Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Christie

Is the GOP Really the Party of Free Trade? Not Exactly.

Yesterday Chris Christie raised some eyebrows when he told the Conference on the Americas, “I do think that we need to take another look at NAFTA,” referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. That agreement was a signature achievement of the Clinton administration and the Gingrich Congress. Christie’s rhetoric is empty: there’s no way he, if he somehow became president, would undo a two-decade-old signature free-trade agreement. But in saying he’d even take another look at it, Christie was exposing the divide between rank-and-file Republicans and their elected leaders on the value of free trade.

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Yesterday Chris Christie raised some eyebrows when he told the Conference on the Americas, “I do think that we need to take another look at NAFTA,” referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. That agreement was a signature achievement of the Clinton administration and the Gingrich Congress. Christie’s rhetoric is empty: there’s no way he, if he somehow became president, would undo a two-decade-old signature free-trade agreement. But in saying he’d even take another look at it, Christie was exposing the divide between rank-and-file Republicans and their elected leaders on the value of free trade.

Republicans are often thought of as reflexively supportive of free trade, in large part because the GOP’s congressional caucus is pro-trade and currently trying to get a deal through Congress that would give President Obama broad authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But is the GOP really the party of free trade?

According to Gallup, 61 percent of Democrats see trade more as an opportunity for economic growth than as a threat to the domestic economy from imports. For Republicans, that number is 51–barely a majority. Independents are at 61 percent with the Democrats.

Is this a function of partisanship, and a sign that Republicans just don’t trust Barack Obama to negotiate a trade agreement that would be good for the economy as much as they might trust a Republican president? To a degree, possibly. But what jumps out about the historical trend since 2001 is the relative stability of the Republican stance on trade. Here’s Gallup’s chart:

freetradegallup

As you can see, Republicans started the George W. Bush administration at 55 percent on the pro-trade side. They’re only down four percent now in Obama’s second term.

Of course there were fluctuations. Discounting election years (I’ll come back to that), Republicans hit a high of 57 during the Bush years and a low of 45 in Obama’s first year. Democrats hit a high of 66 in 2013 and a (non-election year) low of 38 during the Bush years. It would appear that partisanship plays a role here, but Democrats seem far more partisan in their views on trade than Republicans.

The economy is also a likely factor in the waxing and waning of support for free trade. So are election years, and the populist rhetoric that comes with them. In 2008, Democratic support for trade dropped to 36 percent, amid both the economic downturn and their party’s candidate, Barack Obama, threatening to renegotiate NAFTA (see a pattern?). Obama’s staff apparently told concerned Canadians that Obama wasn’t telling the public the truth, but he felt he had to play to the economic anxieties and overall economic ignorance of his party’s base.

Republicans haven’t dropped as low as Democrats did in 2008, but they hit a low in 2012, a presidential election year when their own candidate, Mitt Romney, was threatening trade sanctions against China. That’s when Republicans dropped to their low of 41 percent. Romney’s rhetoric was silly, but quickly forgotten: Republican support for free trade jumped ten points after Obama’s reelection, and hasn’t dropped below 51 since.

The election-year aspect to this, however, raises an important issue. The rhetoric politicians use can drive public opinion on trade, especially among their own party. And yet the consensus among economists has long been in favor of trade. (Where are those “consensus”-loving Democrats when you need them?) “For more than two centuries economists have steadfastly promoted free trade among nations as the best trade policy,” as Alan Blinder notes. “Despite this intellectual barrage, many ‘practical’ men and women continue to view the case for free trade skeptically, as an abstract argument made by ivory tower economists with, at most, one foot on terra firma.”

In a 2011 paper for the Cato Institute, Daniel J. Ikenson and Scott Lincicome made the case that poor public persuasion was partly to blame. They write:

Most Americans enjoy the fruits of international trade and globalization every day: driving to work in vehicles containing at least some foreign content, relying on smart phones assembled abroad from parts made in multiple countries (including the United States), having more to save or spend because retailers pass on cost savings made possible by their access to thousands of foreign producers, designing and selling products that would never have been commercially viable without access to the cost efficiencies afforded by transnational production and supply chains, enjoying fresh imported produce that was once unavailable out of season, depositing bigger paychecks on account of their employers’ growing sales to customers abroad, and enjoying salaries and benefits provided by employers that happen to be foreign-owned companies.

Nevertheless, public opinion polls routinely find tepid support among Americans for free trade.

The presidential campaign trail is a playground for protectionists. This could be something of a chicken-and-egg problem: what came first, the protectionist sentiment among voters to which politicians feel the need to pander, or the protectionist rhetoric that inspired trade skepticism among the public?

Either way, presidential campaign protectionism is often treated with surprise when voiced by Republican candidates. It shouldn’t be: there is no overwhelming consensus in either party in favor of free trade. The Republicans’ congressional free traders are right on the merits and perhaps they can help turn the tide of public opinion toward the economic consensus. But as long as presidential candidates play on the anti-trade instincts of so many voters, that’s unlikely to happen.

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Don’t Call It a Comeback (Because It Isn’t)

The most commonly recalled lesson of the 2008 presidential campaign is the danger in declaring a candidate “inevitable.” But that overshadows the other lesson from that same year, and it has to do not with Hillary Clinton but with John McCain: it can be just as risky to declare a candidacy all but dead in the water. So while Clinton is aiming to avoid a repeat of that year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, mostly written off by political observers (including this one), might just be hoping history at least rhymes this time around on the Republican side.

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The most commonly recalled lesson of the 2008 presidential campaign is the danger in declaring a candidate “inevitable.” But that overshadows the other lesson from that same year, and it has to do not with Hillary Clinton but with John McCain: it can be just as risky to declare a candidacy all but dead in the water. So while Clinton is aiming to avoid a repeat of that year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, mostly written off by political observers (including this one), might just be hoping history at least rhymes this time around on the Republican side.

Hillary was not inevitable, as it turned out, which is why she’s back running again this year. But she seems inevitable again, and this time more so. Are pundits who may be repeating their mistake with Hillary repeating the same mistake by dismissing Chris Christie’s chances to win the GOP nomination?

In a word, no.

