Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential election

The Announcement Isn’t the Real Hillary News

This is the real Hillary news:

This campaign will…build up to an effort likely to cost more than any presidential bid waged before, with Mrs. Clinton’s supporters and outside “super PACs” looking to raise as much as $2.5 billion in a blitz of donations from Democrats who overwhelmingly support her candidacy.

This is the reason Hillary Clinton has effectively cleared the Democratic field and the reason (even if unconscious) so many Democrats are enthusiastic about her: She’s a juggernaut. The fact that her campaign people could seriously be looking at $2.5 billion when the Obama and Romney campaigns together spent a little less than $2 billion just three years ago gives an indication of Hillary’s sheer power.

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This is the real Hillary news:

This campaign will…build up to an effort likely to cost more than any presidential bid waged before, with Mrs. Clinton’s supporters and outside “super PACs” looking to raise as much as $2.5 billion in a blitz of donations from Democrats who overwhelmingly support her candidacy.

This is the reason Hillary Clinton has effectively cleared the Democratic field and the reason (even if unconscious) so many Democrats are enthusiastic about her: She’s a juggernaut. The fact that her campaign people could seriously be looking at $2.5 billion when the Obama and Romney campaigns together spent a little less than $2 billion just three years ago gives an indication of Hillary’s sheer power.

And it makes sense. She has been at the center of the American political consciousness for nearly 25 years. She may be the most famous woman in the world, and, aside from Dwight D. Eisenhower, is the most famous non-president ever to contest for the presidency. That was true in 2008, of course, but remember, she lost the Democratic nomination because she was challenged by a brilliantly conceived campaign to her left. It’s doubtful she would have lost the general election.

Ah, but things change, and this is the point. Right now, polls say three-fifths to two-thirds of the electorate believe it’s time for a change—and if 2016 is a “change” election that will direct a headwind straight into Hillary Clinton’s path:

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll…showed 59% of registered voters believe it’s more important to find a candidate who will bring greater changes to current policies—even if that person is less experienced and tested.

Everyone who opposes her should presume Hillary Clinton will achieve her eye-popping 2016 money goal. This will have several effects.

First, it’s likely Democrats down-ticket are going to have some fundraising problems, as will the Democratic party apparatus. This could provide opportunities in Senate and House races for the Republicans in 2016.

Second, and perhaps most important, it would be disastrous for the Republican party if the nominating process goes on too long, or if an obvious nominee emerges and must still campaign through the end of March or into April because there’s a gadfly staying in. Hillary running unopposed with a virtually limitless supply of money will mean she can start going negative and defining one or more of her Republican opponents almost from the jump in 2016.

If the primary process drains the eventual candidate of money so that he must somehow make it through three months until the convention, effectively penniless—which is what happened to Mitt Romney in 2012—that could be especially problematic. Obama super PACs spent $100 million going after Romney in Ohio on the issue of job-destruction by his Bain Capital, and that money was extremely well-spent in part because it went unanswered.

Hillary Clinton starts the race either as the weakest strong candidate ever or the strongest weak candidate ever. Republicans are going to have to make sure they are in a position to exploit her weakness, because there’s no denying her strength.

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Historic Hillary? She’s Running for Someone Else’s Third Term

The keyword for today’s launch of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency is a prefix: re. For Mrs. Clinton, it’s all about re-inventing and re-introducing. What is being described as a “low key” and “small scale” announcement via social media is an effort to learn the mistakes from her failed 2008 campaign. There will be plenty of money raised and a fair amount of adulation from the always-compliant mainstream liberal media that will take seriously her claim to be running because she cares about the economic security of middle-class families. She doesn’t have any serious competition for the Democratic nomination and can still count on the energy that will be generated by the possibility of electing of our first female president. Yet the hoopla about the start of her coronation tour can’t conceal the fact that she has no real rationale for her candidacy other than it may finally be her turn. More troubling for the former first lady and secretary of state is the fact that she will be running for Barack Obama’s third term as well as that of her husband Bill. That’s why all that reinventing and reintroducing are bound to fall flat outside of the precincts of Clinton loyalists.

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The keyword for today’s launch of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency is a prefix: re. For Mrs. Clinton, it’s all about re-inventing and re-introducing. What is being described as a “low key” and “small scale” announcement via social media is an effort to learn the mistakes from her failed 2008 campaign. There will be plenty of money raised and a fair amount of adulation from the always-compliant mainstream liberal media that will take seriously her claim to be running because she cares about the economic security of middle-class families. She doesn’t have any serious competition for the Democratic nomination and can still count on the energy that will be generated by the possibility of electing of our first female president. Yet the hoopla about the start of her coronation tour can’t conceal the fact that she has no real rationale for her candidacy other than it may finally be her turn. More troubling for the former first lady and secretary of state is the fact that she will be running for Barack Obama’s third term as well as that of her husband Bill. That’s why all that reinventing and reintroducing are bound to fall flat outside of the precincts of Clinton loyalists.

Mrs. Clinton has demonstrated repeatedly over the last 15 years of her political career as she tried to emerge from the shadow of the 42nd president, she is not much of a retail politician. Though possessed of great intelligence and a keen political mind, she has no talent for charming the masses as her husband did. She is a policy wonk at heart that longs for achieving big things like health-care reform, but always lacked the ability to sell them to the country. Her new pose of affection for the middle class is a stage prop meant to distract us from the fact that she is merely recycled goods, as she attempts to give the American people a chance to right the wrong they did her when they preferred the fresh and charismatic Barack Obama in 2008 to her.

But the inevitable subtext of her campaign launch is Clinton’s struggle to rally Obama’s loyalists while also trying to strike out on her own. That’s an effort that is bound to fall flat.

Whether it is about emails, scandals, or election cycles, the Clintons always like to think the rules of political life don’t apply to them. Their chutzpah and Bill’s charm enabled them to survive some things that would have destroyed less determined politicians. But Clinton’s problem heading into the 2016 campaign isn’t limited to her Nixonian approach to transparency and her conduct in office. Democrats don’t care about her emails or Benghazi. But as she glides her way to her party’s nomination, the electorate understands that what she is essentially asking them to do is to give her party a third consecutive term in the White House with someone who has been a major figure in the last two Democratic administrations.

Clinton can’t evade the fact that she was a major player in Obama’s first term, albeit while serving as one of our most inconsequential secretaries of state in generations. Nor can she pretend that her talk about the middle class isn’t merely recycled campaign rhetoric left over from Obama, albeit shorn of the hope and change electricity that made it sound so good when coming out of the mouth of a man with genuine political talent (although none for governance) and a sense of his place in history.

As someone who could claim a place in history as important as Obama, her effort ought to seem fresh and exciting. But whether it is all glitz, as it was in 2008, or today’s low-key start, the main point about all this is that there’s nothing new or interesting about her.

While the Republicans have a bevy of interesting and possibly flawed candidates, there is no getting around the fact that whether you love them or hate them, with the exception of Jeb Bush, the most likely contenders have a new car smell about them. That’s why Bush has a heavier lift than most of his establishment backers realize. And it’s also why Clinton’s long wait may ultimately lead to disappointment.

It’s possible that Hillary’s willingness to put herself forward primarily as the first woman president will play better than her 2008 decision not to run as if that was the main reason to elect her to the presidency. You can also make a strong argument that the Democrats’ Electoral College advantage and the potential for the Republicans to nominate someone who can never gain the support of a majority of voters will save her from her flaws as a politician and her sense of entitlement.

But running as the standard-bearer of the third Obama or Clinton terms would be a heavy burden for even a more able politician than Hillary. There’s no way to re-sell the public on a person that they haven’t been able to escape for 23 years. At times they have respected her (as a frequent flying though never successful secretary of state) and at other times they sympathized with her (Monica). But they have never really liked her much. Nor, other than her gender, do they see any reason to elect her beyond the notion of rewarding her for hanging around this long. Though she wants to be seen as a feminist avatar this time, next year she’ll just be the stand-in for Barack and Bill. Unless her Republican foes save her from herself the way the cowardice of her potential Democratic rivals has done (and yes, I’m talking about you, Elizabeth Warren), carrying all the baggage of the last two Democratic presidents isn’t a formula for a successful presidential campaign.

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Jeb’s Identity Crisis Fuels Rubio Challenge

According to the New York Times, it’s a tale of Shakespearean dimensions. The decision of Senator Marco Rubio to run for the presidency rather than defer to the candidacy of his onetime mentor and close friend Jeb Bush is depicted as a tragedy for those Floridians who know and like both of them. Two men, one older and one younger, united by their conservative principles and belief in reform of big liberal government are now locked in what may prove to be a bitter battle that may, in the heat of what promises to be a long hard fight, eventually turn into a personal grudge match. That’s one way to look at it and no one should doubt that the competing narratives of a young man who wouldn’t wait his turn or an older one whose time and family dynasty is part of the past rather than future is a big part of the story. But there’s another, perhaps more important way to understand why Rubio felt there was no reason to defer to Bush: the latter’s identity crisis has left many Republicans wondering why, other than a chance to fulfill family destiny, he is running at all.

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According to the New York Times, it’s a tale of Shakespearean dimensions. The decision of Senator Marco Rubio to run for the presidency rather than defer to the candidacy of his onetime mentor and close friend Jeb Bush is depicted as a tragedy for those Floridians who know and like both of them. Two men, one older and one younger, united by their conservative principles and belief in reform of big liberal government are now locked in what may prove to be a bitter battle that may, in the heat of what promises to be a long hard fight, eventually turn into a personal grudge match. That’s one way to look at it and no one should doubt that the competing narratives of a young man who wouldn’t wait his turn or an older one whose time and family dynasty is part of the past rather than future is a big part of the story. But there’s another, perhaps more important way to understand why Rubio felt there was no reason to defer to Bush: the latter’s identity crisis has left many Republicans wondering why, other than a chance to fulfill family destiny, he is running at all.

Part of this identity crisis is on display as Jeb Bush’s large and seemingly unwieldy campaign is undergoing something of a civil war when it comes to foreign policy. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Bush is seriously considering appointing Elbridge Colby, a think tank veteran who is an advocate of containing a nuclear Iran rather than seeking to forestall this awful possibility, as foreign policy director of his campaign. If this happens, it will be interpreted as a sign that the so-called realists have prevailed at the expense of their hawkish rivals within Bush’s camp.

