first votes being cast in Iowa, if Christie doesn’t get into the game soon he may find that he lost the nomination even before he began to fight for it.

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Almost exactly one year after the Bridgegate scandal sucked the air out of his 2016 presidential boomlet, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is being criticized today for something equally bizarre. The video of the governor’s joyous embrace of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after their favorite football team won a playoff game yesterday quickly went viral causing some to speculate whether his closeness with a man who is widely despised will further undermine his efforts to win the White House. Such speculation is patently ridiculous. But those who are wondering today whether Christie’s once bright hopes are fading aren’t off base. Jeb Bush’s recent decision to all but declare his intention to run for the presidency has to some extent pre-empted the field in the hidden primary to gain the support of the GOP establishment. Though we’re a year away from the first votes being cast in Iowa, if Christie doesn’t get into the game soon he may find that he lost the nomination even before he began to fight for it.

Let’s dismiss the Cowboys critique out of hand. As even Matt Lewis admitted in a Daily Beast piece that tries but fails to convince readers that Christie will be hurt by his embrace of Jones, being a fan of a team with a national following that is based in the reddest of red states isn’t a political mistake for a Republican. He isn’t running again for governor so unhappy fans of the teams that most New Jersey voters root for (the Giants, Jets, and Eagles—none of whom made this year’s playoffs) won’t be able to retaliate. Nor is Jones so unpopular that the luxury box hug fest would really be a political liability.

Christie’s presence in the owner’s box does raise some interesting questions about whether the governor paid for what must be a very expensive ticket. As the International Business Times points out, since the state of New Jersey has a significant business relationship with the National Football League, the potential for damaging ethics violations is always present when public officials accept the hospitality of team owners. But, until the contrary is proven, since Christie is a former federal prosecutor and no dummy, let’s assume he has not left himself exposed on this front. In which case, the whole Cowboys thing is a nonstory.

But Christie’s future in presidential politics is very much up in the air at the moment. As bizarre as it may be to think about things this way, although we are only in January 2015, time is running out for presidential candidates to start serious preparations for 2016. More to the point, Bush’s prescient moves to not only declare his interest but to resign from the corporate and non-profit boards on which he has served since the end of his second term as governor of Florida has caused many wealthy GOP donors to flock to his cause.

While Christie is rightly confident of his ability to raise enough money to run a competitive race, Bush’s ability to steal a march on him is a serious problem. Both Bush and Christie are essentially competing for the same donors and voters. Though both can make strong arguments that they are conservative enough to earn the support of grassroots Republicans, both have also become the focus of the base’s hostility. Some Tea Partiers will never forgive Christie for his embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy while Bush’s support of Common Core and immigration reform have also left some on the right unfairly branding him a RINO. In order to win the nomination, either of them would have to dominate the GOP establishment wing while the large cast of conservatives knock each other off. That’s how both Mitt Romney and John McCain won the nomination and it could easily be done again if the same conditions were repeated.

But by coming in so early, Bush has pre-empted Christie in a way that has to have his backers feeling nervous. The push for Bush has also quieted all talk about Mitt Romney running again because of his lack of faith in any of the establishment choices. With Christie handicapped to some extent in his fundraising efforts by New Jersey’s strict pay-to-play laws, the longer he refrains from matching Bush’s commitment to running, the harder it will be for him to rally enough backing to make an effort worthwhile. Indeed, if Bush’s moves are countered before long by similar efforts by Christie, the governor may discover he has waited too long especially since the moderate Republicans both seek to represent understand all too well that a knockdown drag-out fight between the two could make it much easier for a conservative they think can’t win a general election, like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, to be nominated. If Christie wants to win the establishment primary, he may have to jump into it long before he may have previously planned.

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Can Christie Find His Foreign Policy Voice?

He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

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He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

The local angle on the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba was the failure of the administration to obtain the return of a fugitive from justice in New Jersey. Joanne Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, was involved in a campaign of robberies and attacks on law enforcement officials culminating in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that left a state trooper dead, the crime for which she was sentenced to life in prison. But her criminal colleagues helped her escape prison in 1979 after which she found her way to Cuba where she lives to this day under the name of Assata Shakur. Though some African-American politicians have opposed efforts to extradite her on the grounds that they believe she was the victim of racially motivated persecution, there’s little doubt about her guilt. In the past, there were reports that the Clinton administration had offered to lift the embargo on Cuba in exchange for the return of Chesimard and 90 other U.S. criminals given safe haven there. Thus, it was disappointing that the Obama administration made no apparent effort to tie her return to the major economic and political concessions the U.S. gave the Castro regime as part of a prisoner exchange. That is especially unfortunate since it was only last year that the FBI formally added her name to its list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.”

Thus, it was both appropriate and timely for the governor to speak up on the issue in a letter sent to the White House in which he rightly said Chesimard’s continued freedom is “an affront” to the citizens of New Jersey and that she must be returned to serve her sentence before any further consideration is given to resuming relations with Havana. But, to his credit, Christie did not stop with that justified yet parochial concern. He went on to say the following:

I do not share your view that restoring diplomatic relations without a clear commitment from the Cuban government of the steps they will take to reverse decades of human rights violations will result in a better and more just Cuba for its people.

In doing so, Christie clearly aligned himself with Senator Marco Rubio and other conservatives who have spoken up against the Cuban deal on the grounds that it will make it less rather than more likely that conditions in the communist island prison will improve as a result of Obama’s decision. It also places Christie in opposition to Senator Rand Paul, who has defended Obama’s opening.

It’s not the first time Christie has been on the other side of an issue from Paul. In the summer of 2013, the governor spoke up and criticized Paul’s effort to force an American retreat from the battle against Islamist terrorists. But that initiative was short lived and, given Christie’s unwillingness to follow up with more details that would demonstrate his command of the issues, seemed to indicate that he wasn’t ready for prime time on foreign policy. That impression was confirmed in the time since then as the governor has often refrained from commenting on foreign policy.

But if he wants to be president, Christie must be able to demonstrate a clear view about America’s place in the world. In the White House, his main antagonists won’t be union bosses or even members of the other party in Congress but rogue nations like Russia, Iran and North Korean. If he is preparing a run for the presidency, the governor must continue to speak out and do so in a consistent and forceful manner. That’s especially true if he aspires, as he seemed to for a while last year, to be the mainstream alternative to Paul’s isolationism. If not, despite his ability to raise money and gain some establishment support, it won’t be possible to take him all that seriously as a candidate or a prospective president.

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Jeb’s Strategy: Make Everything Old News

With the year drawing to a close, Jeb Bush found himself accused of being insufficiently conservative and having to defend himself against a fired-up conservative activist base leveling the charge. It’s a familiar story, but this particular case took place fifteen years ago, in December 1999. The email exchange with a pro-life activist was a reaction to Bush’s appointment of a judge while governor of Florida, and it’s part of a massive public-records release of electronic communication by the former governor, reported on in some detail today by the Washington Post. It also sheds some more light on Bush’s 2016 strategy.

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With the year drawing to a close, Jeb Bush found himself accused of being insufficiently conservative and having to defend himself against a fired-up conservative activist base leveling the charge. It’s a familiar story, but this particular case took place fifteen years ago, in December 1999. The email exchange with a pro-life activist was a reaction to Bush’s appointment of a judge while governor of Florida, and it’s part of a massive public-records release of electronic communication by the former governor, reported on in some detail today by the Washington Post. It also sheds some more light on Bush’s 2016 strategy.