The New Jersey governor has launched what is being termed a “comeback” tour, and the plan appears to have both a geographic center and a policy one. As the Washington Post reports:

Chris Christie kicked off a two day swing to New Hampshire with a sober prescription for tackling escalating entitlement spending.

The New Jersey governor and potential Republican presidential candidate proposed raising the retirement age for Social security to 69, means testing for Social Security, and gradually raising the eligibility age for Medicare.

Christie outlined his proposals on entitlement reform at a speech Tuesday morning at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

“In the short term, it is growing the deficit and slowly but surely taking over all of government. In the long term, it will steal our children’s future and bankrupt our nation. Meanwhile, our leaders in Washington are not telling people the truth. Washington is still not dealing with the problem,” Christie said.

“Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country. I am not,” the governor added.

As Hail Marys go, there is logic to this plan. Geographically, it makes sense. The crowded field of social conservatives and candidates with Midwest ties/appeal makes Iowa a stretch for Christie. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is much closer to home for a northeastern Republican, and ideologically probably a better fit than Iowa for someone like Christie.

Additionally, the idea that candidates might waste resources trying to win Iowa at the expense of New Hampshire isn’t crazy at all. In fact, since 1980, for every presidential-election year in which there was no Republican presidential incumbent, Iowa and New Hampshire chose different winners. This streak almost ended in 2012 when it appeared Mitt Romney won Iowa and then went on to win New Hampshire, but once all the votes were counted it turned out Rick Santorum had actually won Iowa. The smart money, then, in New Hampshire is never on the winner of the Iowa caucuses (at least not when it’s an open seat). Christie probably knows this.

However, with such a crowded field, even assuming the Iowa winner doesn’t also win New Hampshire (and he will still likely compete there for votes anyway) Christie will have a steep hill to climb. Jeb Bush is his most significant rival for establishment votes, and Bush will have lots of money to blanket the northeast in ads while Christie’s campaign is just getting out of the gate. Rand Paul will likely be competitive in New Hampshire, with its libertarian streak (his father did reasonably well in New Hampshire). And then there will still be Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and others.

On the policy side, I don’t think I even need to point out the risk involved in making entitlement reform the centerpiece of your agenda. It is bold, and Christie does need to stand out from the pack. He needs conservative votes, not just establishment support, and conservatives might be more amenable to such cuts (in theory at least, and it’ll vary depending on which piece of the safety net we’re talking about).

Christie is very good in person, so the town hall format should help him. He’s also got the “straight-talker” bona fides to at least portray himself as the guy who’s telling you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. But that can go south in a hurry, considering Christie’s temper.

And further, as Harry Enten points out today, “The Politics Of Christie’s ‘Bold’ Social Security Plan Are Atrocious.” Enten writes:

According to a January 2013 Reason-Rupe survey, Republicans are more likely than Democrats, independents and the general public to say that income should not be a determining factor in receiving Social Security benefits. Only 26 percent of Republicans believe that Social Security should go to only those below a certain income level. Seventy percent of Republicans are opposed to such a proposal. …

In a September 2013 Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center poll, 58 percent of Republicans over the age of 50 were opposed to raising the age of eligibility on Social Security. Just 33 percent of Republicans over the age of 50 support such a proposal. According to an April 2013 Fox News survey, Republicans overall are more split. Still, does Christie really want to try to push the idea of raising the retirement age in New Hampshire, where 56 percent of primary voters are over the age of 50? For a moderate Republican like Christie, New Hampshire is a crucial state. His plan doesn’t seem like smart politics.

No, it doesn’t. But Christie can’t really afford to play it safe. Or can he? Is he learning the wrong lesson himself from 2008? McCain’s comeback was not due to bold conservative reform plans. If anything, he was the “safe” candidate in the field: the war hero with clean hands and decades of service. As other, more hyped candidates flamed out early, McCain simply remained standing.

He also benefited from the electoral math, specifically in having others in the race like Mike Huckabee who could siphon votes from Romney without posing a serious threat to McCain.

Then again, considering the strength of the field this year, Christie can’t plausibly expect every other serious candidate to implode. So he’s going for broke. It’s an interesting idea that may be making headlines today but will ultimately be a footnote in the story of 2016.

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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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Are Walker and Rubio the Frontrunners?

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of the 2016 field set out to measure candidates’ support using a slightly different metric and got a very interesting result. If the numbers are right, the poll would go a long way toward answering several important questions about the GOP, conservative primary voters, and the double-edged sword of high name recognition.

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The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of the 2016 field set out to measure candidates’ support using a slightly different metric and got a very interesting result. If the numbers are right, the poll would go a long way toward answering several important questions about the GOP, conservative primary voters, and the double-edged sword of high name recognition.

The poll asked respondents of both parties whether they could see themselves supporting each candidate for the nomination. It would, theoretically, test how close each prospective candidate already is to their own support ceiling. The numbers could change, of course. It’s easy to imagine a misstep or a policy pronouncement causing some voters to write off a particular candidate. It’s less likely early on, but certainly possible along the way, that voters who have already written off a candidate could change their minds. (If their preferred candidate is gone, they’ll need a second or a third choice.)

But as a snapshot of where the GOP is right now (the expected coronation of Hillary Clinton makes the Democratic side of this poll pretty boring for the time being), the poll has very good news for some and very bad news for others. The bad news is for Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. First, Jeb:

Mr. Bush, an early favorite for the Republican nomination among GOP donors, faces more resistance within his party. Some 49% of people who plan to vote in GOP primaries said they could see themselves supporting Mr. Bush and 42% said they couldn’t, the survey found. Poll participants view him more negatively than positively, with 34% seeing him in an unfavorable light and 23% viewing him favorably.

Being underwater on the favorability ratings is bad but not fatal for a candidacy. The truth is, if this election is anything like its predecessors in 2012 and 2008, everybody’s negatives are going up. No one’s running ads against each other yet, and they’re rarely taking clear shots at each other either. The early caucuses and primaries plus the debates will fix that.

But the 42 percent of GOP primary voters who say they won’t consider voting for Jeb Bush is a high number to start from, especially since he has high name recognition to go with it. Jeb might find it tougher to change minds than less well-known candidates.