Though many of those listed as his foreign policy advisors take a much stronger stand on Iran than Colby, it did not escape the attention of pundits that Bush also listed former Secretary of State James Baker on the roster of those he is listening to. Bush may be a faithful Bush family retainer who served President George H.W. Bush in a variety of capacities but he is also one of the leading “realists” in the country with foreign policy stands on Iran and Israel that more closely resemble those of President Obama than his Republican antagonists. Jeb Bush tried to disassociate himself from Baker’s decision to endorse Obama’s threats to Israel when he spoke at the conference of the left-wing J Street lobby. But Colby’s appointment will only fuel speculation that, at least on foreign policy, he will closely resemble his father, who had a poor relationship with Israel.

On domestic policy, Bush seems similarly torn between conservative reformist positions such as his sensible proposal to privatize elements of veteran’s health care and stands on issues that seemed designed to provoke his party’s base on immigration and education. He may see no contradiction between the sensibilities of the Tea Party and advocacy for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and the Common Core curriculum but most conservative activists beg to differ. Bush was a conservative governor of Florida when Rubio was one of his able lieutenants in the state’s legislature but he has drifted to the center on some issues.

The former governor remains a font of interesting ideas and proposals and always takes a thoughtful and intelligent approach to resolving problems. But there seems no driving vision behind his candidacy as there is for other contenders such as Rubio, who will attempt to combine a strong foreign policy vision (in direct contradiction to the stands of Baker and Colby) with a more conservative fiscal approach that made him a Tea Party favorite when he first ran for the Senate in 2010.

Ambition and personal issues may be important parts of the puzzle as to why these two former allies are now at odds over who should be the next Republican presidential nominee. But Rubio can hardly be blamed for not stepping aside in favor of a man who, for all of his many virtues, seems to have no compelling rationale for his candidacy other than it being his turn. As the leading moderate in the race and with a large organization and all the money he can spend, Bush’s chances for the nomination shouldn’t be discounted. But his “shock and awe” launch has failed to cow the field or convince anyone of his inevitability. Unless and until he can explain why we need a third President Bush beyond dynastic considerations, he shouldn’t be surprised that former allies feel no compunction about elbowing him aside.

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Can Rand Paul Change the Way National Politicians Talk About Abortion?

Yesterday Rand Paul earned plaudits from conservatives for turning a question on abortion back on Democrats and putting them on the defensive. It’s long been the case that Democratic Party leaders hold fringe opinions on abortion, yet are rarely if ever asked about it by a compliant media. Not only did Paul not slip up on the question (the way candidates have in the past). He even forced an admission by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz that leading Democrats believe there should be no limits on abortion. But even more important are two other, significant ways Paul’s accomplishment could change the 2016 race.

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Yesterday Rand Paul earned plaudits from conservatives for turning a question on abortion back on Democrats and putting them on the defensive. It’s long been the case that Democratic Party leaders hold fringe opinions on abortion, yet are rarely if ever asked about it by a compliant media. Not only did Paul not slip up on the question (the way candidates have in the past). He even forced an admission by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz that leading Democrats believe there should be no limits on abortion. But even more important are two other, significant ways Paul’s accomplishment could change the 2016 race.

To recap, here’s the exchange yesterday, from Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel:

“Should there be any exemptions or not?” asked NH1 reporter Paul Steinhauser, citing the DNC attack.

“What’s the DNC say?” asked Paul. That landed like a joke—the room holding the press conference also contained some Paul supporters waiting for photos—but he was serious.

“Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts,” said Paul, waving his hands to the left. “Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.”

“Here’s an answer,” said Schultz. “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.”

Schultz’s response highlights the two key aspects of this as it relates to the presidential election.

The first is that Paul put Schultz on the defensive because Republicans with national aspirations on the campaign trail almost never talk about abortion like this. The honesty was bracing, but Schultz was also unprepared for it. Yet this isn’t, first and foremost, an issue for the Democrats, because we’re so far from the general election. Instead, it’s a challenge to Paul’s fellow Republicans.

The Todd Akin affair has spooked Republicans even more than they’d normally be about defending the right to life. But if Paul is going to talk like this–as well he should–and get conservative applause for it–again, as well he should–then it’s going to put pressure on his fellow candidates too. Paul does not want to avoid the debate over abortion. On the contrary, he wants to have a full and honest debate about it. Over the long term, that’s won’t be good for Democrats like Schultz, whose position on abortion is horrifying–unless, of course, the Republicans trip over their words and faceplant on the question at some point, the way Akin and others have.

But for the near future, other Republican candidates are not going to be able to ignore the question either, not from Paul and not from the media who know they can get the candidates talking about it now. It will come up in debates, and it will come up on the campaign trail. And Paul has raised the stakes by offering an honest and full-throated defense of the unborn. Will others follow suit? How will Ted Cruz, who is openly aiming for the evangelical vote, handle the question?

The other reason it has implications for the race is that this is part and parcel of Paul’s response to the “war on women” lie. Remember, Paul last caused a stir on this when he expressed his confusion at being accused of waging a war on women by the same people who still want the Clintons to lead their party. He even called Bill Clinton–accurately–a sexual predator.

The abortion debate is central to the Democrats’ war on women narrative. And they’re already trying to paint Paul as hostile to women. As the Blaze points out:

Democrats on Wednesday indicated that their emerging strategy for fighting Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination is to say he has a problem with women.

Paul on Wednesday got into a tense back and forth with a female anchor from NBC in which he accused her of editorializing about his views instead of simply asking about his views. “Why don’t we let me explain instead of you talking over me, okay?” he said.

Paul’s habit of getting defensive in interviews may hurt him on the campaign trail, since he’s going up against happy warriors like Scott Walker and the seemingly unflappable Ted Cruz. It’s a long campaign, and Paul’s going to have to have the patience for it.

But he’s not anti-woman. And in fact, it’s a bit condescending of Democrats toward women to treat them as too fragile for the heat of the political debate. But that won’t stop Democrats from trying.

Paul’s answer on abortion is of a piece with his strategy to combat the war on women nonsense. He pushes back every time, and has become adept at turning the accusations back on Democrats. Considering how important the war on women lie is to Democrats’ campaign strategy, it will be interesting to see how Paul’s approach will play on a national level over time, and whether it will encourage other Republicans to turn the questions back on Democrats as well.

The best-case scenario for how this turns out for Paul is that he finally ends the bogus war on women while forcing voters to contemplate the appalling implications of Democrats’ extreme stance on abortion. The worst-case scenario is that his quick temper gets him into trouble and he burns out. A middle ground is that he backs off his current strategy in order to prevent the second scenario, but this would mean also retreating somewhat rhetorically.

The result may well determine how both parties talk about abortion going forward. Some will cheer Paul and some won’t, but all will likely be paying close attention.

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Obama Signals Early Onset of Dems’ Walker Derangement Syndrome

Pundits pricked up their ears earlier this week when President Obama decided to play favorites in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. The president went out of his way to blast Scott Walker for his vow to get rid of the weak deal Obama has struck with Iran, saying that the Wisconsin governor ought to “take some time to bone up on foreign policy.” It wasn’t the first such shot at Walker by Obama, who also singled him out for attack on his signing of a Wisconsin right-to-work bill and even poked fun at Walker in his Gridiron dinner speech for not condemning Rudy Giuliani for saying he didn’t love America. Considering that no other Republican in the crowded GOP presidential field has gotten this kind of attention from the country’s top Democrat, at this point it’s worth asking why. The answer lies in part in the possibility that Walker really is a frontrunner to succeed Obama. But more than that, the governor seems to have what may be a prerequisite for the presidency in this era of hyper-partisanship: the ability to evoke a derangement syndrome among his opponents.

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Pundits pricked up their ears earlier this week when President Obama decided to play favorites in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. The president went out of his way to blast Scott Walker for his vow to get rid of the weak deal Obama has struck with Iran, saying that the Wisconsin governor ought to “take some time to bone up on foreign policy.” It wasn’t the first such shot at Walker by Obama, who also singled him out for attack on his signing of a Wisconsin right-to-work bill and even poked fun at Walker in his Gridiron dinner speech for not condemning Rudy Giuliani for saying he didn’t love America. Considering that no other Republican in the crowded GOP presidential field has gotten this kind of attention from the country’s top Democrat, at this point it’s worth asking why. The answer lies in part in the possibility that Walker really is a frontrunner to succeed Obama. But more than that, the governor seems to have what may be a prerequisite for the presidency in this era of hyper-partisanship: the ability to evoke a derangement syndrome among his opponents.

That Walker, of all Republicans, is the one that seems to have gotten Obama’s attention this year is a curious development. Indeed, the only person the president seems to dislike more than Walker is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But if the current trend continues, Walker, who was subjected to death threats and a campaign of intimidation over his clashes with public-worker unions, may soon be reading about how White House officials consider him to be “chickens*!t too. It’s also interesting that the president would bother to talk about Walker as a critic of the disastrous deal he has made with Iran when many other Republicans, as well as a few courageous Democrats, have also stated their opposition.

The Democratic pushback against Walker must be traced to the polls that have vaulted him from marginal presidential contender to first-tier status in the GOP race. The president has signaled, perhaps to Hillary Clinton’s dismay, that he intends to work hard for the Democrats in next year’s presidential election, so getting started early on Walker makes sense in that context.

But the nasty tone that Obama has employed toward Walker bespeaks something a little more than partisanship. As CNN noted, Walker seems to have gotten under Obama’s skin in a way that even more bitter critics of the president like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul don’t seem to have accomplished.

The answer for this irritation with Walker is a recognizable phenomenon. Over the course of the last 20 years, what we have seen is that each of the men who emerged from the cauldron of presidential politics had one thing in common. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all demonstrated the capacity to provoke extreme reactions from partisan opponents. Clinton derangement syndrome on the right gave way to Bush derangement on the left and then to Obama derangement syndrome. We don’t know how 2016 will play out or who will win the presidency, but the one thing we can be sure of is that whoever does prevail will be someone that will drive the other party crazy.

We already know that Hillary Clinton can do that to conservatives, who not only haven’t gotten over their antipathy to her husband but have already been fed enough material by the putative 2016 Democratic candidate to fuel four or eight more years of that derangement syndrome. But the question remains which of the pack of Republicans are best suited to wreak havoc on liberal sensibilities.

One could argue that a firebrand like Cruz fits that bill. But as we have seen with our last three presidents, derangement syndromes do the most damage to their victims when the object of their dislike is someone that can otherwise be portrayed as an ordinary, even likeable person by their supporters. Walker, with his ordinary-guy, can-do pragmatist persona has that. But more importantly, he has already shown that he can drive Democrats nuts in a way that other Republicans may not be able to do.