For starters, the email exchange with the pro-life activist offers a glimpse into why Bush has been less than intimidated by grassroots opposition to his candidacy: he’s been dealing with this his whole career. Times have arguably changed in the Republican Party since then, and the presidential nomination fight is a different stage altogether. But for Bush, it’s easy to understand why he’s not willing to be deterred by something that’s never been able to stop him before. Here, for the record, is that 1999 exchange, as relayed by the Post:

He regularly sought to calm conservative activists who wanted him to take the government further to the right. In December 1999, Bush tangled over e-mail with an anti­abortion activist who blasted him for appointing a lawyer to a judgeship, because the lawyer had represented the owner of an abortion clinic.

Bush responded that he had not been told about the attorney’s history and, in any case, the lawyer had “received recommendations from many people who I respect.”

Nevertheless, Bush followed up and asked an aide to send the activist a list of all nominees currently before him. “We have no litmus test for judges — we are open to hearing from all Floridians,” he wrote. But he added that the woman “appears concerned about the perceived lack of opportunity to provide input.”

Bush welcomes the debate. That might further antagonize the right, or it might breed a new respect for him for not running from his decisions. But if the latter, it would almost surely be a grudging respect.

Bush has dealt with conservative dissent from his policies since well before there was a Tea Party, and he may think that precedent works in his favor. And maybe it does. But the reverse is just as likely. Conservative grassroots dissent was a different animal before the Tea Party and before new media’s influence on campaigns. Bush faced the low-calorie version of the modern conservative insurgency.

He’ll also face a roster of challengers that offers conservatives the flexibility to take their business elsewhere. But as far as Bush is concerned, conservative anger at him has not slowed him down much, and he seems determined to try to keep the streak alive.

The other aspect to the email archive is how Bush plans to use this transparency to his benefit in the 2016 race. There are two ways this could help him. The first is obvious: these are public records, so if there’s a story in there that portrays him in a negative light, it’s going to come out. He might as well get ahead of the story, spin it to suggest he has nothing to hide to minimize the story as much as possible, and get it out in public early in the race (or even before he’s technically in the race) so it’s old news by the time he’s in the middle of the nomination battle or even the general election.

Bush does not seem to be trying to hide this information in plain sight. To that end, the Post reports, “Bush’s team plans to post the e-mails on a searchable Web site early next year.”

The other way this could help Bush is by building a reputation for transparency. To be sure, what he’s doing is far from revolutionary in terms of what he’s releasing. But by getting it out there and making it easily accessible, he can at least play it as an alternative to the paranoiac secrecy of both the Clintons and President Obama. The Clintons not only famously enforce tribal loyalty but members of their inner circle aren’t above stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives to cover for the Clintons.

The Obama administration promised to be the most transparent administration ever, a phrase that has turned into a punchline. The president, in keeping with the unfortunate pattern of presidential discretion in an age of proliferating media, is more secretive than his predecessors, who were each, while in office, arguably more secretive than their own predecessors, and so forth.

It’s not a surprise, in other words, that the presidential comparison Obama evokes is Nixon. It’s just that the other presidents didn’t make such a big show of lying about their intentions to be transparent. That’s why Obama’s divisiveness is also so noticeable: he promised healing, and spent six years and counting turning Americans on each other. (Related: the Democratic Party wants you to harangue your family members with pro-Obama talking points over the holidays. Merry Christmas and happy Chanukah from the creepy statists running your government.)

The result of Obama’s Music Man routine will undoubtedly be increased cynicism toward politicians. So anyone making similar promises as Obama made during his campaign should beware the poisoned well. But if anyone can realistically promise a true transparency, it might be Bush, who could try to claim that you don’t have to wait for him to take office to test his commitment since he displayed transparency during the campaign.

Transparency is not now, and not ever going to be, an issue that catapults someone to the presidency. (You could argue “trust” is, but that’s not the same thing.) So the benefit to Bush of releasing these emails is almost surely about trying to waste news cycles on any revelation to inoculate his campaign from them later. As for his fifteen-year battle with conservatives, that too may be old news, but it’s precisely the kind of old news that feeds grudges and gains steam over time. Bush would be foolish to believe he can run like it’s 1999.

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Rubio-Paul Debate Bigger Than Just Cuba

Few would have ever expected that relations with Cuba, of all places, would be the focus of a serious foreign policy debate within the Republican Party. But President Obama’s decision to grant diplomatic recognition to the Castro regime along with other economic benefits as part of a prisoner exchange has highlighted the rift between the libertarian faction led by Senator Rand Paul, a likely presidential candidate, and mainstream GOP and conservative opinion as few other issues have done before. While the argument about opening up to Cuba is an interesting one, the sniping between Paul and Senator Marco Rubio, another potential 2016 challenger who has emerged as his party’s leading spokesman on the issue is about more than Cuba. The question facing Republicans is not so much whether they want to end sanctions on the Communist-controlled island prison as it is whether they want to go to the people in 2016 supporting a foreign policy that bears an eerie resemblance to that of President Obama or one based on strength and assertion of American interests that their party has traditionally espoused.

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Few would have ever expected that relations with Cuba, of all places, would be the focus of a serious foreign policy debate within the Republican Party. But President Obama’s decision to grant diplomatic recognition to the Castro regime along with other economic benefits as part of a prisoner exchange has highlighted the rift between the libertarian faction led by Senator Rand Paul, a likely presidential candidate, and mainstream GOP and conservative opinion as few other issues have done before. While the argument about opening up to Cuba is an interesting one, the sniping between Paul and Senator Marco Rubio, another potential 2016 challenger who has emerged as his party’s leading spokesman on the issue is about more than Cuba. The question facing Republicans is not so much whether they want to end sanctions on the Communist-controlled island prison as it is whether they want to go to the people in 2016 supporting a foreign policy that bears an eerie resemblance to that of President Obama or one based on strength and assertion of American interests that their party has traditionally espoused.

Though Paul shot to national prominence and earned tremendous applause from the conservative base last year with his filibuster attacking President Obama’s drone policies, that fracas served to paper over the fact that on many foreign policy issues, the Kentucky senator is far closer to the positions of the White House than he is to most other members of the GOP caucus. In unraveling the back-and-forth between Paul and Rubio over the past few days as each has taken pot shots at the other over Cuba, it’s important to understand that the libertarian and the president share the same basic premises about American foreign policy.

Paul likes to call himself a foreign policy “realist” cut from the mold of the first President Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker. But while there are some superficial similarities between his positions and those of the old-school realists, his real affinity is with the current administration.

In defending the president’s move on Cuba, the key word repeatedly used by Paul was “engagement.” He puts it forward in a context of free trade using language that conservatives are more comfortable with than those employed by Obama. Though he has attempted to turn the truth on its head by calling Rubio an “isolationist” because of his support for continued sanctions on the Cuban regime, the point here is that Paul shares the president’s belief that reaching out and making nice and trading with enemies should be the default position for American foreign policy. Indeed, Paul’s blind belief that some trade with Cuba might topple the Castros or change the regime is remarkably similar to that of President Obama. Neither appears to realize that giving away a major bargaining chip to a despotic regime while asking for and getting nothing in term of human rights or democracy is not only a bad bargain but also an open advertisement for U.S. weakness.