The poll is truly terrible, however, for Chris Christie:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would start the race in a deep hole, the new survey found, with 57% of likely GOP primary voters saying they couldn’t see themselves supporting his candidacy, compared with the 32% who said they could. Only Donald Trump, the businessman and reality television star, fared worse, with three out of four primary voters doubtful they could support him.

As elated as we all should be by Trump’s disastrous polling, no other candidate should ever want his name followed by “only Donald Trump…” Having a majority of the Republican primary electorate say they can’t envision voting for him is a nightmare number for Christie. To overcome that, he’d have to hang around long enough to consolidate establishment support to even have a chance. But he can’t win the establishment primary either, thanks to Jeb Bush’s presence in the race as well as a couple of conservative candidates who could appeal to establishment backers as well.

It raises the question: Does Christie see the writing on the wall? At some point, there is just not going to be a visible path, let alone a realistic path, to the nomination for the New Jersey governor. Even mapping out a longshot strategy becomes a riddle when the numbers and the fundamentals of the race look like this.

What’s just as interesting, however, is which candidates have flipped those numbers. Marco Rubio and Scott Walker are at the top of the list:

The two Republicans who begin the race on the strongest footing in the poll are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. More than half of GOP primary voters said they were open to supporting Messrs. Rubio or Walker, compared with 49% who said so of Mr. Bush.

Resistance within the party to Messrs. Rubio and Walker is far lower than for Mr. Bush: Some 26% said they couldn’t see themselves supporting Mr. Rubio, and 17% said so of the Wisconsin governor.

The Journal does note that Walker does not have high name recognition, so his numbers might be open to more fluctuation. But the fact of the matter is Walker and Rubio have incredibly high support ceilings for such a wide-open race.

And it’s easy to see why. Walker and Rubio are likely to be quite palatable to establishment voters and donors even while they appeal to the grassroots. Both Walker and Rubio could put together a broad coalition of Republican voters. Both represent states the GOP would like to win in the general, with Rubio representing the all-important Florida. Both are young, and both are reform-minded conservatives.

And both will have their profiles elevated by tussles with the Obama White House, Walker on right-to-work laws and Rubio on foreign policy. It’s that last part that rivals should fear. The president and vice president have both tried to pick fights with Walker this week over union reforms, and Rubio’s opposition to the Cuba deal specifically and foreign policy (he’s on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) more generally is just getting started.

They’ll be in the spotlight, drawing fire from the White House. It’s a great way to build name recognition and conservative support at the same time, and it’s an avenue few other candidates will have so open to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the 2016 Primaries Will Be a Wild Ride for the GOP

Normally, the Republican Party picks its nominee the way the British pick their monarch. The candidate “next in line” gets to run in the general election, no questions asked. Meanwhile, the Democrats are known for rollicking, unpredictable contests that stretch the full length of the primary calendar. But 2016 will probably see a reversal of the trend. The Republican field will be the raucous one, while Hillary Clinton looks to consolidate the Democratic nomination earlier than any non-incumbent in generations.

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Normally, the Republican Party picks its nominee the way the British pick their monarch. The candidate “next in line” gets to run in the general election, no questions asked. Meanwhile, the Democrats are known for rollicking, unpredictable contests that stretch the full length of the primary calendar. But 2016 will probably see a reversal of the trend. The Republican field will be the raucous one, while Hillary Clinton looks to consolidate the Democratic nomination earlier than any non-incumbent in generations.

Why the reversal? To start, the Democrats are not dealing from a position of strength. The fact is that their midterm defeats of 2010 and 2014–not just in the Senate, but state governorships as well–have decimated the party’s bench. There are precious few credible presidential candidates who could run, besides Hillary Clinton. If Joe Biden were not so gaffe-prone, he might be able to challenge her, and he might still. But beyond that their bench is weak. So, it is not so much that Clinton’s stature is much improved compared to 2008, when she faced a broad, formidable field for the nomination; it is, rather, that the quality of her would-be competitors has dropped markedly.

Meanwhile, the Republican triumphs in the Senate and governorships have created a wealth of would-be candidates. Ironically, Obama has been very good for the Republican Party. There are a plethora of prospective candidates–Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Rick Snyder, and Scott Walker–who became a senator or governor during the Obama era, in part by running against him. Further, an unpopular Obama helped Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal cruise to their reelections, in 2010 and 2011, respectively. And the same considerations even apply to Ben Carson. Would he be running strongly in Iowa right now if he had not publicly criticized ObamaCare in front of the president?

Still, there is more to the story. Usually, we think of the Democratic Party as a motley assortment of various, often contradictory interest groups, more or less evenly matched. This is why Jimmy Carter could come from nowhere to win in 1976, why Gary Hart could almost take the nomination from Walter Mondale in 1984, why Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton could win their contests even though a majority of Democrats voted for somebody else, and ultimately why Barack Obama basically tied Hillary Clinton in 2008. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is strikingly uniform–more or less the married, white middle class–and this homogeny has facilitated its coronation process. There are just fewer disagreements among Republicans, so they come together on a nominee in an orderly fashion.

This conception of the GOP is not quite right. As I argue in my new book A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, the Republican Party has long been factional as well, just less so than the Democrats. In the late 19th century, for instance, it was an alliance between the middle class, Yankees of New England, industrialists and financiers, Midwestern factory workers, and Western farmers. More often than not, these groups saw eye to eye, but issues like tariffs, the gold standard, and civil-service reform could split them into factions. These divisions were nothing compared to 19th century Democrats–who somehow combined the Southern plantation gentry with the ethnic vote in the big Northern cities–but they were still there, and still mattered under the right circumstances.

Today, the same remains true. Republicans are still factional, even if they are more united than the Democrats. There is the “establishment,” which resides mostly in Democratic-controlled areas like New York City and Washington D.C., but provides the campaign contributions, experts, and consultants necessary to run campaigns; there are cultural conservatives, particularly strong in Midwest caucus states like Iowa; there are small-government reformers, who turn out to vote in New Hampshire primaries; there are pro-growth Sun Belters in states like Florida and Texas; there are pro-military Republicans, for instance in South Carolina; and there are libertarian-style Republicans, strong in Western caucus states. And so on. These groups are all closer to one another than any are to the Democrats, but there are disagreements among them. In the Obama era, there has been tension within the GOP on how quickly and aggressively the party should challenge the president, as well as what to do about immigration reform.