At a time when a number of successful Republican governors have made their mark, none has been subjected to as much abuse as Walker. His decision to push through reforms of collective bargaining in order to save his state from bankruptcy provoked an epic struggle in Madison in which Democrats tried to shut down the government by having legislators flee the state while union thugs flooded the state capitol building. Walker was subjected to unprecedented personal abuse and then forced to defend his tenure in a recall election halfway through his first term in office. He survived the storm, got his bills passed, and then easily fended off the recall. He then followed that with a decisive re-election victory giving him three wins in a purple state in four years. Each time, Democrats thought they had him beaten only to see him prevail and get stronger in the process. That’s the same kind of thing that drove Republicans nuts about Bill Clinton.

Walker has a lot to prove before he can really be called a frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Recent gaffes have shown that for all of the attention he got in Wisconsin, the white heat of a presidential contest is another thing entirely. But President Obama and other Democrats seem to be telling us that Walker has that intangible quality that seems to be essential to electoral success at a time when partisanship is getting increasingly bitter all the time. If we’re looking to see which of the GOP candidates is more likely to drive Democrats over the edge, Walker might really be the one who heads into 2016 with a clear advantage.

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MSNBC’s Favorite Republican Can’t Win

Yesterday was Rand Paul’s big day as the Kentucky senator announcement his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Like any baseball team on opening day, in theory his chances are as good as any other candidate, and given the expected crowded field competing for the nod, that’s still true. But though his Louisville announcement bash went smoothly, what followed hasn’t gone quite as well. Some of that is due to Paul’s personality turning media appearances sour. But just as important is the way the basic contradiction in his campaign strategy is undermining his chances almost from the start. Though Paul has money, an ardent cadre of supporters, and a rationale for his quest, it’s hard to imagine a path to victory for him. While his rival Ted Cruz’s launch seems to have validated the notion that he is being underestimated by pundits, Paul’s start may be proof that those who see him as a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate next winter and spring are the ones who are making a mistake.

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Yesterday was Rand Paul’s big day as the Kentucky senator announcement his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Like any baseball team on opening day, in theory his chances are as good as any other candidate, and given the expected crowded field competing for the nod, that’s still true. But though his Louisville announcement bash went smoothly, what followed hasn’t gone quite as well. Some of that is due to Paul’s personality turning media appearances sour. But just as important is the way the basic contradiction in his campaign strategy is undermining his chances almost from the start. Though Paul has money, an ardent cadre of supporters, and a rationale for his quest, it’s hard to imagine a path to victory for him. While his rival Ted Cruz’s launch seems to have validated the notion that he is being underestimated by pundits, Paul’s start may be proof that those who see him as a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate next winter and spring are the ones who are making a mistake.

What’s fascinating about these two launches is the way both candidates have gone against the stereotype about their personalities and styles. Cruz is viewed as a bomb-throwing, extremist agitator, yet he came off in the usual round of interviews on the news and broadcast channels as being thoughtful and soft-spoken even as he remained unyielding about his conservative views. By contrast Paul, whose reputation is of being a low-key intellectual, showed a brittle nature as he responded to questions about flip-flopping with anger and condescension toward media figures. Granted, nobody on the right will blame Paul for tearing into Today’s Savannah Guthrie, but it struck a contrast to the supposedly off-balance Cruz’s patience when subjected to similar sorts of questions.

Though GOP voters tend to sympathize with their leaders when they are under attack from the media, voters tend not to like presidential candidates who can’t keep their cool. For Paul to unravel so quickly with the glow of his announcement still on him doesn’t bode well for how he will hold up in the long haul through primary season.

But the problem with the flip-flopping charge goes deeper than Paul’s thin skin.

The reason he’s upset about being questioned about the way he has gradually drifted a bit to the center on foreign policy and security issues is that he knows that his formerly rigid libertarian views are out of step with his party and the general public. Paul’s instinctive antagonism toward security measures and a robust U.S. defense seemed to reflect the post-Iraq/Afghanistan wars mood of the country in early 2013 when he gained attention with a well executed Senate filibuster about the use of drone attacks. But with ISIS on the march and the key issue of the day being President Obama’s appeasement of Iran, his attempt to square the circle on these points falls flat.

The contradictions were evident even in his announcement speech, as at one point he pledged to “do whatever it takes” to defeat terrorism but then returned to more familiar rhetoric a few moments later as he lambasted some of the security measures that give law enforcement the ability to stop the terrorists.

Just as important, the looming problem for Paul is that his basic foreign-policy approach still has its roots in the extremism of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul. It is true that, as the candidate says, he shouldn’t be held accountable for his father’s views (a good thing since it is hard to imagine the elder Paul staying silent during the campaign) and that he disagrees with him on some issues. But try as he might to demonstrate distance from the White House on all issues, it’s still obvious that he is running for a Republican nomination while espousing views that are actually largely to the left of those of President Obama on foreign policy.

That was always true of Ron Paul, but a vignette on MSNBC yesterday demonstrated just how comfortable the denizens of that left-wing cul de sac are with the Kentucky senator’s approach to foreign policy. Paul’s announcement and the attacks that are being launched against him by conservative opponents of his foreign-policy views prompted the channel’s Chris Matthews to launch into an impressive rant about how the candidate is more reflective of the views of most of the country than his GOP opponents. But instead of leaving it at that, Matthews insisted that the attempt by “neocons and piggish money” that want to fight more wars for Israel to oppose Paul speaks well for the candidate. Matthews stopped just short of overt anti-Semitism, though his line about “cloth coat Republicans” (a nod to Richard Nixon’s “checkers speech”?) that send their kids to war while the neocons don’t seemed an obvious and inaccurate shot at supporters of Israel.

Rand Paul isn’t responsible for what crackpots on the ultra-left MSNBC say about him, but what is significant is that a candidate that can draw sympathy from that sector is poorly placed to win mainstream support among Republicans. Considering that some of his father’s hard-core backers are becoming disillusioned with Rand’s apostasies about foreign aid and defense spending, there just aren’t enough libertarians to help Paul win. Tea Partiers have other choices with Cruz and Scott Walker. Nor is he well placed to compete for conservative Christian voters.

That adds up to a steep hill for him to climb. Though no one with this much name recognition and the ability to raise money can be written off on day one of his candidacy, the limitations to his appeal are actually greater than those of the supposedly more extreme Cruz. MSNBC’s favorite Republican may not be as much of a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate as some pundits think.

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Hillary Clinton and the Language Police

With each Hillary Clinton presidential campaign comes the requisite language policing from her supporters. Before the 2008 election, some argued it was sexist to call her “Hillary,” a claim that lost most of its force when it became clear that Clinton herself wanted to use her first name. And now we have the latest attempts to rule out certain words or phrases: Hillary’s poor social skills apparently must not be named, especially with words like “polarizing.” But her supporters are doing her no favors.

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With each Hillary Clinton presidential campaign comes the requisite language policing from her supporters. Before the 2008 election, some argued it was sexist to call her “Hillary,” a claim that lost most of its force when it became clear that Clinton herself wanted to use her first name. And now we have the latest attempts to rule out certain words or phrases: Hillary’s poor social skills apparently must not be named, especially with words like “polarizing.” But her supporters are doing her no favors.

In late March, a group calling itself Clinton’s “Super Volunteers” decided to let the media know they’d be watching coverage of Clinton and would push back on the use of any of the words they’ve decided are unfair:

So these words are now off the table: “polarizing,” “calculating,” “disingenuous,” “insincere,” “ambitious,” “inevitable,” “entitled,” “over-confident,” “secretive,” “will do anything to win,” “represents the past,” and “out of touch.”

The thinking here, of course, is that these kinds of words are attached to Clinton in a way that they wouldn’t be attached to male candidates — that people wouldn’t call Clinton “ambitious” if she weren’t a woman, that there is a double-standard for such traits.

Some are pretty funny: you can’t say “inevitable”? This is self-parody. What the members of the Clinton campaign’s Sea Org are actually proving is that accurately describing Clinton is itself a negative act because she has built a career on negativity and the ever-present air of corruption.

The Clintons are experienced practitioners of the politics of personal destruction. That nastiness can easily translate to being “polarizing.” But maybe, say some defenders, “polarizing” is unfair because everyone’s polarizing. That’s the case made in a New York Times Magazine piece. Here’s Mark Leibovich:

Initially, reporters said Clinton was “polarizing” because she was a transitional figure in the culture wars as they existed a quarter-century ago. She was a working woman and full political partner with (gasp) feminist tendencies. Among would-be first ladies in the early 1990s, these were exotic qualities. Today Hillary Clinton is a cautious and exceedingly diplomatic politician, perhaps to her detriment. (She is often criticized for being “calculating” and “robotic.”) If anything, her willingness to be deliberate, speak carefully and appeal to the political center was a big part of what sank her with liberal Democrats who opted for Barack Obama in 2008. If Clinton really were polarizing, wouldn’t the left be more excited about her? Wouldn’t people be roused from their “Clinton fatigue”?

Well, no. That’s not what it means to be polarizing in this context. Clinton isn’t polarizing because she’s liberal; she’s polarizing because she’s Nixonian. Richard Nixon was a political centrist, even liberal on some issues. According to Leibovich’s logic, that should make him less polarizing. I doubt many would agree.

With Hillary, a very common question surrounding each new revelation of her political activity is: How many laws did she break? This results in her having to rely on her most fanatical supporters, since defending rampant rule-breaking from someone who aspires to be put in charge of the American government is hard to do on the merits. It requires personally attacking critics and the press, which in turn only increases the polarization–again, with it originating from Hillary’s camp.

Leibovich adds:

When people say Clinton is polarizing, they are largely indicting her by association. She has been a fixture of our political climate for so long that the climate defines her. But the political climate has not been made, or polarized, by mysterious outside forces. It is us. You could argue that the act of showing up at CPAC and cheering a red-meat speech from the likes of Ted Cruz is an act of self-polarization, or at least an indication that common cause with Clinton probably was not much of a possibility to begin with.

And what does a red-meat speech from Ted Cruz include? Does it advocate for destroying evidence wanted by Congress? Breaking government rules to hide your taxpayer-funded activities from the people? Putting serious and sensitive government intelligence at risk by making it easier for the Chinese and the Russians to see our files than the relevant congressional committees? Running facets of a parallel government, with an entirely private server and a private spy shop feeding you intel? Using your family’s private philanthropic foundation as a super-PAC for foreign governments and then using the internal grant process to bleach the fingerprints off those checks?

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Hillary lives by one standard, one set of rules, one book of laws, and wants everyone else to have to live by another. This aspect of her political personality is, at its core, aggressively contemptuous of the American people. And that’s pretty polarizing.