For a party that believes in the market economy, the notion that the U.S. should trade with everyone, even foes, has a certain attraction. As George Will famously wrote back in an earlier era when American big business was doing its best to prop up a failing Soviet empire, some capitalists “love commerce more than they loathe communism.”

But as Rubio has rightly pointed out, opening up trade to former enemies such as China and Vietnam may have had its uses and many have profited from it, but the net effect of these policies has to been to ensure that tyrannical governments stay in power. If the point of American foreign policy is to advance the interests of the United States and to promote freedom in places where it is brutally suppressed, Paul’s prescription for the future is one that regimes like that in Iran as well as Cuba will be very comfortable with.

Both Paul and Obama are primarily concerned in America retreating from the world stage. While they have a strong point about some on the right ignoring the danger of getting involved in wars, they consistently fail to realize that the costs of their desire to retrench — the real isolationism — is paid by those who fall under the control of terrorist groups like ISIS. The rise of that menace is directly attributable to the president’s precipitous retreat from Iraq and refusal to take action in Syria in accordance, policies that were completely in accord with Paul’s worldview.

It is true that Senator Paul has sought to distance himself somewhat from the positions of his father. Former Rep. Ron Paul’s foreign policy was based on a view of America as a malevolent force throughout the world illustrating how the far right and far left are often indistinguishable. Rand is not as openly hostile to Israel though he would cut off all aid to it and retreat from the Middle East in a fashion that would render it even more vulnerable.

Just as in 2013 when the issue wasn’t so much about drones as it was Paul’s lack of comfort with the U.S. fighting a war to defeat Islamist terrorists, the talk about Cuba is based on a frame of references that sees enemies as merely trading partners. Though Paul doesn’t share Obama’s crush on the United Nations or the glories of multilateral diplomacy, the net effect of his position would be the same as that of Obama’s policies: a weaker United States and a retreat from a position in which America championed democracy while relentlessly opposing Islamist terror.

In a period of peace in which groups like ISIS were not rightly perceived as a threat to American security and interests, it might be possible for Rand Paul to win the Republican presidential nomination with an Obama-style foreign policy. Though it is far from clear whether Rubio will run, either he or one of the other presidential contenders who share his views will have a big advantage over Paul when it comes to foreign policy.

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Cruz’s Campaign Guided By Goldwater’s Theory

National Review’s Eliana Johnson, in writing about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, begins her article this way:

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National Review’s Eliana Johnson, in writing about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, begins her article this way:

To hell with the independents. That’s not usually the animating principle of a presidential campaign, but for Ted Cruz’s, it just might be.

His strategists aren’t planning to make a big play for so-called independent voters in the general election if Cruz wins the Republican nomination. According to several of the senator’s top advisers, Cruz sees a path to victory that relies instead on increasing conservative turnout; attracting votes from groups — including Jews, Hispanics, and Millennials — that have tended to favor Democrats; and, in the words of one Cruz strategist, “not getting killed with independents.”

Ms. Johnson went on to quote a Cruz adviser saying, “winning independents has meant not winning,” with the argument being that doing what it takes to win over independents has the effect of dampening enthusiasm among the base.

This approach has been tried before. In his masterful book The Making of the President 1964, Theodore White wrote:

One must begin with the political theory that accompanied the cause Goldwater championed. The theory held that for a generation the American people had been offered, in the two great parties, a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee; and that somewhere in the American electorate was hidden a great and frustrated conservative majority. Given a choice, not an echo, ran the theory, the homeless conservatives would come swarming to the polls to overwhelm the “collectivists,” the liberals, the “socialists,” and restore virtue to its rightful place in American leadership. The campaign of 1964 was to be the great testing of this theory.

The result was that Lyndon Johnson won with what at the time was the greatest vote, the greatest margin, and the greatest percentage (61 percent) that any president had ever drawn from the American people. By the time the dust settled, Democrats held 68 out of 100 Senate seats, 295 out of 435 House seats, 33 governorships, and Republicans had lost more than 500 seats in the state legislatures around the country.

The political theory that is accompanying the cause Cruz is championing sounds similar to the one that guided Goldwater’s. To be sure, there are differences between now and then, including the fact that Goldwater was running against a popular sitting president at a time when the economy was growing and LBJ was was running as the successor of a beloved president who had been assassinated only a year earlier. Still, some of us worry the results would be too similar.

A campaign in which strategists openly declare that winning independents is a trap for losers foreshadows what’s to come. It’s hard to see how it would lead to victory in a nation in which the core supporters of the GOP are shrinking with every election (since 1996, the white share of the eligible voting population has dropped about 2 percentage points every four years). Nor is it clear how Cruz would have any special appeal to traditionally non-Republican voters. Someone like Senator Marco Rubio or Governor John Kasich would have a good deal more success, I would think.

I could be wrong, of course, and if Senator Cruz gets his way, the campaign of 2016 will be the great testing of his theory.

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The More, the Merrier for the GOP in 2016

In the aftermath of President Obama giving the Castro regime diplomatic recognition, Senator Marco Rubio has been pretty much everywhere, including multiple television appearances and authoring this Wall Street Journal op-ed. According to Senator Rubio, “By conceding to the oppressors in the Castro regime, this president and his administration have let the Cuban people down, further weakened America’s standing in the world and endangered Americans.”

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In the aftermath of President Obama giving the Castro regime diplomatic recognition, Senator Marco Rubio has been pretty much everywhere, including multiple television appearances and authoring this Wall Street Journal op-ed. According to Senator Rubio, “By conceding to the oppressors in the Castro regime, this president and his administration have let the Cuban people down, further weakened America’s standing in the world and endangered Americans.”

Whether or not one agrees with Rubio’s position–and I’m sympathetic to it–he makes his case clearly, intelligently, and with passion. Despite some differences with him now and then–I found his advocacy for the tactics that resulted in the 2013 government shutdown to be inexplicable, for example–I find Rubio to be one of the best advocates for conservatism in American public life.

Which brings me to the 2016 presidential race. Senator Rubio has signaled that the decision by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to actively explore a run won’t affect what he does. I for one hope that’s the case.

I say that as someone who admirers Bush, who was a marvelously successful governor and someone I’ve defended several times (including here) against the ludicrous charge that’s he’s a RINO/moderate/neo-statist. So I’m delighted he’s inclined to throw his hat into the ring. Yet I’d feel the same way about Senator Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan, who I’m particularly close to; as well as others I have a high regard for, including Governors Kasich, Walker, and Jindal.

Beyond that, I hope that even those I’ve been critical of–including Senators Ted Cruz (for his style and approach to politics) and Rand Paul (who is too libertarian for my taste)–run as well. The same goes for Rick Perry, who seems to be preparing for this run more diligently than he did in 2012; and Governor Christie, who would be formidable if he enters the race.

There are several reasons I hope all these individuals (and others, like Mike Huckabee) run, starting with the fact that it’s impossible to know with certainty how well a candidate will do in a presidential campaign. Some people might look great on paper and do quite well during interviews on, say, Fox News Sunday–but that’s very different from running for president. The scrutiny, intensity, and demands of a presidential race–the fog that often descends in the middle of a campaign–are impossible to convey to anyone who hasn’t been a part of one.