In fact, the Obama administration–while unifying Republicans in shared opposition to the Democratic party–has created some pretty heated disagreements within it about what to do next. We see this in Congress now, as it struggles to formulate and implement an agenda to counter Obama’s. And we probably are going to see it in the primary battle next year, as a major bone of contention will not be whether the country should depart from the Obama policies, but how dramatically it should do so.

And ironically, the strength of the prospective field is probably exacerbating the internal cleavages as well. Right now, each of those factions can point to a credible candidate who agrees predominantly with its perspective. Sometimes, there may be more than one. The establishment figures like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. The cultural conservatives adore Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Scott Walker is the first choice among reformers. Libertarians like Rand Paul. The field is so strong that no faction within the party is forced to say, “OK–my ideal candidate isn’t running. So, who is my compromise choice?”

Will this be a bad thing for the GOP? Possibly. Sean Trende has highlighted the possibility of no clear nominee being found prior to the convention, but that is unprecedented in the modern era. It could still happen, but nobody in the party has an interest in such disunion right before the general election. The most likely outcome is that somebody will emerge to unite a critical mass of the various forces, and become a consensus choice–maybe that candidate will not win a majority of the primary vote, but he or she will have won more than anybody else and be acceptable to all the major factions. And, just like in the free market, political competition can spark innovation and generate upside surprises. The battle will not only improve the ultimate nominee’s campaign skills, but maybe point the way to a better line of attack against Clinton in the general election. If Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” works for capitalism, it can work for Republican politics, too.

So, for now, the more, the merrier!

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When Republicans Engage in Speculation from the Fever Swamps

In a March 2013 COMMENTARY essay Michael Gerson and I authored, we wrote this:

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In a March 2013 COMMENTARY essay Michael Gerson and I authored, we wrote this:

Republicans need to harness their policy views to the findings of science. This has been effectively done on the pro-life issue, with sonograms that reveal the humanity of a developing child. But the cause of scientific literacy was not aided during the recent [2012] primary season, when Michele Bachmann warned that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being “forced to have a government injection” to prevent the spread of the human papilloma virus, adding that some vaccines may cause “mental retardation.” Bachmann managed to combine ignorance about public health, indifference to cervical cancer, anti-government paranoia, and discredited conspiracy theories about vaccines into one censorious package.

It looks like Chris Christie and, especially, Rand Paul are picking up where Ms. Bachmann left off. In an interview, Doctor Paul said, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” The ophthalmologist, after stinging criticisms of his statements, made an effort to backtrack from them. “I did not say vaccines caused disorders,” Paul insisted, “just that they were temporally related. I did not allege causation.” Of course you didn’t. Just sayin’.

It might be easier to give the Kentucky Republican and libertarian more of the benefit of the doubt if he had not previously argued that mandatory vaccines were a first step toward “martial law.” One day it’s vaccines for measles; the next day it’s Tiananmen Square.

The claim that there’s a link between “profound mental disorders”–Senator Paul clearly has in mind autism–and vaccinations has long ago been shattered. (The link was asserted in a 1998 article in The Lancet by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield; it has since been completely discredited. This excellent Wall Street Journal editorial is worth reading in this context.)

This kind of fever swamp speculation will hurt Senator Paul’s reputation, which is fine by me. It’s no secret I’m not a particular fan of his. But let me tell you what does concern me about this kind of talk from Paul, as well as from Governor Christie, who earlier this week echoed sentiments he expressed in a 2009 letter he sent to potential voters in which he said he had “met with families affected by autism,” many of whom had “expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.” This has the effect of making the GOP look like the party of the benighted.

When probable Republican presidential candidates give voice to conspiracy theories–when they speak in ways that strike most people as bizarre and disturbing–it damages their party. In saying this, I understand that vaccinations won’t be a key issue in 2016. And a week from now, unless other Republicans make the same mistake (and to their credit it looks like most will not), the issue will die down.

But these kind of stumbles do considerably more harm, I think, than many people realize. They can break through in a way that, say, a substantive policy speech (or a dozen) does not; and in doing so they can feed a negative, even toxic, impression about a party and a political movement. Voters who don’t follow politics all that closely, when they hear stuff like this, come away thinking, “This must be the home of cranks and kooks.” Thanks to Rand Paul in particular, that charge is harder to refute than it was.

So let me conclude with a modest suggestion: Prominent Republicans–especially those who are interested in winning the GOP’s presidential nomination–should, for reasons having to do with epistemology and politics, conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates that Republicans are at peace with, not at war with, science and medicine.

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A Vaccine for Gaffes? Chris Christie Needs It

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential hopes got a boost on Friday when Mitt Romney dropped out of the 2016 race leaving some room for establishment donors to choose someone other than Jeb Bush to support. But his greatest weakness was never really the fact that there is stiff competition for the backing of business, Wall Street, and party leaders around the country. Nor is Bridgegate the only burden that he must carry around with him in his quest for the White House. His problem is the same propensity for blunt and unpredictable remarks that made him a YouTube star vaulting him to national attention. We are reminded of that today as the backlash over remarks he made about vaccination during a visit to Britain have created exactly the wrong kind of attention for a person running for president.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential hopes got a boost on Friday when Mitt Romney dropped out of the 2016 race leaving some room for establishment donors to choose someone other than Jeb Bush to support. But his greatest weakness was never really the fact that there is stiff competition for the backing of business, Wall Street, and party leaders around the country. Nor is Bridgegate the only burden that he must carry around with him in his quest for the White House. His problem is the same propensity for blunt and unpredictable remarks that made him a YouTube star vaulting him to national attention. We are reminded of that today as the backlash over remarks he made about vaccination during a visit to Britain have created exactly the wrong kind of attention for a person running for president.

In Britain for a trade mission, Christie was asked about the problem created by a growing minority of American parents who are refusing to vaccinate their children due to a combination of misinformation about side effects and bizarre theories about health. Here’s what he said:

Mr. Christie, when asked about the connection between the new measles cases and parents who object to the long-recommended vaccine against it, said that he and his wife had vaccinated their four children. He called that “the best expression I can give you of my opinion.”