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Why Rand Paul Doesn’t Need to Tell Us Why He’s Running (But Hillary Does)

Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

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Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to officially launch his presidential campaign. A week later, Marco Rubio will likely do the same. And on the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton may formally announce her candidacy as early as the day after Rubio’s campaign launch. The campaign will be underway in earnest, though this will start a less interesting chapter in the 2016 story.

Although Jeb Bush has not officially launched his campaign, he was the first to make an announcement that made plain the fact that his campaign was functionally underway and also opened the gates to the 2016 primary race. This made a great deal of sense: it was unclear if Jeb really was going to run, and he wanted to assuage all doubt and signal to donors and staffers he was in.

Jeb is also vying for the affections of the party establishment, and he had a chance to deliver a knockout blow to his chief establishment rival, Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor is limited in what steps he can take toward a candidacy right now and is bound by his day job. Jeb isn’t, and so he knew if he could jump in and crowd out the donor/staffer field on the establishment side of the race, he could make it impossible for Christie to have a path to the nomination, and maybe even convince him not to run at all.

The next candidate to remove all doubt, and the first to officially announce his campaign, was Ted Cruz. The Texas senator seemed more likely than Jeb to run, but that perception might have had something to do with the fact that Cruz is currently in office and Jeb isn’t, and Cruz’s actions in the Senate always seemed to be aiming at something larger than the individual votes around which they were taken.

But Cruz is also a young, freshman senator in a (prospective) field with other young, freshman senators. It made sense that one of the freshmen toying with the idea of running for president would sit this one out and wait for a future election, especially if they felt generally confident in their reelection prospects. Cruz fit the bill of the member of the club who might have been most likely to wait. Jumping into the race officially, then, was the smart play: like Jeb, there was a genuine will-he-or-won’t-he aspect to his compelling freshman term, even if he did always seem to lean toward running.

Cruz also might have an in-state rival for conservative affection in Rick Perry. Cruz will benefit greatly from a head start on Perry, a three-term governor with national connections and some (rather bumpy) presidential campaign experience.

In other words, those who needed a head start entered the race early enough to get one. The natural reaction of the others, then, would be to enter the race as well and limit that head start. And so that’s what they’re doing.

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to announce his candidacy, and he’s released a campaign trailer to preview it. We’re told he’s a “new kind of Republican,” and the message on screen at the close of the video says: “On April 7 one leader will stand up to defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream.” It’s a message clearly directed at Cruz, Rubio, and any other members of Congress considering running (Lindsey Graham, Peter King). This, too, makes sense: Paul actually benefits from Jeb winning establishment backing and older candidates reinforce his past-vs.-future message. Cruz, however, is a real impediment to his chances of winning the nomination, though it’s unclear how he’ll present himself as more of an outsider than Cruz.

But the key is that he doesn’t have to–at least not yet. The announcement doesn’t have to break any new ground or present anything more than a general message. Politicians with relatively strong name identification build their own reputations over time. Paul doesn’t need to say anything more than “I’m running.”

And it puts into stark relief the difference between such politicians and those who actually need to say who they are and what they stand for on every re-introduction. Hillary Clinton’s nascent campaign is a perfect example. She has nothing interesting to say about anything. The news stories on her campaign take on a distinctly dopey quality because of this.

Commentators had some fun with an Associated Press dispatch on Clinton in late February. As the Free Beacon notes, the AP’s initial headline was “Clinton says she would push problem-solving if she runs.” It was later changed to “Clinton says she would push for inclusive problem-solving.”

Clinton is running for president because she believes it’s owed to her. Her new campaign focus is no better. Here’s the AP from this morning: “Clinton to start 2016 bid with focus on voter interaction.” Hillary Clinton is now willing to do anything to become president, even if it means talking to the unwashed masses.

This problem keeps cropping up because Clinton stands for nothing and believes nothing, and is at constant pains to justify her candidacy. Rand Paul doesn’t have to justify anything, which is why his announcement tomorrow won’t actually be very dramatic. And that’s a good thing.

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Hillary’s Nixon Moment Won’t Be Forgotten

Is the Hillary Clinton email scandal over? That’s the spin we’re getting from mainstream media outlets. To the extent that the liberal media paid much attention to the bizarre story about the former secretary of state using only a private email address based on a home server to conduct official business, their interest seems to be at an end. Even many of those who covered the affair have now moved on to other stories, as Clinton continues the preparations for her expected coronation as the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee. While Clinton’s apologists will claim, with some justice, that she has been treated far more roughly than, say, President Obama, last Friday’s revelation that the home server on which all of her emails, both personal and government business, was “wiped,” theoretically making it impossible for any of the State Department records that might not have been already turned over to the federal archives to be retrieved, confirms what her conservative antagonists have long feared: the rules really are different for the Clintons. Though House Republicans still investigating the Benghazi attacks may cry foul, it appears that Hillary is counting on a dearth of genuine outrage to let her get away with a stunt that no Republican could possibly get away with.

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Is the Hillary Clinton email scandal over? That’s the spin we’re getting from mainstream media outlets. To the extent that the liberal media paid much attention to the bizarre story about the former secretary of state using only a private email address based on a home server to conduct official business, their interest seems to be at an end. Even many of those who covered the affair have now moved on to other stories, as Clinton continues the preparations for her expected coronation as the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee. While Clinton’s apologists will claim, with some justice, that she has been treated far more roughly than, say, President Obama, last Friday’s revelation that the home server on which all of her emails, both personal and government business, was “wiped,” theoretically making it impossible for any of the State Department records that might not have been already turned over to the federal archives to be retrieved, confirms what her conservative antagonists have long feared: the rules really are different for the Clintons. Though House Republicans still investigating the Benghazi attacks may cry foul, it appears that Hillary is counting on a dearth of genuine outrage to let her get away with a stunt that no Republican could possibly get away with.

Clinton’s apologists continue to tell us that there’s no story here because she has already turned over 55,000 pages of printed out emails to the government. The fact that she got to determine which emails were official and which were personal renders that data dump meaningless. But her deletion of all those messages that she deemed personal, even though all of her records were under subpoena from the House Benghazi Committee, rendered what might have been considered a dubious decision an outrageous act of arrogant defiance.

Defending that inexplicable decision to delete personal emails was a difficult task for the usual suspects who are given the job of defending the Clintons on television talk shows. But that daunting task was made even more absurd by the announcement that the server was wiped.

It was one thing to be asked to believe that Clinton really doesn’t know that you can use two emails on a single device (something that any child knows these days) or that she could be trusted to know which records could not be held back. But for the Congress and the nation to be told that the server on which all of her emails were stored was “wiped” is an act of such arrogant contempt for accountability that it must be termed Nixonian in scale.

Not since President Richard Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods “accidentally” deleted a crucial 18 minutes of Watergate tapes have the American people been presented with such an astonishing act. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or be a Clinton-hater obsessed with the death of Vince Foster or Whitewater to know that destroying evidence in this manner is, at the very least, highly suspicious. Perhaps the Clintons’ penchant for secrecy and their paranoia about the press and public scrutiny of their public and private behavior is an explanation in and of itself. Yet just imagine if any Republican, let alone someone of the stature of the Clintons (like George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, for example) had done anything like this: the liberal press would be calling for a special prosecutor.

They wouldn’t be wrong to do so since this sort of misbehavior with official documents—especially since everything on the server was under subpoena—is exactly what has landed a number of public officials, such a former CIA director David Petraeus, in the soup. But as the story about the server fades out of view only a couple of days after it was revealed, one must concede that Clinton looks like she’s going to get away with it.

Like every politician caught engaging in questionable conduct, she and her followers will tell us this isn’t important and constitutes a diversion from the real issues. They will also say Clinton wants the emails she gave to the government published. That does nothing to quell concerns about those she didn’t hand over and which now we may never see.

But none of that changes the fact that Hillary has had a Nixon moment and there appears to be very little chance that she will be made to pay for it either by the same Justice Department that humiliated Petraeus or a liberal media that thinks it has done enough on the story.

When her husband evaded responsibility for both sexual harassment and lying under oath, writers like William Bennett rightly lamented The Death of Outrage. But Mrs. Clinton appears to have gone him one better by proving that even the most outrageous conduct that could land another politician in jail can be survived so long as you are the person who aspires to be our first female president.

Clinton may well achieve that ambition but Democrats, who have once again been dragooned into justifying the indefensible because it has been committed by a member of this indefatigable power couple, may be forgiven if they think that this Nixonian moment renders her a little less inevitable than her admirers think. The email story may have hit a dead end, but the tale of the wiped server will keep the memory of the arrogant sense of entitlement that pervaded her disastrous press conference on the issue alive in 2016. Such scandals may die down, but obstruction of justice has a way of lingering in the public memory even if it isn’t prosecuted.

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Did Martin O’Malley Go Off-Script?

Earlier this month I noted the growing Democratic refrain that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party would both benefit from Hillary having some real competition for the nomination in 2016. For Hillary, she could test out her responses to various lines of questioning and sharpen her debating skills. For Democrats, they’d get a better nominee or possibly even a different nominee if something emerged to knock Hillary from the race. (Better in the primaries than in the general.) I also noted that former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley did not seem to be auditioning for the role of genuine rival. But maybe that’s changing.

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Earlier this month I noted the growing Democratic refrain that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party would both benefit from Hillary having some real competition for the nomination in 2016. For Hillary, she could test out her responses to various lines of questioning and sharpen her debating skills. For Democrats, they’d get a better nominee or possibly even a different nominee if something emerged to knock Hillary from the race. (Better in the primaries than in the general.) I also noted that former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley did not seem to be auditioning for the role of genuine rival. But maybe that’s changing.

On Sunday’s This Week, O’Malley took a couple shots at the Democratic frontrunner:

“Let’s be honest here,” O’Malley said. “The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families.”

O’Malley also hinted that a Clinton nomination is not a sure thing, possibly alluding to the 2008 primary, when she was also thought to have had it locked down.

“History is full of times when the inevitable frontrunner is inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable,” he said.

Yet as Jesse Walker notes, not only did O’Malley not name Hillary, he demurred when pressed and spoke in generalities about the campaign. “This just isn’t the way an insurgent candidate talks,” Walker wrote.

Isn’t it? I’m not convinced this wasn’t O’Malley’s own timid, slightly goofy way of trying to dispel the notion that he’s the Mikhail Prokhorov of Clinton’s coronation. We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose, but I think the subject of O’Malley’s comment is telling.