Some candidates who run the first time, like George W. Bush, do very well; others, like Governor Perry, flame out. Still other candidates, like Ronald Reagan, run several times before they win. You just never know. To borrow an aphorism from sports: That’s why they play the game. I’d like to see who does well, and who doesn’t, in the heat of an actual campaign. So should you.

Beyond that, though, I’d like the most articulate advocates to make their case on the biggest political stage we have. Let Rand Paul and Marco Rubio debate America’s role in the world. Let Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush engage one another on immigration. Let John Kasich and Paul Ryan discuss whether governors should accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Let’s find out, too, what areas of agreement there are; what each candidate’s priorities are; and whether they can move people’s hearts as well as appeal to their minds. Let’s give them the chance to elaborate on their views of the purposes of government and the nature of conservatism.

I considered the 2012 presidential field to be, with a few exceptions, a clown act. It was discouraging almost from beginning to end. This time around, I hope the very best in the ranks of the GOP run–and out of that contest the most impressive and attractive conservative emerges. That individual, after all, will probably be a slight underdog to whomever the Democratic Party nominates.

I have my favorites, of course, and I’m happy to offer my counsel to anyone who cares to hear it or read it. But generally speaking my view of the forthcoming race is as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Let the sharpening proceed.

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Everybody Hates Ted? Cruz Doesn’t Care.

Yesterday at a lunch attended by members of the Senate’s Republican caucus, Ted Cruz reportedly made an unsolicited apology to his colleagues for ruining their weekend. It’s not clear whether most of his fellow GOP senators accepted the apology. As mad as some of them were for having to cancel their plans in order to stay in the Senate over the weekend, many were also furious about the way Cruz’s decision to oppose a deal that would have passed the Cromnibus on Friday led to weekend sessions that also gave Democratic leader Harry Reid the opening that he used to get some Obama administration appointees confirmed before the end of the lame duck session. But Cruz was unrepentant about forcing an up-or-down vote on immigration. Nor is he particularly upset about the way most members of the Senate seem to think about him. While we can debate the wisdom of his positions, no one should be in any doubt as to whether they are making him a stronger candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

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Yesterday at a lunch attended by members of the Senate’s Republican caucus, Ted Cruz reportedly made an unsolicited apology to his colleagues for ruining their weekend. It’s not clear whether most of his fellow GOP senators accepted the apology. As mad as some of them were for having to cancel their plans in order to stay in the Senate over the weekend, many were also furious about the way Cruz’s decision to oppose a deal that would have passed the Cromnibus on Friday led to weekend sessions that also gave Democratic leader Harry Reid the opening that he used to get some Obama administration appointees confirmed before the end of the lame duck session. But Cruz was unrepentant about forcing an up-or-down vote on immigration. Nor is he particularly upset about the way most members of the Senate seem to think about him. While we can debate the wisdom of his positions, no one should be in any doubt as to whether they are making him a stronger candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Cruz came into the Senate in January 2013 determined to oppose a business-as-usual attitude. But unlike most brash freshmen that eventually calm down and realize that the advantages that come from playing by the rules of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs generally outweigh the thrill of being a Capitol Hill bomb-thrower, Cruz hasn’t changed his tune. His is, as the invaluable Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News this week, a conservatism that revolves around making statements rather than “getting things done.” Most Republicans are rightly concerned about using their new majorities in Congress to show they can govern effectively. Thus, “statements” such as Cruz’s demand that every senator put themselves on record as opposing the president’s extralegal executive orders on immigration came at too high a price since it would have meant the possibility of another damaging government shutdown.

Most senators understand the shutdown Cruz helped engineer in 2013 was a bad mistake and want no part of a repeat performance. Even more to the point, they are outraged that Cruz has never acknowledged that his tactics were mistaken and furious about his belief that another attempt would be a good idea. After two years in his company, they like him even less than they did when he arrived, a sentiment shared by many pundits and party establishment figures. All of which seems to have made no impression on Cruz whatsoever. If everyone in Washington (except for a few fellow insurgents like Senator Mike Lee), hates him, that’s fine with Cruz.

Why doesn’t he care? The answer has less to do with his obviously thick skin than it does with his ambition and vision for his party. The whole point of his Senate career is to oppose getting things done in a system that he believes is set up to perpetuate liberal big-spending and taxing government. Cruz’s goal is to overturn all of that.

More to the point, his tactics are designed to establish him as the pre-eminent leader of the Tea Party movement and the conservative base. Standing on principle on every conceivable issue is a politics of statements rather than accomplishments, but it is potential electoral gold in terms of GOP presidential primary voters. Many Republicans believe with good reason that the key to winning in 2016 is in bringing in fresh voices and faces from outside of Washington, especially the party’s deep bench of successful Republican governors. But Cruz is running against the capitol from the inside and with more publicity than any of the governors has managed.

Indeed, the more hated he is by his Senate colleagues and the more opprobrium heaped upon him by party establishment figures or even wise pundits like Krauthammer, the better it may be for his potential presidential campaign. In a wide field of potential challengers, Cruz is still not taken seriously by many observers because they think him too inexperienced and, most of all, too extreme to win a general election.

Both assumptions may be true. Electing yet another freshman senator without executive experience (i.e. Barack Obama) may strike many people as an absurd idea, especially for Republicans who have spent the last six years lamenting Obama’s incompetence. But ideological purity is the sort of thing that will always play in a primary especially when someone as clever and relentless as Cruz articulates it. If Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and perhaps Mitt Romney are competing in a hidden establishment primary, Cruz is running to win the Tea Party/base primary. For those who hadn’t noticed, Cruz is winning that primary hands down right now. With every hate bomb tossed in his direction from offended fellow senators, his lead grows and his once laughable hope to win the nomination becomes a realistic if not necessarily likely scenario. Count on him spending 2015 reinforcing that image. Which means that fellow senators need to fasten their seatbelts and hang on for what should be an even bumpier ride over the course of the next 12 months.

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Winning Establishment Primary Guarantees Jeb Nothing in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walker’s Drug Test Move Is a Mistake

During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

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During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

Walker’s plans are, as the Wall Street Journal reported today, part of a series of similar moves by Republican governors across the nation seeking to create a new wave of welfare-reform measures to help people rise above poverty while also providing accountability for the taxpayers. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has already tightened restrictions on assistance and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whom some also see as a potential presidential candidate even though he seems far less eager than Walker, wants Medicaid recipients to give back some of what they get to the state as a condition for their participation.

All of these ideas are, in theory, quite reasonable. Requiring people to stay off drugs while they are seeking work or getting extra assistance makes sense. The worst aspect of the welfare state is the way it subsidizes and even encourages destructive behavior. It’s also usually good politics since most citizens think of welfare as a privilege rather than a right and believe those who get it should give up a bit of their right to misbehave since such activities are, almost by definition, being conducted on the public’s money.

But Walker, who has to this point moved steadily if not flawlessly from a Milwaukee county executive unknown outside of his state to the status of a conservative folk hero on the strength of his epic fight with public employee unions and their Democratic allies, should rethink any emphasis on this issue if he really wants to run for president. This is not because he’s wrong—he’s not—but because what works politically when you’re running for governor can come across very differently when the presidency is the goal.