But he added: “It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well. So that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”

Mr. Christie said that “not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”

On its face, that sounds like he is neutral about parents exercising their “choice” to refuse vaccinations and “balance” in the response of the government to this trend.

Given the menace to public health that the anti-vaccination effort has caused, that brought down the opprobrium of many concerned citizens as well as a host of political kibitzers, including gloating Democrats, on Christie’s head.

In response, Christie “clarified” his remarks on Sunday night:

“The Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated,” Christie’s office said in a statement. “At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate.”

That’s a big improvement on his original off-the-cuff remark but, to be as blunt as the governor usually is, the damage is already done.

It doesn’t matter that Christie may have meant something very different from what it seemed like he was saying when he was talking about “choice” and “balance.” Perhaps he was thinking of vaccines for rare diseases that might not be worth the effort to get everyone to take them. But whatever it is that he meant, there is no doubt that he demonstrated that while his loose lips helped build his reputation as a political truth-teller, they could also sink him.

As to the substance of the matter, put me down as one of those who think that the only sensible response of any leader to questions about vaccines should be an adamant call for all citizens to take advantage of them. To talk of choice or to indulge our libertarian instincts on the issue of vaccination is a huge error in judgment. As a popular Internet meme puts it, “if my kid can’t take a peanut butter sandwich to school, our kid shouldn’t be able to bring an easily preventable disease.”

Of course, we won’t elect a president based on his or her ability to have a consistent and smart record on vaccination. This is a one-day story about a gaffe, not a political disaster.

But it is one more piece of evidence for Republicans to take account of when weighing whether Christie is presidential material. He may keep telling us that a tough-talking blue state governor is exactly what the GOP and the country needs. But what he is also doing is reminding us that this is a man who often speaks candidly and at length when he should stick to talking points or say nothing. It’s bad enough to be the guy who tells people to “sit down and shut up” when challenged on the stump. But it’s far worse to be the guy who says something dumb or easily misinterpreted. If Christie doesn’t believe me, he can ask Mitt “47 percent” Romney if a tendency to make gaffes can be an obstacle to the White House.

This foolish kerfuffle probably won’t stop Christie from running for president since he is clearly burning to do so. But it will, along with every other verbal mistake he has already made and those that have yet to leave his mouth, be held against him by GOP donors, activists, and voters. If there was a vaccine for gaffes, Christie should obtain it. But it may already be too late.

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Good News for Jeb; Mitt Wants to But Won’t

After surprising many political observers by spending the last month acting as if he was a candidate for president in 2016, Mitt Romney surprised us again today by announcing that he won’t run. Coming as it did after weeks of negative reviews about his proposed candidacy from top Republican donors and pundits, it’s not a total shock. That’s especially true coming as it did the day after we learned that David Kochell, a key supporter who had run Romney’s Iowa campaign in 2012, had defected to the Jeb Bush camp. Romney’s exit is a boost for Bush as well as making a Chris Christie run more likely. But even without Romney, the GOP race is still wide open.

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After surprising many political observers by spending the last month acting as if he was a candidate for president in 2016, Mitt Romney surprised us again today by announcing that he won’t run. Coming as it did after weeks of negative reviews about his proposed candidacy from top Republican donors and pundits, it’s not a total shock. That’s especially true coming as it did the day after we learned that David Kochell, a key supporter who had run Romney’s Iowa campaign in 2012, had defected to the Jeb Bush camp. Romney’s exit is a boost for Bush as well as making a Chris Christie run more likely. But even without Romney, the GOP race is still wide open.

Though Romney’s message stated that he wasn’t going to run, it contained enough caveats to make it clear that he would have preferred to stay in and thought he was the best possible nominee. He’s right that his chances should not have been mocked. Even if he didn’t ultimately win, can anyone doubt that he would have raised enough money to run a plausible campaign or that he would have been the frontrunner in New Hampshire? Nevertheless, Romney made the right decision. By sparing himself a humiliating defeat next year, he preserves his standing as a party elder statesman even if he’d prefer to still be its leader. But his regrets notwithstanding, his absence from the field gives a clear advantage to Bush in the competition for establishment donors looking to keep the nomination from falling into the hands of a more conservative candidate.

But as I wrote last week, Bush’s status as the nominal front-runner is not discouraging a plethora of Republicans from jumping into the race even if many of them, such as Carly Fiorina and Senator Lindsey Graham, haven’t a prayer of actually winning. In particular, it will make it easier for Christie to make his case as the alternative to a third Bush presidency for mainstream Republicans even if the odds remain stacked against him winning.

Even without Romney, the crowded field makes for an unpredictable race. Unlike in 2012, when Romney easily defeated a group of obviously implausible presidential contenders, the 2016 crop of GOP candidates is filled with serious and potentially formidable candidates. Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz will provide formidable competition for Bush and Christie while less likely candidates will also be heard from.

The Romney decision, just like Jeb Bush’s announcement about exploring a campaign last month, shows that the 2016 race is already in full swing. Those thinking about the presidency can’t hesitate too much longer. By the spring and certainly the summer, it will already be too late for anyone to make a competitive run. The two-year marathon for the White House has begun in earnest.

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Romney’s Entry Doesn’t Diminish Christie’s Chances. They Were Always Lousy.

The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s apparent entry into the 2016 presidential race is that it will have a negative impact on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s hopes. With Romney and Jeb Bush both competing for establishment support and donors, most observers have been saying that there is simply no room for Christie to carve out enough space for a viable candidacy. But according to reports emanating from Trenton, Christie and his advisors are untroubled by Romney’s entry and supremely confident that the governor can raise all the money he needs and has plenty of time to get into the race later in the year without having to rush. On the surface it sounds convincing, but if Christie thinks he’s fooling anyone by affecting to be unconcerned, he’s wrong. Even if Romney flops, Christie already had more problems and baggage than any of the other 2016 contenders. The notion that most Republicans are prepared to swoon over his delayed entry is more a manifestation of his impressive self-regard than a competent analysis of the situation.