There are two kinds of criticism of Hillary Clinton from her fellow Democrats. The first is issue-based, designed to portray Clinton as out of touch with the party’s true political identity. For example, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, may run in the Democratic primary as a way to trumpet the issue of inequality. “Today, in my view, the most serious problem we face as a nation is the grotesque and growing level of wealth and income inequality,” Sanders told the Brookings Institution last month. “This is a profound moral issue. It is an economic issue, and it is a political issue.”

Bernie Sanders, like most of the potential Democratic candidates, does not pose a serious threat to Hillary’s chances. But Clinton is simply not a credible advocate of the kind of economic-justice policies the far left would like to see. Not only is she too close to Wall Street for the redistributive left, but the entire raison d’être of her current career appears to be to massively increase the amount of money in politics, including from foreign (and deeply illiberal) sources. Hillary’s fine with Sanders’s candidacy, because she’ll always look like a more serious Democrat when running against an actual socialist.

There is, as we’re reminded endlessly, a more threatening version of a populist candidacy: that of Elizabeth Warren, who could actually beat Hillary. But Warren does not seem any closer to actually running today than she was yesterday or the day before, so the smart money’s on Hillary avoiding this particular trap.

Another issue-based critique of Hillary from the left will be her hawkishness. Clinton is a liberal interventionist, a proponent of the kind of light-footprint military intervention we saw in Libya. She is also more open to humanitarian missions than Barack Obama is, and she knows she’s somewhat vulnerable on matters of war and peace because that’s precisely the contrast Obama was able to draw in 2008.

But she wouldn’t be running against Obama. She might be running instead against former Virginia Senator Jim Webb. When he announced his exploratory committee, he said the U.S. must “redefine and strengthen our national security obligations, while at the same time reducing ill-considered foreign ventures.” It’s the sort of broad platitude he repeats from time to time, and it won’t harm Hillary.

Even Webb’s supporters are (for the most part) realistic about this. “Jim Webb, I acknowledge, is probably not going to become our next president,” wrote the Nation’s William Greider. “But he has the possibility of becoming a pivotal messenger.” And Hillary’s just fine with that: any candidate who makes her look more like a centrist without actually threatening her chances to win the nomination, and therefore doesn’t force her to her left during the primaries, is more of a help than a hindrance anyway.

But there’s a second kind of Clinton critique: one that has less to do with policy and more about character. And this one can potentially hurt Hillary even coming from someone who won’t defeat her in the primaries. That’s because the kinds of stories that stick are ones that conform to a preexisting narrative, unfair as it often is. Hillary is nearing the end of her career, which means her public persona is close to set in stone–no matter how many different ways she programs herself to laugh.

Had O’Malley kept his criticism to economic policy or even climate change, it would have been unexceptional. But pointing out Hillary’s sense of personal entitlement and her family’s stature as American royalty risks reminding even some Democrats that they don’t really like the idea of Hillary’s candidacy as much as they’d like to, even if they like her personally.

So is the key takeaway from O’Malley’s comments that he refused to use Hillary’s name–or that he didn’t have to? It’s a distinction that may tell us more about whether he’s really willing to take on the Clintons, or merely aiming to share in the spoils of what he hopes is her eventual victory.

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Politics in an Age of Epic Transition

“For only the third time since the founding of the United States we are in the early or transition phase of a new era in American and global history,” according to University of Virginia historian Philip Zelikow. He adds, “from the narrower point of view of economic and social history, however, we are in the early stages of a transition phase faster than anything we have encountered in more than 100 years, the largest since the economic and industrial revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th century.”

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“For only the third time since the founding of the United States we are in the early or transition phase of a new era in American and global history,” according to University of Virginia historian Philip Zelikow. He adds, “from the narrower point of view of economic and social history, however, we are in the early stages of a transition phase faster than anything we have encountered in more than 100 years, the largest since the economic and industrial revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th century.”

These quotes by Professor Zelikow appear in a article in Politico by Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik. Mr. Sosnik writes that we are “going through the most significant period of change since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution”–including a convergence of economic, technological, and demographic forces–“that is transforming every aspect of our lives.”

Mr. Sosnik asserts the point more than he proves it–but his analysis, as well as the one by Professor Zelikow, strikes me as basically right. There is certainly “change that’s churning beneath the surface,” in Sosnik’s words, and this may be a “hinge” moment in American history.

In his article, Sosnik pays particular attention to demographic changes, pointing out that a demographic transformation is changing who we are as a country. He points out that as recently as 1980, 80 percent of the United States population was white. Last year the figure had dropped to 63 percent. And a recent report, “States of Change,” projects that whites will be less than 44 percent of the total population by 2060.

Mr. Sosnik argues that the shifts we are experiencing are “going to change which voters matter and which states matter.” The political center of gravity in America will shift from the Midwest to faster growing, ethnically diverse states like Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. Of special interest to Republicans: Most of the fastest-growing states in America–which are trending younger and more diverse–are no longer solid Republican base states.

The Republican Party, particularly if it hopes to be successful at the presidential level, needs to take these shifts into account. Some on the right seem to want to ignore these changes, or deny them, or undo them. None of these options are wise, and if pursued, each of them will fail.

For Republicans to succeed, they need to produce political leaders, and most especially a presidential nominee, who understands how our nation is changing; who can explain what these changes mean; and who can convince voters who are not now voting for the Republican Party why it’s best able to harness the forces that have been unleashed.

The Republican nominee needs to explain to voters why this transformative moment shouldn’t be feared but grasped; why it presents us not only with tremendous challenges but also with extraordinary opportunities.

This will require putting forward a modern, creative 21st century agenda that addresses middle-class concerns like higher education and health-care costs, wage stagnation and stalled social mobility. It means nominating a conservative standard-bearer who is a reformer and change agent, who voters believe can lead America to a new era of prosperity and renewal. And it means choosing a person to represent the party who, when saying our best days are ahead of us, is actually believable–and who inspires confidence in skeptics rather than simply inciting passion in supporters.

This is an admittedly tall order, and whoever is the nominee will need to present their case in ways that are authentic to them. But it does strike me that these elements are important, given where the Republican Party is, where the nation is, and where the nation is going.

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Scott Walker’s Front Runner Problem

In the last three months, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has gone from being just one of a crowded field of possible Republican presidential candidates to one of the frontrunners in the early going. Where other possible contenders are talking about potential, Walker can point to polls that show him to be, along with Jeb Bush, one of the only two candidates that is getting double digit support in virtually every primary and caucus state that has been surveyed so far. But with such a rise comes the potential for a fall and for all of his strengths as a candidate, a string of gaffes and hard-to-defend flip flops illustrates the perils of playing on the big stage for the first time, especially when you’ve been anointed as a likely front runner. Though Walker’s defenders will be right when they say it’s too early to be making any judgments about his capacity to thrive in the white hot lights of a presidential election, what we’ve seen from him lately has been troubling.

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In the last three months, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has gone from being just one of a crowded field of possible Republican presidential candidates to one of the frontrunners in the early going. Where other possible contenders are talking about potential, Walker can point to polls that show him to be, along with Jeb Bush, one of the only two candidates that is getting double digit support in virtually every primary and caucus state that has been surveyed so far. But with such a rise comes the potential for a fall and for all of his strengths as a candidate, a string of gaffes and hard-to-defend flip flops illustrates the perils of playing on the big stage for the first time, especially when you’ve been anointed as a likely front runner. Though Walker’s defenders will be right when they say it’s too early to be making any judgments about his capacity to thrive in the white hot lights of a presidential election, what we’ve seen from him lately has been troubling.

The genius of Walker’s candidacy was his ability to appeal to a variety of constituencies within the party. Tea Partiers and other conservatives love his stand against taxes and spending as governor as well as cheering his epic successful struggle against state worker unions. Evangelicals like that he’s the son of a minister and can speak to their concerns as one of them. Some establishment Republicans like his air of competence and support for fiscal sanity. Those who rightly want Republicans to Even foreign policy hawks seem sympathetic to him though there isn’t much in his record to justify their hopes that he will turn out to be their ally.

That’s a potent formula that makes him seem a much more likely nominee — as well as a competitive general election candidate — compared to the more narrow appeals of other Republicans including Bush who is encountering stiff resistance to his mainstream pitch on the right. But even strengths can have built-in liabilities. It’s one thing to be able to attract votes from different groups. It’s quite another to set out to pander to a variety of voting blocs. Candidates who do that are likely to get caught in contradictions or find themselves labeled as flip-floppers.

That’s what happened to Walker last month in Iowa when he strayed from his small government mantra to make an exception for support for measures that prop up the ethanol industry. Walker isn’t the first candidate to discover a new love for corn-base fuels while trolling for votes in Iowa. But that was an embarrassing departure for a man who built a reputation as someone who is willing to stand up to mobs and thugs in order to stick to principled positions.

Fortunately for Walker, ethanol is not something most voters, even conservatives, care that much about even if the subsidies doled out to Iowa corn farmers is a boondoggle that undermines the claim of Republicans to stand for small government. But his latest attempt to be all things to all people is a bigger problem.

As the Wall Street Journal reports today, Walker told a private dinner of New Hampshire Republicans on March 13 that he favors allowing illegal aliens being allowed to stay in the country and to eventually be allowed a path to citizenship. The only problem is that he’s been telling Republicans elsewhere that he opposes amnesty and citizenship for Republicans. But as the Journal notes, his prior opposition to amnesty during these early days of the 2016 campaign contradicts previous statements about illegal immigration uttered prior to his becoming a prospective presidential candidate in which he favored a more liberal stance on the issue. As late as 2013, he was backing a path to citizenship for illegals. And if that weren’t confusing enough, Walker’s office denied he’d endorsed amnesty in New Hampshire, calling the Journal article “erroneous,” even though the paper says three witnesses back up their reporting.

Walker wouldn’t be the only Republican in the race supporting amnesty in one form or another. Marco Rubio co-sponsored the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 which included a path to citizenship even though now he says the border must secured first. Jeb Bush is still advocating that position.

But the key here is to be consistent. As much as Bush’s position may alienate many conservatives, at least they know where he stands. If Walker is going to keep trying to tailor statements for specific audiences in this manner, this won’t be the last such gaffe he commits. Even worse, his otherwise bright hopes for the presidency will be blighted by charges of hypocrisy and flip-flopping. That doesn’t mix well with his tough, competent governor persona.

It may be that Walker will get better as the months pass and by the time the campaign in the early caucus and primary states has begun in earnest, he will be back on track reclaiming his image as a conservative folk hero who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in no matter how intense the pressure on him will be.

