Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential race

Debates, Not Money Will Winnow GOP Field

This is the week when an already crowded Republican presidential field really starts to fill up. One by Mike Huckabee will soon follow today’s announcements by Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Before long they will be joined by Governor Scott Walker and eventually as many as 20 candidates will be running for the GOP nomination. Not all of them are likely to be serious possibilities and the members of this week’s trio are all assumed to be long shots. But the cavalry charge of candidates heading to Iowa and New Hampshire creates a situation that renders moot much of the commentary we’ve been hearing about the race in the last six months. It’s no good talking about Jeb Bush or even Walker as frontrunners in a contest in which no one can boast of even 20 percent of the support of Republican voters and which most of those jumping in can raise enough money to stay in until the early states vote. For all of the necessary focus on who is doing the best at raising funds, it will be the debates and not the affections of big donors that will winnow this group down to the real contenders that will battle for the nomination next spring.

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This is the week when an already crowded Republican presidential field really starts to fill up. One by Mike Huckabee will soon follow today’s announcements by Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Before long they will be joined by Governor Scott Walker and eventually as many as 20 candidates will be running for the GOP nomination. Not all of them are likely to be serious possibilities and the members of this week’s trio are all assumed to be long shots. But the cavalry charge of candidates heading to Iowa and New Hampshire creates a situation that renders moot much of the commentary we’ve been hearing about the race in the last six months. It’s no good talking about Jeb Bush or even Walker as frontrunners in a contest in which no one can boast of even 20 percent of the support of Republican voters and which most of those jumping in can raise enough money to stay in until the early states vote. For all of the necessary focus on who is doing the best at raising funds, it will be the debates and not the affections of big donors that will winnow this group down to the real contenders that will battle for the nomination next spring.

With no votes to count and polls being of little use in gauging interest in a plethora of candidates who are not yet household names, it’s understandable that most of the reporting on the GOP contest has centered on the question of who is raising the most money. That was the whole point of Jeb Bush’s decision to jump in early last December when he embarked on a “shock and awe” campaign intended to make it clear to possible challengers that they wouldn’t have a chance to compete with him in fundraising. Bush’s effort was largely successful. In fact, it played a significant role in convincing Mitt Romney not to try again in spite of what appeared to be a clear inclination on his part to make a third attempt at the presidency. But while Bush did lock up the lion’s share of big Republican donors, he soon discovered that the universe of contributors to GOP presidential candidates is bigger than he thought. After Bush’s initial push, there were still more than enough such givers to fund Walker as well as others such as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Nor, despite mainstream media coverage that makes it appear that the Koch Brothers and/or Sheldon Adelson will be Republican kingmakers, will the ultimate destination of the money currently in their pockets decide things.

That is where the similarities and the differences between the 2012 and 2016 races come into play.

There were also a lot of possible candidates thinking about the GOP nomination this time four years ago. But the reason why Mitt Romney ultimately cruised to victory is that most where neither serious nor able to raise enough money to make it to the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, let alone beyond that point. That is not the case this year both in terms of the level of the candidates as well as their ability to attract donors. This time, even the potential outliers like Carson or Huckabee seem to have a lot more on the ball and will probably survive until next winter when the voting starts.

And that is why the debates — the factor that was most important in helping to shape the 2012 race — may again be decisive. As Bush learned, money may be necessary to run a credible enough but in such a crowded field, it simply isn’t possible to raise enough to dominate and or knock off so many varied opponents. In a contest with no true frontrunner, it will be the debates that will define the candidates for the voting public.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election cycle, Republicans agreed that there were too many debates in the fall/winter of 2011-12. Indeed, the debates began to resemble a reality show more than Lincoln and Douglas. But even with the trimmed down schedule now planned, there will be no way for any of the contenders to make a splash without doing well on the debate stage. Just as important, the debates will be the crucible during which gaffes and unpreparedness will sink candidates faster than the displeasure of a large donor.

That’s why all talk of framing the race must be predicated on the notion that it won’t really begin until August 15 when the first such debate takes place in Cleveland and is broadcast by Fox News. Until then, the field will grow no matter how much or how little any of the would-be frontrunners take in from wealthy friends.

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Could Indiana RFRA Debate Influence 2016? Not in the Way Moderates Think.

To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

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To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

After Pence’s confused statements and Hutchinson’s pulling the plug on the Arkansas RFRA, liberals may be forgiven for thinking they won last week’s news cycle. The effort to stigmatize even a theoretical faith-based dissent on gay marriage succeeded in a manner that made the issue toxic. And that will continue to be the case as long as the discussion centers on the notion that refusing to take part in a gay wedding is a form of illegal discrimination rather than on the desire of an intolerant, albeit newly-minted majority to bully a religious minority into compliance or silence.

But evangelicals, or other conservatives who think the media groupthink about Indiana reflected inaccurate and biased reporting, may have a difference response from that of Hutchinson. To the contrary, and to the consternation of mainstream Republicans who believe that it is madness for the GOP to contest culture-war issues where they have already been routed, the religious right may use Indiana as an incentive to use the 2016 race to make their voices heard.