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The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s apparent entry into the 2016 presidential race is that it will have a negative impact on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s hopes. With Romney and Jeb Bush both competing for establishment support and donors, most observers have been saying that there is simply no room for Christie to carve out enough space for a viable candidacy. But according to reports emanating from Trenton, Christie and his advisors are untroubled by Romney’s entry and supremely confident that the governor can raise all the money he needs and has plenty of time to get into the race later in the year without having to rush. On the surface it sounds convincing, but if Christie thinks he’s fooling anyone by affecting to be unconcerned, he’s wrong. Even if Romney flops, Christie already had more problems and baggage than any of the other 2016 contenders. The notion that most Republicans are prepared to swoon over his delayed entry is more a manifestation of his impressive self-regard than a competent analysis of the situation.

Christie is right that Romney’s hurried and seemingly ill-conceived re-entry into presidential politics has not exactly gone as the 2012 nominee might have liked. Romney’s attempt to position himself as being both to the right of Jeb Bush on some issues and as the anti-poverty candidate seems like a poorly thought out mix of scenarios. Though he starts with a great many assets in terms of recognition and personal sympathy, Romney may have miscalculated. While most Republicans are quick to agree that he was proven right on a great many issues and that Romney should have won in 2012, they also know that the reason he didn’t had as much to do with their candidate’s shortcomings as it did with President Obama’s advantages. The idea of trying his luck again, this time against Hillary Clinton, is not something that is setting the GOP base afire.

It’s also true that Bush and Romney will not suck every GOP donor dry. Many are deciding to wait and see how the race develops and whether other serious candidates like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker will jump in.

But the basic fallacy underlying the optimism in the Christie camp has less to do with the potential impact of Romney’s entry than with the lack of any clear constituency for the New Jersey governor either within the Republican base or its mainstream wing.

Assuming that Christie is still planning on running—and there is no reason to doubt that he will—he starts out as the candidate perceived to be the least conservative in the field. Most conservatives have never forgiven him for his self-promoting keynote speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention during which he forgot to promote the party’s presidential candidate or for his much-publicized hug of President Obama in the week before the election in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And while most Republicans take a dim view of the mainstream media hype machine that treated a traffic jam as somehow worse than real government misdoing like the IRS scandal, Bridgegate hurt his standing with many people who not unreasonably saw it as a reflection of his arrogant style of governance. The jury is also out on whether the angry and confrontational style of governance that works in New Jersey will play as well in states like New Hampshire or Iowa. There is no precedent for a candidate whose motto seems to be, “sit down and shut up,” winning a nomination in the age of television and the Internet.

Christie can rightly boast that he was a big success as head of the Republican Governors Association and that his efforts did lead to a string of unexpected victories across the nation for GOP gubernatorial candidates. But the assumption that everyone he helped in 2014 will back him in 2016 is more wish than analysis. If, as the New York Times quotes one of his supporters speaking of the GOP class of 2014, “his approach is ‘I elected you,’” he will soon find out that no matter how much money he raised for these people, they think their victories were principally the function of their own merit and the public’s dim view of President Obama and the Democrats. Cashing in IOUs from incumbent politicians, who can renege if they choose with impunity, is easier said than done. Moreover, other governors who don’t labor under the burden of Christie’s faux scandal or his anger management issues may have stronger claim on the title of pragmatic problem solver that he seemed to own during his triumphant reelection campaign in 2013.

The point is, the scenario for a Christie victory in the 2016 primaries was always premised on the same presumptions as those underlying the hopes of Bush and Romney: being the dominant establishment candidate while a host of right-wingers split the conservative vote. With two or three people already competing in the hidden establishment primary, as our John Podhoretz wrote today in the New York Post, the crowd in the center benefits the likes of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and perhaps Walker and hurts Bush, Romney, and Christie. As unpopular as Bush and Romney are with the base, Christie is even less liked outside of the ranks of the GOP establishment and its donors. His chances of winning were not great even before Bridgegate turned him into a national joke and permanently damaged his hitherto strong political brand (even if the scrutiny and the blame for that political prank were always unfair). No matter how poorly received Romney’s decision has been, his entry makes a successful Christie campaign for the presidency even less likely. What it doesn’t change is the fact that the odds of Christie actually winning the nomination in a party that he is out of step with were always lousy.

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Jeb Bush Pivots to the General Election

Convention wisdom has it that the next Republican presidential nominee will have to appeal to the base in the primaries and then pivot back to the center in the general election. Jeb Bush, who is not getting along all that well with the base at the moment, is challenging that assumption. He’s already pivoting to the general election, before anyone on either side of the aisle has even officially declared their presidential candidacy.

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Convention wisdom has it that the next Republican presidential nominee will have to appeal to the base in the primaries and then pivot back to the center in the general election. Jeb Bush, who is not getting along all that well with the base at the moment, is challenging that assumption. He’s already pivoting to the general election, before anyone on either side of the aisle has even officially declared their presidential candidacy.

In reality, there wasn’t much of a way to avoid having both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush involved in the election this early. For Clinton, her desire to be president coupled with the fact that she left office after Obama’s first term as secretary of state meant that she would be treated as a candidate unless she expressly and convincingly declined to run. For Jeb, there are several reasons to jump in now. Not only does he crowd out the field for the “establishment primary,” as Jonathan has written. He is also making a smart strategic choice to pretend he’s already won the nomination.

For a candidate branded as the establishment choice and who will have specific issues on which the base will register their disapproval (in Jeb’s case immigration, Common Core) there are usually two ways to try to win conservatives over. One way is claim that you represent the true conservative position. In other words, reject the premise that you have ever deviated from conservatism at all. The other way is to do what Mitt Romney did, and insist that whatever your past ideological infractions, you now possess a convert’s zeal. Romney’s attempt to do this was a disaster; he simply declared he was “severely conservative.” (I’m reminded here of Jonah Goldberg’s description of Romney: “He speaks conservatism as a second language, and his mastery of the basic grammar of politics is often spotty as well.”)