But that Scott Walker has seemed to be absent lately as the Wisconsin governor adjusts to the far more intense spotlight of a national campaign. Unless he returns, Walker’s good poll numbers will fade long before Iowa votes. Being a front-runner in March of the year before a presidential election is better than being thought of as a hopeless case. But if being all things to all people becomes your modus operandi, you’re never going to make it to the White House.

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Rand Paul, Paleoneoconrealitarian Uniter

When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

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When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

To be sure, Paul is far from a carbon copy of defense hawks. But he’s spending considerable energy blurring those distinctions. And a turning point does seem to have been reached, ironically, thanks to the recent open letter to Iranian leaders signed by Republican senators who are opposed to a nuclear Iran and the president’s attempts to go around Congress. Paul, surprisingly, also signed the letter. And he’s continuing down that path with his proposed amendment that would, as Time revealed this morning, boost defense spending:

In an olive branch to defense hawks hell-bent on curtailing his White House ambitions, the libertarian Senator introduced a budget amendment late Wednesday calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years—a roughly 16 percent increase.

Paul’s amendment brings him in line with his likely presidential primary rivals, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced a measure calling for nearly the same level of increases just days ago. The amendment was first noticed by TIME and later confirmed by Paul’s office.

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

I have been sympathetic, as I’ve written in the past, to Paul’s objections to what he and his supporters see as the exaggeration of the extent of his apparent political conversions. But his claim to consistency is going to start looking absurd on its face, and his defense-spending amendment is one reason why.

The Time piece helpfully goes back about four years to show just how far Paul has come on this issue. But even as his term in the Senate went on, Paul continued to be an advocate for cutting defense spending not only on fiscal grounds but on national-security grounds as well. Paul had crafted a very clear rationale for reducing the defense budget, and even sought to draw a contrast with Mitt Romney’s own views on the subject less than a month before the 2012 presidential election. In an op-ed for CNN, Paul wrote:

Romney chose to criticize President Obama for seeking to cut a bloated Defense Department and for not being bellicose enough in the Middle East, two assertions with which I cannot agree.

Defense and war spending has grown 137% since 2001. That kind of growth is not sustainable.

Adm. Michael Mullen stated earlier this year that the biggest threat to our national security is our debt.

If debt is our gravest threat, adding to the debt by expanding military spending further threatens our national security.

Paul’s decision to sign the open letter to Iran, an effort led by Senator Tom Cotton, attracted two kinds of very interesting criticism. One was the antiwar movement’s treatment of Paul as a sellout to the cause. The other was the more muted criticism from the realist and paleoconservative right, which seemed to accept Time’s own formulation that Paul is extending an “olive branch”–or, at this point, a series of olive branches–to those with whom he disagrees. That is, their criticism of him is tempered by their belief he’s not being wholly honest.

That resulted in a moment of near-unity as conservatives pushed back on the hysterical attempt by the left to brand the dissenting senators’ actions as treasonous. There were far fewer cases of terms like “neocon warmonger” being tossed casually at those who oppose the emerging nuke deal with Iran than there might otherwise have been.

Again, muted criticism of Paul is not the same as no criticism of Paul. But suddenly hawkish policies were being combed for nuance. It was a glimpse of what the foreign-policy debate on the right could look like when advocates of greater restraint are willing to characterize hawks as something other than a cross between Dick Cheney and Dr. Strangelove.

That moment of grace will surely pass. But there are likely to be other such moments, as long as Paul continues his flirtation with a more hawkish approach to foreign affairs. The question, then, will be whether he will have mortgaged his candidacy’s raison d’être in the process and allowed his carefully cultivated image to disintegrate. To prevent that, he’ll need to find a balance between those he hopes will believe him and those he needs to assume he’s merely pretending.

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Stale Hillary Won’t Benefit From Start of GOP Race

After a steady stream of bad news for Hillary Clinton over the past year, Democrats are taking heart. Senator Ted Cruz’s formal announcement for the presidency officially began the competition for the Republican presidential nomination and that means Hillary’s fans are hoping the public’s focus will no longer be on Clinton’s emails, her gaffes, or the embarrassing sense of entitlement that she seems to have about both her party’s nomination and the presidency itself. Instead, they’re hoping that the internecine warfare between Cruz and the large field of fellow Republicans who will soon be following in his footsteps and announcing their candidacies will be all we’ll be hearing about, leaving Clinton free to fade out of the public consciousness until sometime in 2016 when she can begin her campaign in a manner of her own choosing. That’s the conceit of a Politico piece that claims Cruz will be a “wrecking ball” whose scorched earth attacks on other Republicans will be helping Hillary more than the cause of the Texas senator. But while there’s some truth to this idea, Democrats are wrong to believe Clinton will benefit from the start of the GOP race. That’s because the Republicans will be attacking her as much as each other and the increased attention paid to the race will keep the pressure on the former first lady in a way that she has already shown she doesn’t handle well.

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After a steady stream of bad news for Hillary Clinton over the past year, Democrats are taking heart. Senator Ted Cruz’s formal announcement for the presidency officially began the competition for the Republican presidential nomination and that means Hillary’s fans are hoping the public’s focus will no longer be on Clinton’s emails, her gaffes, or the embarrassing sense of entitlement that she seems to have about both her party’s nomination and the presidency itself. Instead, they’re hoping that the internecine warfare between Cruz and the large field of fellow Republicans who will soon be following in his footsteps and announcing their candidacies will be all we’ll be hearing about, leaving Clinton free to fade out of the public consciousness until sometime in 2016 when she can begin her campaign in a manner of her own choosing. That’s the conceit of a Politico piece that claims Cruz will be a “wrecking ball” whose scorched earth attacks on other Republicans will be helping Hillary more than the cause of the Texas senator. But while there’s some truth to this idea, Democrats are wrong to believe Clinton will benefit from the start of the GOP race. That’s because the Republicans will be attacking her as much as each other and the increased attention paid to the race will keep the pressure on the former first lady in a way that she has already shown she doesn’t handle well.

Democrats are relishing the prospect of Cruz tearing into his Republican rivals and they’re not wrong about the fact that he may leave scorched earth behind him. In turn, other GOP candidates will respond and attack each other and the resulting donnybrook may not always be an edifying spectacle. Conservatives will lambast Jeb Bush for his alleged moderation as well as for his stands on immigration and Common Core while each of the possible non-Bushes hoping to be the standard bearer for the right will attack each other. Meanwhile, someone like Scott Walker may fire in both directions as he seeks the sweet spot in between the Tea Party and the establishment constituencies to which he simultaneously appeals.

In theory, that ought to make things easier on Hillary, but she and her Democratic supporters are forgetting a couple of important details.

One is that while Republicans will certainly be regularly violating Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment about not attacking fellow Republicans, they will also be concentrating their fire on the former first lady. It’s a given that all those running for the GOP will be lambasting President Obama and all his works, particularly ObamaCare. But they won’t ignore the person that each of them hopes to be opposing in November 2016.

Part of the problem for Hillary is that the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy with Russian aggression, the rise of ISIS, and appeasement of Iran serves as a reminder that Clinton spent four years as the 44th president’s secretary of state. Clinton and her admirers like to think that her tenure at Foggy Bottom is a great asset to her candidacy as it lends her both experience and gravitas. It’s also true that compared to her disastrous successor John Kerry, Clinton comes across as the second coming of Henry Kissinger or John Foster Dulles. But the Benghazi attack wasn’t the only disaster on her watch. The tragicomically Russian “reset” was her idea and it looks worse every month as Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine continues. Clinton will also have to ask questions about what she was doing when ISIS was filling the vacuum left by her boss’s bug out from Iraq and failure to act on the crisis in Syria. In what is shaping up to be the first foreign-policy election since 2004, Clinton’s experience at State is looking increasingly like a liability.

Just as important, the lack of credible Democratic challengers to Clinton ensures that she, along with President Obama, will be a staple of GOP presidential stump speeches. And the House Committee investigating Benghazi will keep probing for possible scandals. It was their efforts that turned up the shocking story about her private email server. Clinton should also expect to be hit hard about foreign donations to her family foundation as nations sought to curry favor with a sitting secretary of state and a possible president.

All this means that while a Republican civil war will take up a lot of airtime, there will still be plenty of interest in Clinton’s problems and shortcomings. Ted Cruz may attack other Republicans, but if Clinton is expecting the next several months to be a vacation from criticism and coverage of her foibles, she’s dreaming.

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Ted Cruz is a Right-Wing Barack Obama

Barack Obama was spectacularly unprepared to be president and, except for the true believers, his presidency has been a disaster because of it. He had no executive experience whatever but was supposed to be the chief executive officer of the largest organization on earth, the federal government. He had no political leadership experience, having been a backbencher in both the Illinois Senate and the United States Senate, with no legislative accomplishments to his credit. He had no foreign affairs experience. He has proved to be a terrible negotiator, ideologically rigid and contemptuous of any opinion but his own, although negotiating—getting to yes—is the very essence of politics. Today Senator Ted Cruz is announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. Is he qualified?

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Barack Obama was spectacularly unprepared to be president and, except for the true believers, his presidency has been a disaster because of it. He had no executive experience whatever but was supposed to be the chief executive officer of the largest organization on earth, the federal government. He had no political leadership experience, having been a backbencher in both the Illinois Senate and the United States Senate, with no legislative accomplishments to his credit. He had no foreign affairs experience. He has proved to be a terrible negotiator, ideologically rigid and contemptuous of any opinion but his own, although negotiating—getting to yes—is the very essence of politics. Today Senator Ted Cruz is announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. Is he qualified?

1) Executive experience. He has very little. He was director of the office of policy planning at the Federal Trade Commission and associate deputy attorney general in the early  years of the George W. Bush administration. He served as solicitor general of Texas for five years (2003 to 2008) and thus has more experience than President Obama. But that’s not saying much. He was only a cog in the administrative machine. I imagine that the solicitor general of Texas presides over an office small enough for him to know everyone in it. Going from there to the presidency is a bit like going from executive officer of a destroyer to Chief of Naval Operations in one leap.

2) Legislative experience. Again, Cruz’s experience is very thin. He’s been a senator from Texas for a little over two years. He has not been in a leadership position. Indeed he has often defied the leadership of his party.

3) Foreign affairs experience. Like Obama, Cruz has none.

4) Education. Here Cruz has it all over Obama. They both had Ivy League educations, but Cruz graduated cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. Obama’s grades are state secrets, a pretty good indication that they are not impressive, as he is not exactly the type to hide his light under a bushel. We do know he received no honors upon graduation. While Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, he published nothing in it. Cruz was primary editor there and was executive editor at the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, and a founding editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review. After graduation, Cruz clerked for Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Luttig, and then for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a very high honor in the legal profession.