The problem with drug testing is twofold. The first is the legal obstacle to implementing such measures. Federal laws about such tests are fairly clear and have consistently been upheld by the courts. While states have rightly sought to gain the right to carry out assistance plans according to their own lights rather than being forced to follow rules designed by out-of-touch D.C. bureaucrats, such battles tend to end in the same way. While the fight for drug testing goes on all across the nations, the legal battles this idea has engendered don’t usually end well for conservatives.

Either the states give up and concede that this isn’t a fight they can win or they are slam dunked by the courts.

But the problem goes further than legal technicalities. Though the issue polls and often tests well at the local or statewide ballot box for conservatives, running for the presidency on the strength of denying aid to poor people may be a different story. The reason why these laws are usually overturned by judges is that they presuppose guilt in a manner that singles out the needy for treatment not afforded other Americans. Drug testing may be a good incentive to keep the poor out of trouble but it also can be portrayed as a form of discrimination. Even worse, it can be blamed for denying help to the poor, especially minorities.

Rightly or wrongly, this is a time when Americans are becoming more focused on racial issues because of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and the choking death of Eric Garner. That’s why Republican presidential candidates need to remember that the liberal press will interpret any move on their part that relates to large numbers of minorities as an excuse to justify tearing them apart.

The reason Walker has been so successful is that his conservative activism has focused on public-employee unions and their members who often receive better pay and far more benefits than ordinary citizens in the private sector get. Though the unions worked hard in three elections in four years to convince Wisconsin voters that Walker was a villain, he won each time because the object of his wrath was a class of people most citizens despise.

Walker has as good an argument to be made for his presidential candidacy as anyone else in the field including figures like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who have more establishment support but can’t rouse the enthusiasm of the Tea Party or the GOP base as Walker can. But that doesn’t mean he is immune to liberal efforts to smear him as a racist because of his welfare reform fight.

Welfare recipients aren’t terribly popular but measures that can be distorted to portray Walker as not only insensitive but responsible for taking away food stamps or unemployment from the poor won’t help elect him president. While welfare reform is the right thing to do, Walker and other Republicans should avoid picking fights with people who are far more sympathetic than union fat cats and their thuggish storm troops. This is a battle that he can’t win and will damage his political brand.

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Why Warren Is a Threat to Clinton

In his New York Times column, “Warren Can Win,” David Brooks writes this:

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In his New York Times column, “Warren Can Win,” David Brooks writes this:

[Hillary] Clinton is obviously tough, but she just can’t speak with a clear voice against Wall Street and Washington insiders. [Elizabeth] Warren’s wing shows increasing passion and strength, both in opposing certain Obama nominees and in last week’s budget fight.

The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.

That strikes me as right. Senator Warren has a hold on the hearts of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in a way that Mrs. Clinton does not. And one can imagine that Warren’s anti-Wall Street stand will be in 2016 what Barack Obama’s anti-Iraq war stand was in 2008–an issue that ignites a political fire that consumes Hillary Clinton.

Secretary Clinton is still the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, of course, and it remains to be seen if Senator Warren–if she decides to run–has anything like the political skills Barack Obama possesses. That’s highly unlikely. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton is quite an average political talent–inauthentic, often stiff and uninteresting, not at all a natural campaigner (as her husband was). And if there’s a compelling rationale for her to run, it’s not clear to me what it is. As President Obama’s longtime political adviser David Axelrod put it, “What happened in 2008 was that Hillary’s candidacy got out in front of any rationale for it. And the danger is that’s happening again. You hear Ready for Hillary — it’s like, Ready for What? And now Hillary’s task is to find what it is she’s running for and running about, and what would the future look like under another President Clinton. … She has to answer that question.”

Mrs. Clinton couldn’t do that in 2008; it’s an open question if she can in 2016.

The current political climate is unusually unstable for both political parties. We’re seeing populist anger from both the left and the right. At this moment it looks to be more on the rise among Democrats than Republicans. And that can’t be good news for Hillary Clinton.

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Kasich’s Amendment Gimmick and 2016

Up until his impressive reelection as governor of Ohio, there wasn’t much national buzz about John Kasich’s hopes for the presidency in 2016. But the former congressman, investment banker, and Fox News commentator’s strong showing in what is probably the most important battleground state in the country placed him squarely in the middle of a large field of potential GOP candidates and with better credentials for high office than most of the others. Yet the problem facing Kasich if he really wants to win his party’s nomination goes deeper than the same allergy to Wall Street types that hurt Mitt Romney and may yet sink Jeb Bush. It’s that his stands on immigration and Medicaid expansion make him look like just another big-government Republican/RINO to the conservative base. Kasich has an answer to those criticisms: a crusade for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. But though the idea appears designed to make him appear to be a candidate the Tea Party can love as well as the establishment, Republicans would do well to give it a wide berth.

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Up until his impressive reelection as governor of Ohio, there wasn’t much national buzz about John Kasich’s hopes for the presidency in 2016. But the former congressman, investment banker, and Fox News commentator’s strong showing in what is probably the most important battleground state in the country placed him squarely in the middle of a large field of potential GOP candidates and with better credentials for high office than most of the others. Yet the problem facing Kasich if he really wants to win his party’s nomination goes deeper than the same allergy to Wall Street types that hurt Mitt Romney and may yet sink Jeb Bush. It’s that his stands on immigration and Medicaid expansion make him look like just another big-government Republican/RINO to the conservative base. Kasich has an answer to those criticisms: a crusade for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. But though the idea appears designed to make him appear to be a candidate the Tea Party can love as well as the establishment, Republicans would do well to give it a wide berth.

As Politico reports, Kasich is currently touring the country promoting the idea and, of course, also boosting his visibility for those Republicans looking for a successful governor to support for president rather than the unelectable candidates of the right or the establishment favorites embraced by large donors and moderates. If viewed solely in that context, it’s a serviceable gimmick and can also help engender much-needed discussions about taxing and spending, as Kasich says is his purpose. However, on closer examination, the balanced budget amendment idea sounds better in theory than it is in practice.

An amendment would seemingly prevent the kind of bloated deficit spending and the dangerous expansion of debt that rightly enrages conservatives. Its advocates can also point to the example of the states that have such requirements in their constitutions to show that such a scheme can work to prevent the excesses that are harming the economy. But, as anyone who has ever covered a state budget process knows, the requirement to balance the ledgers is just as likely to work against conservative principles as it is to favor them.

One problem is that the requirement to balance the budget can be just as easily employed as an argument to raise taxes as to cut spending. Indeed, for all of the revulsion against new taxes, we know that cutting budget items, especially entitlements, is an uphill climb under the best of circumstances.

Even worse, the notion that a mere statutory requirement can actually prohibit deficit spending is something of a myth. As the states have proved, the process by which their budgets are balanced generally involves sleight of hand tactics and deceptions as much as it does transparency and sober judgments. At best, it is a symbolic measure that could help deter some of the worst practices of contemporary Washington. At worst, it will be a false panacea that will facilitate more of the same congressional hijinks that produce the sort of Christmas tree measures that fiscal conservatives purport to hate. In short, if you didn’t like the recently passed Cromnibus, you won’t think much of life under a balanced budget amendment.

As for Kasich’s 2016 chances, they are, to be fair, as good or as bad as anyone else in a crowded field. However, as Politico notes, he’s more likely to make an impact if any or the entire favored establishment trio of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Mitt Romney stay out of the race. In the meantime, he can go on peddling his amendment idea and perhaps start some necessary conversations about a future in which Americans will no longer demand a government so big that it can’t stop spending. But no one should mistake his idea for an actual solution that problem.