Jeb wants nothing to do with either play. Maybe he’ll win some points for refusing to pander, though he’s just as likely to lose those points for presumption and entitlement. He doesn’t want to debate labels and categories; he wants to talk policy. And, in the manner of a frontrunner expecting to maintain his lead, he wants to talk about his theoretical general-election opponent:

Jeb Bush is wasting no time taking on Hillary Clinton, even though neither party’s potential 2016 standard-bearer has officially committed to a presidential bid.

Speaking at a closed-press fundraiser in Connecticut on Wednesday night, Bush suggested to potential donors that the former secretary of state would have to explain President Barack Obama’s foreign policy mistakes, Hearst Connecticut Media reported Thursday.

The outlet, anonymously citing attendees who heard Bush’s remarks, reported that the former Florida governor took another not-so-subtle jab at Clinton.

“He said, ‘If someone wants to run a campaign about ’90s nostalgia, it’s not going to be very successful,’” Hearst Connecticut Media reported, citing another person present at the event.

Jeb’s seeking to neutralize two of Hillary’s advantages: her husband’s success, on which she’s built her own career, and her resume, which includes being secretary of state. To the former, Bush reminds her that Bill Clinton’s time in office was a long time ago, especially in political terms. It does not help Hillary to remind voters of her age or her distaste for the modern moment.

And to the latter, Hillary was a poor secretary of state. As has been noted repeatedly, she has no accomplishment to point to. But more than that, the job of leading the Department of State is a managerial position, an executive responsibility. To have an ambassador killed on her watch while State was ignoring threats to his safety and his own mission’s requests for security is terrible management. Her excuse seems to be that she didn’t see all the information–in other words, that she was a disengaged executive who was too busy taking selfies with movie stars to tend to the details.

As for Jeb’s overall strategy, it is far from foolproof. Rudy Giuliani employed a similar strategy in 2007-08. He also had earned disapproval from the base and wanted to pitch his candidacy as the way for the right to unite and defeat Hillary. But the right didn’t play along. Conservatives wanted to hash out the issues long before turning to the general election. In the end, Hillary wasn’t even the nominee.

That is less likely this time around. And Jeb Bush’s deviations can be overcome. (Giuliani was a pro-choice Republican, an obstacle more daunting in a Republican primary than a national education policy.) Ultimately, the base will play an important role in choosing the nominee. So Jeb’s hopes may rest on the number of candidates and the base’s grassroots disorganization to splinter conservative opposition to him. And jumping in this early puts his main rival–Chris Christie–at a deep disadvantage.

Jeb has thus far played his cards right. The frontrunner label is his to lose, but there’s plenty of time for him to do so.

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Jeb Is Christie’s Problem, Not the Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Christie Find His Foreign Policy Voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winning Establishment Primary Guarantees Jeb Nothing in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Romney the GOP’s Best Option for 2016?

The rumors about Mitt Romney considering running for president again have been circulating for months. But a story published by Politico last night makes the discussion seem less of a fantasy on the part of the 2012 Republican nominee’s biggest fans. According to close associates of the former Massachusetts governor quoted in the story by Ben White and Maggie Haberman, Romney is no longer as adamantly opposed to running as he had been in the first year after his traumatic defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Supposedly, Romney has looked over the field of 2016 GOP hopefuls and isn’t, for some understandable reasons, that impressed. But though buyer’s remorse makes Romney look pretty good now even to those Republicans who didn’t like him, it remains to be seen whether he’s any more electable than he was the last time out.

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The rumors about Mitt Romney considering running for president again have been circulating for months. But a story published by Politico last night makes the discussion seem less of a fantasy on the part of the 2012 Republican nominee’s biggest fans. According to close associates of the former Massachusetts governor quoted in the story by Ben White and Maggie Haberman, Romney is no longer as adamantly opposed to running as he had been in the first year after his traumatic defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Supposedly, Romney has looked over the field of 2016 GOP hopefuls and isn’t, for some understandable reasons, that impressed. But though buyer’s remorse makes Romney look pretty good now even to those Republicans who didn’t like him, it remains to be seen whether he’s any more electable than he was the last time out.

To anyone who watched the documentary Mitt on Netflix, the notion that Romney would ever run again for president has always seemed far-fetched. Romney and his close-knit family poured their hearts and souls into two runs for the presidency and when he was beaten in 2012, it seemed unthinkable they would put themselves through that kind of torment again. It was also thought unnecessary since the Republicans have a deep bench of potential candidates who deserved their shot at the big prize more than someone who had already tried and failed.

But as Politico pointed out, Romney is looking at the 2016 field not so much from a global perspective about the party as much as he’s wondering who will fit into the niche he filled in the 2012 primaries: the centrist who can rally the party’s establishment and moderate voters to beat down a challenge from right-wingers who can’t win a general election. From that frame of reference, the question seems to be whether Romney is satisfied that either Jeb Bush or Chris Christie is up to the task and, not without cause, he’s not sure about either.

According to Politico, Romney thinks Bush would be taken apart because of his business dealings in the same way he was bashed for his record at Bain Capital. Bush associates say their man isn’t vulnerable and wouldn’t be as shy about pushing back on the charges as Romney was in 2012. But whether or not Bush runs as the proud capitalist that Romney couldn’t or wouldn’t be, there are other reasons to be skeptical about the son and brother of past presidents.

The conservative base distrusted Romney throughout 2011 and 2012, but the candidate never stopped trying to win them over. While Romney was vulnerable on ObamaCare because of the similar Massachusetts law he passed, he actually tacked hard to the right on the one issue that is driving right-wingers crazy this year: immigration. By contrast, Bush, though possessing a strong conservative record, has been making noises about being willing to run against the base rather than to persuade it to back him. Romney knows that isn’t a formula that is likely to get Bush the nomination no matter how many big donors he has on his side.

The other obvious moderate choice is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor has never completely recovered from Bridgegate but the party’s success in the midterms—especially the elections of GOP governors in part due to his work as head of the Republican Governors Association—put a bit of the shine back on his reputation. But Romney has probably taken a hard look at Christie and concluded, as some other Republicans have done, that his “sit down and shut up” style isn’t likely to stand up under the pressure of a presidential campaign.

If so, it is hardly out of the question that Romney might be thinking it is up to him to be the standard-bearer for moderate Republicans in the next cycle.