5) Negotiating skills. Like Obama, Cruz doesn’t seem to have any and no desire to use them if he did. He’s a bomb-thrower and an ideologue, insisting on touchdowns or nothing rather than moving the ball down the field.

In short, Ted Cruz is not, except for his highly distinguished academic career and legal clerkships, dissimilar to the present incumbent of the White House.  It seems to me that the last thing this country needs come January 20th, 2017, is a right-wing Barack Obama.

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Is There a Realistic Ted Cruz Scenario?

A broad cross-section of Republican officeholders, major donors and conservative pundits are agreed on one thing: Ted Cruz has no chance to be elected president. The junior senator from Texas marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of ObamaCare by announcing his candidacy for the presidency today at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and no one in the chattering classes thinks he has a prayer of being sworn into office as commander-in-chief in January 2017. Just about everyone thinks his positions on the issues are too extreme and that his advocacy of the 2013 government shutdown and the complete antipathy of the rest of the Senate and the party establishment make it impossible for him to win. Even those who sympathize with his politics tend to agree that he just isn’t likeable enough to gain his party’s nomination, let alone win a general election against a Democrat. But his detractors need to understand something. As his announcement this morning showed us, he is a fabulous speaker and a dynamic personality with a unique appeal. The scenario that Cruz is hoping will make him the GOP nominee may be a very shot indeed but it is not crazy.

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A broad cross-section of Republican officeholders, major donors and conservative pundits are agreed on one thing: Ted Cruz has no chance to be elected president. The junior senator from Texas marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of ObamaCare by announcing his candidacy for the presidency today at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and no one in the chattering classes thinks he has a prayer of being sworn into office as commander-in-chief in January 2017. Just about everyone thinks his positions on the issues are too extreme and that his advocacy of the 2013 government shutdown and the complete antipathy of the rest of the Senate and the party establishment make it impossible for him to win. Even those who sympathize with his politics tend to agree that he just isn’t likeable enough to gain his party’s nomination, let alone win a general election against a Democrat. But his detractors need to understand something. As his announcement this morning showed us, he is a fabulous speaker and a dynamic personality with a unique appeal. The scenario that Cruz is hoping will make him the GOP nominee may be a very shot indeed but it is not crazy.

When stacked against those of his Republican competitors, it’s easy to see why few think the Texan has much of a chance. The party elites that are, as Nate Cohn rightly points out in his New York Times Upshot column about Cruz today, still important to winning nominations, are united in their opposition to him. He will raise money but nowhere near as much as Jeb Bush or even other conservatives like Scott Walker. Nor can he claim to be the sole candidate seeking to appeal to Tea Party conservatives, who tend to adore him, or even the evangelicals that he is courting by announcing at the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Cruz is also widely hated by most of his Senate colleagues and tends not to come across as a guy most people would want to have a beer with. Last week’s viral story about Cruz supposedly scaring a little girl at a New Hampshire event was inaccurate and unfair. If anything, a look at the tape of the encounter showed him to be sensitive and actually quite caring about the child’s reaction to his rhetoric about President Obama setting the world on fire. But it resonated because that is how most adults, Republicans and Democrats alike, tend to think about him. Indeed, I think the likeability factor is a much more important obstacle for Cruz to overcome than his ideology. As a recent Wall Street Journal poll illustrated, the number of those who can envision supporting him barely outnumber those who say they can never back him.

But even if admit up front that Cruz’s path to victory is as steep as can be imagined, the party establishment and others that loathe him would still be foolish to underestimate him or his power to play a serious role in the GOP race.

If there is anything that we have learned about him in the two and a half years since he began throwing bombs in the Senate and upsetting his colleagues, it is that Cruz is utterly undaunted by criticism or long odds. In the view of more moderate conservatives, that makes him unwilling to listen to common sense. But it also gives him a certain power that more realistic figures lack. You may think Ted Cruz is over-the-top but he does not care.

He brings to the race certain strengths that his rivals lack. As I noted backed in December, “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.”

Though debates will not be as ubiquitous this time as they were in 2012, they will still be crucial. Cruz’s ability to eviscerate opponents is something his opponents should fear. Nor is he, despite his embrace of suicidal tactics like the shutdown, someone who will embrace crackpot positions on vaccines or show ignorance about foreign policy.

Jeb Bush is the darling of the establishment. Scott Walker is in a sweet spot that can embrace the party establishment, Tea Partiers and evangelicals. Rand Paul has the libertarians. Marco Rubio is the strongest voice on foreign policy and can also appeal to both wings of the party. Mike Huckabee will compete with him for the populist vote and Rick Santorum for religious conservatives. Others will have their own strengths. But the sheer size and strength of this field (especially compared to 2012) makes is more likely that someone we now consider an outlier may break through. Cruz isn’t likely to be the one who will do so but neither is it insane to think that he might. Others also face long odds, but few have his potent political skills.

The problem for those writing off Cruz’s candidacy as absurd is that the very same factors that make him so unappealing to his Senate colleagues and the party establishment can endear him to grassroots voters. He may be inexperienced in office with only two years in the Senate on his resume but he is also untainted by the compromises that responsible officials must make because he has never compromised on any issue. If Cruz can tap into the Tea Party base and become its standard bearer, he will be a formidable candidate in the early primary states. After that, it will be anyone’s game. Right now, that’s about as realistic a scenario as any of his competitors can claim.

None of that changes the fact that it is hard to see how he could win a general election and Republicans who want to win are not only never going to consider him but will move heaven and earth to stop him if he does get close to the nomination. But they should not assume that this is a possibility they’ll never have to contemplate. The Ted Cruz scenario for Republicans is a very long shot but those chuckling about his early announcement are making assumptions that the party base may not back up.

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No More Foreign Policy Amateurs in the White House

Last week, our Seth Mandel wrote an interesting piece about the way radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt might shape the 2016 Republican presidential contest both by hosting a GOP debate and through his probing no-holds-barred interviews with the contenders. Yesterday, as if acting on cue to prove Seth’s point, Hewitt had Dr. Ben Carson on his show in what should be considered one of the first real tests of the likely candidate’s mettle. Rather than lob softballs at the good doctor as most conservative talkers would do, Hewitt not only asked tough questions but paid particular attention to what was likely to be Carson’s weak spot: foreign policy. The results were illuminating and should alert those right-wing populists who think Carson is ready for the presidency that he is anything but.

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Last week, our Seth Mandel wrote an interesting piece about the way radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt might shape the 2016 Republican presidential contest both by hosting a GOP debate and through his probing no-holds-barred interviews with the contenders. Yesterday, as if acting on cue to prove Seth’s point, Hewitt had Dr. Ben Carson on his show in what should be considered one of the first real tests of the likely candidate’s mettle. Rather than lob softballs at the good doctor as most conservative talkers would do, Hewitt not only asked tough questions but paid particular attention to what was likely to be Carson’s weak spot: foreign policy. The results were illuminating and should alert those right-wing populists who think Carson is ready for the presidency that he is anything but.

A famed neurosurgeon, Carson is surely as intelligent as anybody who’s ever run for president. He’s not completely ignorant about foreign policy and seems to be a supporter of a strong America and an opponent of terrorism. But he was soon tripped up by faulty knowledge of some basic facts about the world and history. Though quick to offer opinions about what to do about Russia, Carson didn’t know that the Baltic States are already NATO members. When asked to identify the roots of Islamic terrorism he replied by citing the Biblical conflict between Jacob and his brother Esau, failing to realize that Islam is only 1,400 years old and not “thousands” as he claimed. He also cited the possibility that Shia and Sunni Muslims would unite against the United States when in fact the two factions are at each other’s throats in a conflict that is fueling Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.

Carson says he’s planning on studying the issues more closely in the future and seems to regard this as a minor detail that can be corrected but as Hewitt said:

I want to be respectful in posing this. But I mean, you wouldn’t expect me to become a neurosurgeon in a couple of years. And I wouldn’t expect you to be able to access and understand and collate the information necessary to be a global strategist in a couple of years. Is it fair for people to worry that you just haven’t been in the world strategy long enough to be competent to imagine you in the Oval Office deciding these things? I mean, we’ve tried an amateur for the last six years and look what it got us.

Hewitt is right. Americans elected a man in 2008 with no foreign policy experience. President Obama is an ideologue that thought he could solve problems by virtue of his personality and doesn’t listen to advice. Carson rightly answered that Obama “has been able to accomplish a great deal,” albeit in a negative way. But even he might have made fewer mistakes if he had firmer grip on the issues when he started.

Carson’s defenders will say this is “gotcha” journalism but I’m hoping Hewitt gives the same grilling to every other presidential candidate. The point is, though presidential elections are almost always decided by domestic and economic issues, it’s important to remember that the one government activity that any president has almost unlimited power is on foreign policy. And though the economy is always going to be the issue of greatest concern to most voters, most presidents are inevitably being frustrated by their limited ability to influence domestic affairs and wind up spend most of their time on foreign and defense issues.

That would apply to just about any point in history but it is especially true of our current situation in which President Obama’s feckless policies have helped lead to the rise of ISIS terrorists and his blind pursuit of détente with Iran has increased the likelihood that Tehran will acquire a nuclear weapon. In other words, this no time for a foreign policy amateur in the White House who will be overly dependent on advisors and lacks the knowledge or experience to respond adequately to crises.

Carson isn’t the only one with this problem. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may be the new putative GOP frontrunner but as his recent London interview illustrated, he isn’t prepared to lead on foreign policy issues the way he is on those concerning governance, budgets and taxes.

The point is it’s up to Hewitt and others with access to these candidates to push them hard on the one topic that we truly do hire a president to manage. Nor is it sufficient for those, like Carson, who aren’t up to snuff to claim that the press is targeting them for unfair scrutiny.

Carson and anyone else who won’t know which countries are in NATO or the basic facts about the Middle East need to do more than study. Learning about war and peace issues on the fly is a hit and miss business. Even a policy wonk like Mitt Romney found himself not entirely prepared to answer President Obama in his 2012 foreign policy debate. Whoever wins the nomination will find themselves matched up against Hillary Clinton, a woman with a record of foreign policy failure but who won’t be caught in an obvious mistake, in the fall of 2016. The GOP will have to do a lot better than Ben Carson if they hope to prevail in that contest.