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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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The Mood of America

The Pew Research Center released a new survey that included the following findings:

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The Pew Research Center released a new survey that included the following findings:

Level of Dissatisfaction

  • Just 26 percent are satisfied with national conditions, while 71 percent are dissatisfied.
  • Forty-nine percent say they think 2015 will be a better year than 2014, while 42 percent think it will be worse. The current ratings are more pessimistic than in recent years, as the public generally takes an optimistic view of the year to come.

Top Concerns

  • A third (34 percent) cite an economic issue as the top national problem. (Compared to the start of the year, however, just half as many specifically cite unemployment or joblessness as the top national problem: 20 percent then vs. 10 percent now.) The share expressing dissatisfaction with government or the president, or who cite partisan gridlock or the divisions in the country has increased from 13 percent last January to 18 percent currently. Just 9 percent say foreign or international issues are the country’s top problem, unchanged from January.

Political Polarization

  • More than eight out of 10 Americans surveyed (81 percent) say the country is more politically divided these days than in the past. While that is little changed from two years ago, it is as high a percentage expressing this view as at any point over the past decade.
  • Just 17 percent think the country will be less politically divided five years from now. More than three-quarters (78 percent) say either the country will be about as divided as it is today (41 percent), or more politically divided (36 percent).
  • The public’s expectations for cooperation between leaders in Washington are highly partisan. Fully 66 percent of Democrats think President Obama will cooperate at least a fair amount with Republican leaders in Congress over the next two years, compared with just 19 percent of Republicans who say this.
  • Fully 71 percent say a failure of Republicans and Democrats to work together over the next two years would hurt the nation “a lot” and 16 percent say it will hurt “some.” Yet 66 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents want their leaders to stand up to Obama on issues, even if less gets done, rather than work with him.

Unhappiness with the President

  • Forty-two percent say they approve of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president, while 51 percent disapprove. These ratings are little changed over the past year. Nearly nine in ten Republicans (89 percent) disapprove of Obama’s performance, while views among independents are also more negative than positive (55 percent vs. 39 percent approve). Mr. Obama continues to receive positive ratings from a majority of Democrats (72 percent approve vs. 19 percent disapprove).

Unhappiness with Congress

  • Just 22 percent express a favorable opinion of Congress while 71 have an unfavorable one. Positive views of Congress have remained below 30 percent for more than three years. The current ratings rival the lowest on record (in July 2013), when 21 percent had a favorable opinion while 70 percent an unfavorable one.
  • The favorable ratings for congressional leaders of both parties (John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) are all in the 20s, ranging from a low of 20 percent (Reid) to a high of 27 percent (Pelosi).

Unhappiness with the GOP and the Democratic Party

  • There is no sign of a honeymoon for the Republican Party following its midterm victories: Just 37 percent view the GOP favorably while 57 percent view it unfavorably, little changed over the past year.
  • What has changed is the Democratic Party’s favorable ratings, which are now nearly as low as the GOP’s. Just 41 percent have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party while 54 percent have an unfavorable opinion. That is among the most negative measures of favorability for the Democrats in more than two decades of polling.
  • Today independents’ views of the two parties are about the same. About a third have favorable impressions of either the Republican Party (32 percent) or the Democratic Party (33 percent); in October, more independents viewed the Democratic Party (41 percent) positively than the Republican Party (33 percent).

The mood of the country, then, is unhappy and unsettled. Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the conditions of the nation (especially economically) and unusually pessimistic about the future. The level of political polarization troubles them, even as massive distrust exists between Republicans and Democrats. And there’s across-the-board discontent with our political institutions–the two national parties, Congress, and the president. The Democratic Party has clearly suffered more than the GOP this year, based both on public approval and, especially, based on the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections. But the Republican Party is still -20 in the favorable-unfavorable ratings.

We are in the midst of a prolonged period of alienation between the American people and those who govern them. That isn’t good for a republic, where some degree of trust between the citizenry and its elected leaders is necessary in order to address urgent national problems.

One of the most daunting tasks facing those who run for president in 2016 will be to convince Americans that they understand the scope and dimensions of what’s happening, that they’re genuinely troubled by it, and that they have the skills–temperamentally, philosophically, and politically–to begin to repair the breach and put us on the right path. It is quite a formidable task, yes; but it’s also quite a vital one, too. It’s at moments like this when exceptional leaders need to step up.

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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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Torture Focus Is Poison Pill for Democrats

Liberal Democrats and their media allies are having a field day. The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture has allowed the political left to go back to its favorite pastime: bashing the Bush administration and their pet demon Vice President Dick Cheney. But as good as this feels to them, Democrats should be worried about the possibility that this issue will not only carry over into the new year but become part of the left’s standard foreign-policy talking points as we head into the 2016 presidential election cycle. Though anything that allows them to relive their glory days when hatred for all things Bush was their excuse for a political platform seems enticing, it’s actually a trap. The more the torture issue is allowed to play out as a partisan fight, the more trouble it will be for Democrats in the long run.

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Liberal Democrats and their media allies are having a field day. The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture has allowed the political left to go back to its favorite pastime: bashing the Bush administration and their pet demon Vice President Dick Cheney. But as good as this feels to them, Democrats should be worried about the possibility that this issue will not only carry over into the new year but become part of the left’s standard foreign-policy talking points as we head into the 2016 presidential election cycle. Though anything that allows them to relive their glory days when hatred for all things Bush was their excuse for a political platform seems enticing, it’s actually a trap. The more the torture issue is allowed to play out as a partisan fight, the more trouble it will be for Democrats in the long run.

It’s true that reigniting a debate about the use of torture on al-Qaeda prisoners enables liberals to go back to that happy time when they could concentrate all their energy attacking Bush and Cheney as lying, torturing warmongers. It also allows them to channel their 2006 and 2008 outrage about the GOP without having to acknowledge that the man they elected to reverse everything done by the 43rd president has, without the exception of enhanced interrogation, largely kept in place the policies they thought made the last GOP president and his team liable for either prosecution as unconstitutional law breakers or even war criminals.

But, like some isolationists on the right who might be deceived into thinking the discussion about torture will help undermine support within the Republican Party for an aggressive fight against Islamist terrorism, so, too, are Democrats wrong to think talking about this will do much to enhance their prospects in 2016. To the contrary, the more the left helps focus the country on the renewed war against a brutal Islamist foe, not only are they not playing to their party’s strength, but they are also failing to understand that the national mood is very different today from where it was when Bush and Cheney were popular piñatas for the left.

It needs to be understood that the reason why the Obama administration has undertaken the half-hearted offensive it launched against ISIS was that the terror group’s atrocities reminded Americans why they were pretty comfortable with the Bush-Cheney policies before the Iraq War soured. When they were rightly afraid of another 9/11, most people weren’t terribly interested in asking questions about how the intelligence community was acting to avert another atrocity. ISIS’s beheadings of American captives revived those fears and even if that group is currently more intent on asserting control of territory than in launching spectacular terror operations, the possibility that it or another group might strike Western targets is a possibility that can’t be safely discounted.