The importance of this demographic in Republican primaries is nothing new. The last two Iowa caucuses have gone to the candidate who appealed most effectively to religious conservatives—Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. But that influence may be even greater in 2016, especially if southern states coordinate what is being widely called an SEC regional primary (after college football’s Southeastern Conference) where these voters will play a major role in determining the outcome.

And that is where Ted Cruz’s gamble on mobilizing the religious right comes in. Cruz got reviews for his effort in being the first GOP candidate to formally declare for the presidency. But the consensus among most talking heads is that he is still out of touch with mainstream voters and has little chance of winning the nomination, let alone a general election. They may well be right about the latter, but in a contest where Christian conservatives largely dominate most of the early states, Cruz’s strategy seemed smart. After the Indiana kerfuffle, it may turn out to be even smarter than he thought.

It may be that the avalanche of opprobrium that rained down on the state of Indiana would serve as a deterrent to religious conservatives speaking up. Certainly those responsible for promoting the state’s economy may think so after the way a liberal lynch mob was able to intimidate corporations into joining their anti-RFRA protests, even causing some to boycott the Final Four weekend in Indianapolis.

But the spectacle of the chattering classes chanting in unison may only help convince conservatives that piping down about their beliefs are the worst mistake they can make. And candidates who seek to appeal to those who are most outraged about the way their beliefs are being anathematized could stand to benefit.

Cruz will have a lot of competition for religious conservative votes. Former Iowa winners Huckabee and Santorum are back for another try. Rick Perry will also seek to win their affection. Like Cruz, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the son of a preacher and an evangelical who has often spoken of his faith. So will Senator Marco Rubio. Even a libertarian like Rand Paul will make a pass at the religious right even if his heart isn’t in it. But Jeb Bush, who has spoken of running against the party base on issues like immigration and Common Core, is in a bad position to do so.

But the point here is that someone who gets out early and establishes himself as the voice of conservatives will be in a far stronger position than most of those seeking to put Christian bakers and florists in the stocks think. Cruz may not sustain his effort and someone else, perhaps Walker or Rubio, who can appeal to other sectors of the party will prevail. But far from shutting up the evangelicals, the Indiana dustup may give them an added incentive not to lose control of the Republican Party to someone they perceive as a moderate like Bush. And that is very bad news for those in the GOP who think Indiana is an object lesson in how not to win a presidential election.

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Never Too Early to Get Ahead for 2016

If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

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If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

In the WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll published on Tuesday, Christie leads the GOP field with 21 percent of the vote on a multi-candidate ballot. Paul is a strong second with 16 percent. But Rubio has fallen to fifth place (behind Rep. Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush) with only six percent, less than half of the 15 percent he received in the same poll back in April.

There’s no question that Rubio’s (praiseworthy in my opinion) role in pushing for a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform has hurt him with many conservatives. But I think his lurch back to the right as he makes common cause with Paul and Ted Cruz in a quixotic effort to shut down the government to stop ObamaCare probably isn’t helping him much either. Though this stand is very much in line with his political roots as a Tea Partier, it looks as if he is trying to appease his critics and that is the kind of thing that smells like (to quote The Godfather) a sign of weakness. It’s not just that, as our Peter Wehner wrote on Friday, his position doesn’t make sense, it’s that it conveys (fairly or unfairly) a sense of panic about his standing with party stalwarts. His absence for the foreign policy debate in which Christie has jousted with libertarians and isolationists in Congress is, as Seth wrote last week, also troubling.

It should also be noted that the same poll also rates Ryan as having the highest favorability ratings of any Republican. That echoes the findings of a Quinnipiac survey we noted earlier this week that showed the former veep candidate as the most popular Republican politician. Though Ryan may prefer to stay in the House rather than put himself through the agony of a presidential candidacy, these are the kinds of numbers that make his many fans salivate about the possibility of his running.

It may be a little premature for the kind of handicapping that GOP activist Patrick Hynes gave us in an interesting Politico article in which he gave Paul a slight edge over Christie in New Hampshire. There’s plenty of time for seeming front-runners to drop out, also-rans to recover, and for new candidates to emerge out of the 2014 midterms. But Hynes is right to note that the strengths of both of these candidates are formidable. They are likely to be telling in early primaries like the one in the Granite State where independents and Democrats, who tend to favor Christie, may vote. As early as it is, the longer Christie and Paul remain ahead of the field, the harder it will be to knock them off once the votes start being counted.

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Immigration Isn’t Rubio’s Problem

Marco Rubio may have made Sunday morning television history yesterday when he managed to appear on seven shows to speak in support of the bipartisan compromise immigration bill on which he and seven other Senate colleagues have been working. Rubio was both eloquent and convincing in his advocacy for immigration reform. Indeed, the only moments in which he appeared to falter in any of his appearances came not when he was asked to defend the proposed bill but to discuss his own political future.