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U.S. Alliance Will Survive Barack-Bibi, Act 3

Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

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Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

The White House will say the right things about applauding Israeli democracy and working with anyone elected by the people of the Jewish state. But the president and his foreign policy team are bitterly disappointed with the prospect of Netanyahu’s re-election. It was always going to take a decisive win for Herzog, such as the four-seat advantage that the last opinion polls published last week before the election predicted, for the Labor leader to have a chance at putting together a coalition and that margin of victory evaporated as right-wing voters came home to Likud in order to save the prime minister. So the odds are, the administration is just going to have to stand by impotently and watch as its least-favorite foreign leader assembles a government for his fourth term in office.

Another 22 months of contention between Obama and Netanyahu will be problematic for the alliance. The president is poised to sign a framework with Iran over its nuclear program that will ensure that the Islamist regime becomes a threshold nuclear power and, just as important, gives U.S. acquiescence if not approval to Iran’s domination of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That creates a far more dangerous Middle East and the real possibility of nuclear proliferation as Arab nations, which share Israel’s fears about Iran and the president’s feckless pursuit of détente with Tehran, begin thinking of their own deterrent.

Other than a risky and highly unlikely decision to launch a military strike on Iran on its own, there will not be much that Israel can do about this. But it can quietly support efforts by Congress to hold a weak Iran deal up to scrutiny and to hold the president and his new entente partners accountable. Expect a lot more sniping on this score between Washington and Jerusalem but barring Iran walking away from talks in which Obama appears to be giving them everything they could want, Netanyahu can’t be much of an obstacle to the president’s plans

But that won’t be the only issue on which the two governments will clash. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have also indicated that they will try to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process with the Palestinians. If so, we can expect the U.S. to repeat the same behavior that has characterized the first six years of the Obama presidency in which major pressure is brought to bear on Israel to make concessions while the Palestinians continue to refuse to make peace under any circumstances.

This will be difficult for Netanyahu, especially since he repudiated the two-state solution in the days leading up to the election. But Obama’s leverage here is limited. By opposing Israel’s effort to hold onto a united Jerusalem and the settlement blocs where most West Bank Jews live, the president has always been playing on Netanyahu’s turf and where he can turn disputes with Washington to his advantage. Netanyahu will stand his ground and not suffer for it at home while the Palestinians continue to stiff a president who has done everything in his power to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction.

It is true that Obama can up the ante on Netanyahu by abandoning a policy of supporting Israel in the United Nations as the Palestinians continue to violate their Oslo Accords obligation to negotiate rather than to attempt to gain recognition from the world body. But if that happens, it will create as many problems for him and the Democratic Party as it does for Israel.

It should be remembered that the 22-month period during which a re-elected Netanyahu will be forced to deal with Obama will coincide with the 2016 presidential election campaign. It is true that as a lame duck, he needn’t fear the voters even as he attempts to put more daylight between the U.S. and its only democratic ally in the Middle East. But Democrats who will be eager to hold onto the White House will not be happy if the president spends his last year in office alienating pro-Israel voters by venting his spleen at Netanyahu. Even if his liberal base has no affection for the prime minister, an overt tilt against Israel at the UN would probably place Obama at odds with Hillary Clinton who will be eager to demonstrate her pro-Israel bona fides. It will also give Republicans another stick to beat Democrats with as they seek to win back the White House.

What this boils down to is that as much as the president detests Netanyahu and has little love for his country, the infrastructure of the alliance, in Congress and the defense establishment is too strong for him to destroy. As he learned last summer when the Department of Defense was automatically transferring arms to Israel during the Gaza war, it takes more than a spat orchestrated by the White House to derail an alliance that has such broad bipartisan political support. As the president learned during the weeks leading up to Netanyahu’s controversial Iran speech to Congress earlier this month, even when the Israeli plays into their hands, the White House has shown a tendency to overplay their hand in a way that only helps the pro-Israel community.

More than all this, a re-elected Netanyahu will be in a position where time will be on his side. As the countdown for Obama’s exit from the White House begins, the prime minister will know that no matter who wins in 2016, they are likely to be far friendly to Israel than the current incumbent. He can afford to wait until January 2017 when he can count on a new relationship with an Obama successor who will be eager to prove his or her bona fides.

The months ahead will be difficult ones for Israel as Obama seethes about his foe’s victory. But as much as Obama has already undermined Israel’s security, his ability to do more damage is constrained by the realities of American politics than can neither be undone nor wished away.

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Hillary, the Dems’ Inauthentic Irishwoman

Undaunted by the questions that continue to be raised about her use of emails while secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was in full pre-presidential campaign mode yesterday accepting an award from an Irish-American group on the even of St. Patrick’s Day. If that strikes you as a head-scratcher, you’re not alone. Mrs. Clinton has no Irish ancestry. As such, the event, which the Clinton camp hoped would provide at least a temporary respite from queries about her deletions of tens of thousands of emails from a home server that she refuses to turn over to a neutral party to see if official documents were held back or erased rather than turned over to the government as they should have been, was another reminder of her political weakness, not her strengths.

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Undaunted by the questions that continue to be raised about her use of emails while secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was in full pre-presidential campaign mode yesterday accepting an award from an Irish-American group on the even of St. Patrick’s Day. If that strikes you as a head-scratcher, you’re not alone. Mrs. Clinton has no Irish ancestry. As such, the event, which the Clinton camp hoped would provide at least a temporary respite from queries about her deletions of tens of thousands of emails from a home server that she refuses to turn over to a neutral party to see if official documents were held back or erased rather than turned over to the government as they should have been, was another reminder of her political weakness, not her strengths.

The justification for the honor was her role in promoting peace in Ireland. Except, as was amply discussed back in 2008 when she falsely claimed to have “helped bring peace to Northern Ireland,” she had no role in the talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But no matter, as the New York Times reports today, those involved in the event included a number of major donors to the Democratic Party who are, no doubt, hoping that their bundling efforts will eventually be rewarded by being named U.S. ambassador in Dublin, a point that did not go unmentioned in the proceedings. Put it down as just another piece of political nonsense but this minor story once again demonstrates the putative Democratic presidential nominee’s Achilles Heal: her inauthenticity.

To her credit, Clinton didn’t repeat her past claims of being involved in the Irish peace talks. But she did claim that her efforts at reaching out to Irish women had played a role in making peace possible. The notion that a century of Ireland’s “troubles” only came to an end after America’s First Lady took part in staged photo ops during state visits is, to put it mildly, preposterous. Such assertions, framed in feminist rhetoric, are ripe fiction but they are not, strictly speaking, palpable lies, such as her past talk about helping to make the Irish peace or of dodging bullets in during visits to Serbia.

Instead, this sort of thing is more in line with past Clinton fibs such as her claim to have been a lifelong fan of the Yankees when she was running for a New York Senate seat. But the common theme that runs through all of this is the essential fakery of Clinton’s public career that is bereft of actual accomplishments.

After four years as secretary of state when, as opposed to her role on the sidelines as First Lady, Clinton was the American diplomat at the table with foreign leaders, you’d think she wouldn’t think it smart to remind us of her bogus claims about Ireland. But the problem with her supposedly impressive resume is that her time at the State Department gives her little to boast about. During the campaign, I doubt we’ll hear about her much ballyhooed “reset” with Russia. Not only was that effort comically mismanaged, Russia’s aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine leaves her vulnerable to the charge of presiding over a period of attempted appeasement of the Putin regime that encouraged that autocrat to further aggression.

Seen in that light, Clinton’s fake diplomacy in Ireland seems to be an asset or at least not as much of a liability as it was once seen, rather than a reminder of her predilection for embroidering the truth.

Clinton’s lack of accomplishments as secretary of state doesn’t bother Democrats any more than her arrogant refusals to play by the same rules that governed every other government employee when it came to email and document transparency. But they should be bothered by the ongoing signs that her big problem in 2008 — the lack of an authentic identity and the ability to connect with ordinary voters — is still very much in evidence. Last week’s news conference about the emails showed that her political skills — which were never very strong to begin with — are rusty. The Irish story won’t sink her by itself or even be much remembered next year. But the more she feeds the impression of inauthenticity, the weaker she appears. That is something that is making Democratic activists nervous, as they appear stuck with a candidate who shows no signs of having learned from her past mistakes.

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The GOP Needs to Make Inroads in the Big 10 States

Stuart Rothenberg, writing in Roll Call, points out that 10 states–Wisconsin, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio–will deter the next occupant of the White House. The other 40 states aren’t terribly relevant, since their partisan voting habits are so well established. (If a state like Indiana trends Democratic, as it did in 2008, it’s clear that a rout is underway.)

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Stuart Rothenberg, writing in Roll Call, points out that 10 states–Wisconsin, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio–will deter the next occupant of the White House. The other 40 states aren’t terribly relevant, since their partisan voting habits are so well established. (If a state like Indiana trends Democratic, as it did in 2008, it’s clear that a rout is underway.)

According to Mr. Rothenberg:

Successful Republicans in the Big Ten states tend to be conservatives who avoid the extremist label and can appeal to voters on both a personal and political level. They tend to be more optimistic and upbeat than some in their party, and they don’t make it easy for their opponents to demonize them.

These may seem like qualities that every candidate does and should have, but they aren’t.

GOP candidates whose angry, confrontational style and ideological messages play best to the party’s base may find receptive audiences in key presidential primary and caucus states (particularly early ones), but those kinds of candidates will have problems appealing to key voters in the Big Ten states in November.

The argument that there are tens of thousands of conservatives in key states who don’t bother to vote because the GOP doesn’t nominate conservative-enough nominees is unconvincing.

That strikes me as quite right. The issue isn’t simply about content, though that of course matters. The issue is also about tone, disposition, temperament, likeability, and the ability to persuade those who might vote for a Republican but over the last several cycles have not.

Republican live in an era in which, at the presidential level, they are at a disadvantage. Consider: In each of the past six presidential elections, Democrats have carried 18 states and the District of Columbia—which currently total 242 electoral votes—as base states, leaving them only 28 votes short of the 270 necessary to win the White House.  Republicans, on the other hand, have won just 13 states with 102 electoral votes six times in a row—only 38 percent of the needed 270. Which means the Republican Party needs to make inroads into what Rothenberg calls the Big 10.

That’s certainly doable, given the problems the Democratic Party will be facing in 2016, from Obama fatigue and the harmful effects of his two terms in office, to its intellectual exhaustion and reactionary policies, to a likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, who is a mediocre political talent. But it’s still going to take a Republican of considerable skills and unusual appeal to win 20 months from now. And if a Republican does win, it will be because it’s an individual who (among other qualities) is a winsome and principled conservative, not an angry and dogmatic one. Because the latter kind of conservative, while they can win in some states, won’t win in very many (if any) of the Big 10 states.

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