That’s why President Obama is trying to thread the political needle by disassociating himself from both the use of torture as well as attacks on the CIA and the calls for prosecution of Bush administration officials from his party’s political base. Though he has continued much of what Bush and Cheney started, the dependence on signal rather than human intelligence combined with an emphasis on assassinating terrorists rather than capturing them and getting them to talk has undermined confidence in the ability of the security apparatus to know what the enemy is thinking or planning.

All too many on the left approach these issues as if it is always September 10, 2001. So long as terror and a Middle East made more dangerous by Obama’s retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan are not issues, they can indulge in Bush-bashing to their heart’s content. But miring themselves in the politics of the Bush administration hurts the ability of Democrats to put themselves forward as a serious foreign-policy party at a time when terror is back on the national radar and likely to remain there for the next two years. It will also hamstring Hillary Clinton’s attempt to position herself again as a more responsible foreign-policy leader than Obama. The torture debate will bring to the fore exactly those figures in the Democratic Party who are most likely to make centrist voters think they shouldn’t be trusted with the country’s security. That’s good news for MSNBC and its dwindling band of viewers but bad for a party that needs to spend more time trying to appeal to white middle and working class independent voters rather than its left-wing core.

Just as important, Democrats gang tackling Republicans who are part of the nation’s past will mean less time spent trying to demonize the GOP figures they should be afraid of among the large field of credible presidential candidates. Those on the left that think that’s smart politics are setting their party up for a long, comfortable stay in opposition rather than winning in 2016.

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Early 2016 GOP Coronation Not in the Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Moveon Nudge Warren to Run?

While conservatives eagerly seize on each new Hillary Clinton gaffe as proof that she is not the invincible presidential candidate Democrats believe her to be, the political left is looking at the former secretary of state’s struggles from a different perspective. Tired of being the doormat for their party’s establishment wing led by the Clintons and unhappy with the former first family’s level of comfort with Wall Street, the so-called progressive wing of the Democrats is ready to assert itself. That’s the dynamic that is driving both a new assertiveness on the part of congressional liberals as well as the decision of Moveon.org to try to derail Clinton’s coronation in 2016 by starting a movement to draft Senator Elizabeth Warren to run against her.

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While conservatives eagerly seize on each new Hillary Clinton gaffe as proof that she is not the invincible presidential candidate Democrats believe her to be, the political left is looking at the former secretary of state’s struggles from a different perspective. Tired of being the doormat for their party’s establishment wing led by the Clintons and unhappy with the former first family’s level of comfort with Wall Street, the so-called progressive wing of the Democrats is ready to assert itself. That’s the dynamic that is driving both a new assertiveness on the part of congressional liberals as well as the decision of Moveon.org to try to derail Clinton’s coronation in 2016 by starting a movement to draft Senator Elizabeth Warren to run against her.

The Moveon.org effort may be nothing more than a stunt by a group that has struggled to maintain its once central role in pushing the liberal agenda in recent years. Once George W. Bush left the presidency and was replaced by Barack Obama, his administration, with its top-down culture that squelches disagreement and debate, has dominated the Democrats leaving left-wingers to kibitz impotently on the sidelines. But with Obama moving into the lame duck period of his presidency, the time may have come for the left to get into the fight again as they seek to emulate the success of their Tea Party antagonists on the right, as Politico noted in an article today.

Moveon does have a huge mailing list of what they claim are eight million left-wing activists that belong to their movement. But while that sounds impressive, it has yet to be seen whether Moveon still has the ability to mobilize these people in a coherent way so as to emulate the kind of local grassroots activity that made the Tea Party such a force in 2010 even if its national leadership was far more divided than that of Moveon.

Just as problematic is the question of whether Warren is even interested in running. She has, as her staff again said yesterday, repeatedly told those asking about the possibility that she won’t do it. Whether that was merely a case of a prudent politician not wishing to tilt against windmills by challenging the Clinton machine or a genuine lack of desire for the presidency, we don’t know.

Can Moveon start something that could lead to Warren changing her mind?

It cannot have escaped the Massachusetts senator that Clinton’s post-State Department public appearances have been less than successful. Most of the party is treating Clinton as if she is the presumptive nominee but as everyone remembers from 2008, she is not a brilliant politician. Her string of gaffes during her book tour and subsequent misstatements have not dented her poll numbers when matched up against the motley crew of other potential Democratic presidential candidates. But Warren is someone who, like Barack Obama, can capture the hearts of the party’s liberal base. Moreover, being opposed by an even more liberal woman would rob Clinton of the main narrative of her presidential juggernaut: the effort to elect the first female president.

Any challenge to Clinton would be politically perilous and a savvy operator like Warren is rightly shy about jumping into a fight with a family that plays for keeps. Warren may not be sure that her left-wing support will be enough to compensate for the money the Clintons can raise or their ability to cash in IOUs from politicians around the country. But while waiting her turn seems like the smart play, at 65, 2016 may actually be Warren’s best shot at the presidency, especially if Clinton does run and serve two terms.

In the coming months, Warren will concentrate on leading a liberal guerilla war against moderate Democrats in Congress and hope to become the face of resistance to the GOP majority. But at the same time she will probably stay out of the presidential fray and watch and wait to see if Clinton is still stumbling through 2015 as she prepares for an inevitable run. But if Moveon can provide a viable platform for left-wing resistance to Clinton’s nomination, a Warren candidacy will be made a bit more feasible. Though Moveon isn’t by itself enough to scare Clinton, she should be very afraid of Warren and the passion of an aroused left-wing base. If the senator runs, Hillary will be in for the fight of her life.

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Hillary’s Not-So-Smart Power Empathy

The mainstream media hasn’t devoted any attention to it yet, but the latest Hillary Clinton gaffe in which she calls upon Americans to show “empathy” for ISIS will soon become another one of her greatest hits alongside lines about dodging non-existent bullets in the Balkans, “what difference does it make” about the Benghazi attack, being “broke” after leaving the White House, and corporations not creating jobs. Her defenders will respond to the drumbeat of conservative mockery over this line by saying, not without reason, that it was taken out context and that the former secretary of state did not literally mean for us to show sympathy for terrorists. But even if it’s a cheap shot, the beating Clinton will take over her poor choice of words is one more illustration of a basic truth that contradicts Democratic optimism about 2016: their all-but-certain presidential nominee is just not a very good politician.

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The mainstream media hasn’t devoted any attention to it yet, but the latest Hillary Clinton gaffe in which she calls upon Americans to show “empathy” for ISIS will soon become another one of her greatest hits alongside lines about dodging non-existent bullets in the Balkans, “what difference does it make” about the Benghazi attack, being “broke” after leaving the White House, and corporations not creating jobs. Her defenders will respond to the drumbeat of conservative mockery over this line by saying, not without reason, that it was taken out context and that the former secretary of state did not literally mean for us to show sympathy for terrorists. But even if it’s a cheap shot, the beating Clinton will take over her poor choice of words is one more illustration of a basic truth that contradicts Democratic optimism about 2016: their all-but-certain presidential nominee is just not a very good politician.