Wherever he went, Rubio was asked about the impact of his embrace of immigration reform on his presidential hopes. Given that his position on this issue is one that may offend many members of own party while also making him potentially more attractive to independents and some Democrats, this is a fair question, albeit one he probably is better off not answering. But rather than merely punt on the question of whether he is thinking of running for president with a bland and probably honest reply indicating that he hasn’t made up his mind, Rubio went further than that, saying he hadn’t even thought about the implications of his stands on his possible candidacy and that he hadn’t even thought about whether he would run in 2016.

Such patently disingenuous answers are commonplace in politics, a business where blatant dishonesty can often be the coin of the realm. Tradition holds that presidential candidates are not supposed to sound too eager about running since we generally like our would-be commanders-in-chief to sound diffident rather than eager about their desire for power. And three years from now, no one will care what Rubio or any other candidate said about running in 2013. But it must also be acknowledged that his willingness to fib about what he is thinking about contrasts unfavorably with potential rival Rand Paul’s open candor about his ambitions.

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Marco Rubio may have made Sunday morning television history yesterday when he managed to appear on seven shows to speak in support of the bipartisan compromise immigration bill on which he and seven other Senate colleagues have been working. Rubio was both eloquent and convincing in his advocacy for immigration reform. Indeed, the only moments in which he appeared to falter in any of his appearances came not when he was asked to defend the proposed bill but to discuss his own political future.

Wherever he went, Rubio was asked about the impact of his embrace of immigration reform on his presidential hopes. Given that his position on this issue is one that may offend many members of own party while also making him potentially more attractive to independents and some Democrats, this is a fair question, albeit one he probably is better off not answering. But rather than merely punt on the question of whether he is thinking of running for president with a bland and probably honest reply indicating that he hasn’t made up his mind, Rubio went further than that, saying he hadn’t even thought about the implications of his stands on his possible candidacy and that he hadn’t even thought about whether he would run in 2016.

Such patently disingenuous answers are commonplace in politics, a business where blatant dishonesty can often be the coin of the realm. Tradition holds that presidential candidates are not supposed to sound too eager about running since we generally like our would-be commanders-in-chief to sound diffident rather than eager about their desire for power. And three years from now, no one will care what Rubio or any other candidate said about running in 2013. But it must also be acknowledged that his willingness to fib about what he is thinking about contrasts unfavorably with potential rival Rand Paul’s open candor about his ambitions.

The comparison with Paul is interesting since the Kentucky senator has been branching out in recent months looking to gain support in sectors where he has had little previous success, such as Jews (via his trip to Israel) and African-Americas (as his speech at Howard University proved). But while neither of those gambits has proved completely successful, Paul’s honesty about his purpose was disarming, if not persuasive.

Rubio’s approach to the question of expanding his 2016 prospects is a bit different since by embracing immigration reform he is softening his image with centrist voters while also hoping to gain support from fellow Hispanics, who have largely fled the GOP. Rubio’s seven-prong assault on the American public yesterday worked because his command of the issues surrounding immigration is so thorough. His argument that the current system gives the approximately 11 million illegal aliens in the United States functional amnesty because of non-enforcement shoots the concerns voiced by opponents out of the water. By taking up a reform bill that will provide a pathway to citizenship for the illegals while also securing the border, he is giving his party its own pathway out of a dead end on a difficult issue while also showing leadership.

Those who argue that his views on immigration will sink him with conservatives are underestimating the Florida senator. If anyone can navigate the shoals of right-wing opposition to citizenship for illegals, it is a hard-core conservative/Tea Partier like Rubio. It should be remembered that Mitt Romney went overboard as an immigration hawk precisely because it was the one issue on which he didn’t have a record of flip-flopping that lingered from his days as a moderate GOP governor of Massachusetts. Rubio demonstrated yesterday that there is a conservative case to be made on behalf of recognizing the realities of the situation rather than pretending that millions of people can be thrown out of the country or that they will “self-deport” themselves.

But Rubio must guard against moments like those on Sunday when he came across as patently disingenuous about his future. Like his decision to rush to the Senate floor during Rand Paul’s February filibuster on drone attacks—an issue on which he actually disagreed with the libertarian but feared to be left out of the story and therefore jumped in to register his moral support—there was something about his denials that showed him a little too eager to pander to public opinion or at least to his perceptions about what is expected of him at this stage of the long slog to 2016.

We may put this down to inexperience. After all, Rubio has only been on the national stage for barely three years. But Rubio is now under a spotlight that will afford him no breathing space or water breaks in the next three years. For all of his forthright approach on the issues, Rubio needs to stop playing so coy about his future. He needn’t declare, but he must stop pretending that he doesn’t think about such things. Doing so only undermines his credibility as a leader.

As a fresh political face that succeeded on the basis of his willingness to take on his party’s establishment (as his 2010 challenge of Charlie Crist proved), he needs to understand that coming across as an insincere politician has the potential to hurt him more than any supposed apostasy on immigration or any other issue.

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