Clinton’s call for “empathy” came during a speech last week at Georgetown University in which she repeated one of the talking points that highlighted her term as secretary of state: the use of “smart power.” In theory, the term refers to the use of a combination of military strength, alliances, and partnerships to enhance American influence. Originally meant as a rebuke to George W. Bush’s alleged cowboy diplomacy and unilateralism, in practice it became more cliché than reality as on Hillary’s watch, the Obama administration’s abuse of allies (Israel, moderate Arab states, and Eastern European democracies) and failed attempts to ingratiate enemies (Iran, Russia) rendered it neither smart nor powerful. But having repeated the mantra often enough, Clinton is still convinced that her cipher-like reign at the State Department was a shining example of its use.

But her explanation of how “smart” people approach a confrontation with the enemy didn’t come out sounding quite as smart as she thought. As Fox News reported:

Touting an approach she calls “smart power,” Clinton urged America to use “every possible tool and partner” to advance peace.

This, she said, includes “leaving no one on the sidelines, showing respect even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.”

Of course, a smart commander does respect their opponents and seeks to understand them by getting inside their heads to see what motivates them. But for a would-be president to talk about empathy for ISIS’s perspective and point of view is the sort of thing that is not easily explained especially when the person trying to sound smart by employing this has never demonstrated much in the way of strategic insight except when discussing her political foes among the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

The point is, even if we concede that Hillary didn’t really mean to say she wants American to empathize with terrorists, this is not the sort of statement a politician who knows what they’re doing will find themselves uttering. Like her characterization of what any non-billionaire would consider a healthy financial situation or her idiotic attempt to channel Elizabeth Warren-style left-wing populism about job creation, the ISIS empathy line is the product of a woman who has no natural feel for politics or genuine convictions. Though Clinton is desperate to show us how smart and in command of the situation she is, what often comes out of her mouth sounds ill considered or intellectually vapid. Even worse, these gaffes are not solely the product of a tendency to go off script but also rooted in her lack of a filter that would enable the would-be president to avoid saying scripted lines that a smart speaker would drop rather than merely read.

In other words, Clinton is a well-oiled gaffe machine who is never going to be able to stop saying things that will either be rightly considered stupid or are just poorly phrased in such a way as to make them sound outrageous even when they aren’t that bad.

Barring a decision by Senator Elizabeth Warren to challenge Clinton, I can’t imagine any gaffe being enough to derail her path to the Democratic nomination. But if she is matched up with a strong Republican candidate, this basic weakness will be crucial. Those who say she can’t be stopped should remember that eight years ago we were saying the same thing. Democrats would do well to ponder that precedent before nominating a gaffe machine for the presidency.

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Who Wins Boehner v. Cruz, Part II? Both.

In the fall of 2013, House Speaker John Boehner made it clear that he was not interested in setting off a confrontation that would lead to a government shutdown. But against his will and his better judgment, members of his caucus, egged on by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, dragged him into doing exactly that. The result was a political disaster that gave President Obama the one political triumph of an otherwise dreadful second term. The question today is whether the same cast of characters led by Cruz can force the speaker into another shutdown. Indications are that this time Boehner will resist the Tea Party caucus and a shutdown, at least in the short term, will be avoided. That will be a victory for Boehner and an indication that he will be more in control of the House in the next two years than he was in the current Congress. But even if he loses this battle, Cruz may also benefit from this scenario.

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In the fall of 2013, House Speaker John Boehner made it clear that he was not interested in setting off a confrontation that would lead to a government shutdown. But against his will and his better judgment, members of his caucus, egged on by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, dragged him into doing exactly that. The result was a political disaster that gave President Obama the one political triumph of an otherwise dreadful second term. The question today is whether the same cast of characters led by Cruz can force the speaker into another shutdown. Indications are that this time Boehner will resist the Tea Party caucus and a shutdown, at least in the short term, will be avoided. That will be a victory for Boehner and an indication that he will be more in control of the House in the next two years than he was in the current Congress. But even if he loses this battle, Cruz may also benefit from this scenario.

As Politico reported yesterday, Cruz and his Tea Party colleagues are running into stiff resistance even from fellow conservatives in both the House and the Senate who have no appetite for another drubbing at the hands of the president and his media cheerleaders even if all are sympathetic to the idea of some kind of congressional pushback in response to the president’s executive orders on illegal immigrants. As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier this week, polls still show that the GOP would be the loser in any such confrontation, just as it was in 2013 even if it could be argued that the president was just as much, if not more responsible for sending the government to the brink.

Cruz and his allies want an immediate response to President Obama’s lawless end-run around Congress’s refusal to do his bidding on amnesty for illegals in the form of a proposal that will defund the Department of Homeland Security’s carrying out of the president’s orders and set in motion a battle that would probably lead to a shutdown. But most Republicans prefer the compromise proposed by Boehner that would fund the government for the next year while allowing DHS to operate only for a few months as the GOP formulated a response to the orders.

The speaker will probably need some Democratic votes to pass his version of the continuing resolution to keep funding the government as well as the assurances of Senate Democrats and the president that they will not seek to obstruct the measure in the waning days of the lame duck Congress. That is an indignity that he was not either prepared or able to suffer in 2013 but he will do so now both because he wishes to avoid a shutdown and because he wishes to send a message to the House that it will be he who is running things in the next Congress as Republicans seek to show the country that they can govern responsibly once they have control of both the House and the Senate.

Both of these goals make sense. And on the heels of their midterm victory, it behooves Republicans to combat the obstructionist image that their liberal opponents have tarred them with, especially if they hope to win back the White House in 2016.

If, as it seems now, Boehner gets his way, it will be portrayed as a victory for the party establishment and a sign that the Tea Party’s sway over Capitol Hill is waning. It will also not unreasonably be thought of as a defeat for Cruz, whose first two years in the Senate have been highlighted by his ability to exercise an unusually powerful influence over both events and the nature of the debate on these issues for a freshman. But even if he loses this battle, Cruz’s interests are by no means hurt by Boehner’s victory.

Cruz’s goal here is not just to force congressional Republicans to, as he said yesterday, “do what you promised” when campaigning against the president’s executive orders. Even if Boehner gets his way this month and avoids a shutdown, Cruz will be able to come back and demand more than another mere symbolic vote against Obama’s orders in the spring. Indeed, with the Department of Homeland Security on a hiring spree in order to find enough staff in order to carry out Obama’s amnesty plan, support for a defunding proposal that will stop DHS in its tracks is likely to grow in the coming months, meaning that this won’t be the last time Cruz bedevils Boehner on a potential shutdown confrontation.

Yet just as important from Cruz’s perspective is the fact that these votes will demonstrate to the conservative base of the GOP that Cruz isn’t merely an annoyance to his Senate colleagues and Boehner. Win or lose, these votes and the battles on the floor of both the House and the Senate will allow Cruz to assume the mantle of the leader of conservative insurgents against the Washington establishment in a way that not even some of the popular Republican governors thinking about running for president will be able to do. Any result, be it victory or defeat, on the efforts to stop Obama’s immigration orders will burnish Cruz’s image as the one member of the Senate who isn’t afraid to challenge either party, a formula that he rightly thinks will be useful in presidential primaries in 2016.

Boehner and the establishment may fend off Cruz’s insurgency both now and in March. But this won’t be the last word on the senator. Quite the contrary: Cruz now believes with good reason that he is in a no-lose situation on both immigration and the future of Congress. Even if the speaker wins Boehner v. Cruz Part Two, Cruz isn’t coming out of the situation as the loser, no matter who wins.

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The Republicans Hillary Fears–And the Ones She Should

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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