In his favor is not only the fact that he has done it before as well as that he would have no trouble raising all the money needed for another presidential run. There is also the buyer’s remorse factor about 2012 that has caused many people who didn’t vote for Romney to acknowledge that they made a mistake. Many of the things that he was widely mocked for advocating—such as concern about Russia—proved prescient.

Just as important in terms of winning the nomination is the fact that conservatives are by no means as hostile to him as they were during the primaries. Romney’s valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful battle against Obama causes many on the right to view him as something of a martyr to the effort to unseat the president.

But before the GOP goes into a collective swoon about the possibility of a third Romney attempt at the presidency, a few other facts also need to be discussed.

The first is that although Romney is bound to have learned from his experiences, his performance as a candidate was less than inspiring. Romney is a good man but he has always lacked the natural political instincts needed for such a formidable task. His gaffes combined with his unwillingness to talk more about who he is as a man or to defend his business career were all fatal mistakes.

Second, the debate between the Jeb Bush and Romney camps about which one would be more vulnerable to attacks on their investment businesses misses the point. Republicans need to be sensitive to the fact that it doesn’t help the cause of the party promoting economic freedom to be represented by plutocrats. The future of the party isn’t on Wall Street but in attracting enough middle- and working-class voters who don’t like the Democrats and their big-government approach to the economy and health care and support the rule of law on issues like immigration. Only such an appeal will offset the Democrats’ growing advantage with minority voters.

Third, the factors that undermined Romney in 2012, including the disaffection of the party’s base to his candidacy, haven’t disappeared. Once he starts running again, the sympathy generated by his loss will dissipate on the right and conservatives will demand to know why running the same guy who lost in 2012 would work any better in 2016.

Contrary to the analysis of the big donors who are longing for another Romney run, there are other possibilities for victory other than him, Bush, or Christie. Rather than dismissing the rest of field as insignificant, the cast of promising Republican governors such as Scott Walker, who could energize Tea Partiers and the establishment and business communities, needs to be given their chance to plot a new GOP approach without any of the baggage that Romney carries around with him.

Just as important as that, Romney’s assumption that he could bulldoze conservative challengers again the way he did in 2012 is also probably mistaken. Ted Cruz won’t be as easily beaten as Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. And Rand Paul can’t be ignored the way Romney did his extremist father Ron when he was running for the nomination.

Romney’s intelligence and decency make him a more plausible president than most other potential Republican candidates. Having run twice, the presidential bug is still inside him and probably always will be. If he does run, he’ll be tough to beat. But he’s far from the shoo-in his friends think he is. Nor is it certain that he would do better in the general election than his respectable loss in 2012.

Those assuming that Romney is the answer to all of the Republicans’ problems are mistaken. So too is any assumption on his part that America is waiting to make amends for its mistake in not electing him president in 2012.

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Early 2016 GOP Coronation Not in the Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Big Labor’s Big Bluff

For interest groups seeking to be courted by political campaigns, there are two avenues to attract the necessary attention from the candidates. The first is to be valuable enough, and more valuable than their competitors, in the service of getting a politician elected. The second is to be convincingly courted by both sides, or to be courting both sides themselves.

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For interest groups seeking to be courted by political campaigns, there are two avenues to attract the necessary attention from the candidates. The first is to be valuable enough, and more valuable than their competitors, in the service of getting a politician elected. The second is to be convincingly courted by both sides, or to be courting both sides themselves.

Plenty of interest groups hedge their bets and court both sides: business, finance, gun-rights groups, etc. But what happens to an interest group that no one believes is on the fence, and which is also highly unlikely to sit out an election? Such is the fate of the unions, if a Politico story on the unofficial campaign of the unofficial Democratic Party frontrunner is right. The subheadline claims that “Union leaders vow they won’t be taken for granted in 2016.”

In fact, they will. Politico reports:

Frustrated by President Barack Obama and wary of Hillary Clinton’s perceived closeness to Wall Street, several leading figures in organized labor are resisting falling in line early behind the former secretary of state as the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee.

Top officials at AFL-CIO are pressing its affiliates to hold off on an endorsement and make the eventual nominee earn their support and spell out a clear agenda. The strategy is designed to maximize labor’s strength after years of waning clout and ensure a focus on strengthening the middle class, but it could provide an opening for a candidate running to Clinton’s left to make a play for union support.

“We do have a process in place, which says before anybody endorses, we’ll talk to the candidates,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview. That could postpone an endorsement until the second half of 2015, he said.

“The big question we want to know is, ‘What’s the agenda?’” added Trumka. “We don’t want to hear that people have a message about correcting the economy — we want to know that they have an agenda for correcting the economy. If we get the same economic [plan] no matter who the president is, you get the same results.”

Let me explain to Trumka how this will play out. His organization will endorse Hillary for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the AFL-CIO will pull out all the stops to help get her elected in the general. Trumka can stomp his feet all he wants, but the only extra attention he’ll get is from his downstairs neighbor.

The unions are not going anywhere, and here’s why. They have become a liberal interest group, and nobody believes they’ll even cast a glance across the aisle. In the primaries, it will make no sense to back a challenger to Hillary because they almost surely won’t win, and the Clintons are infamously petty and vindictive. Death, taxes, and Clintonian grudges are the three sure things in this world. They will retaliate. If Trumka thinks he’s getting a cold reception now, just wait until he tests the Clintons’ patience and their memories.

And no one believes for a moment Trumka’s up for grabs in the general. He could argue, however, that the unions are about more than just money and endorsements. They are a key get-out-the-vote ally, and they can magnify turnout, which has been the key for Democrats in general elections. Trumka can, theoretically, threaten to hold back these efforts, since the midterm election disasters of recent years have shown the Democrats just how important presidential-year turnout is for them.

This won’t happen either. Two of the GOP contenders who would be strongest in a general election are candidates for whom the unions have developed a deranged level of hatred: Scott Walker and Chris Christie. One of the most important unions in Trumka’s organization is currently the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Think they would sit this one out?

And Christie and Walker aren’t the only high-profile candidates with anti-public-union credibility. Bobby Jindal sure looks to be running for president this time around. And those three–Christie, Walker, and Jindal–represent the anti-public-union zeitgeist of the modern Republican Party. One is from New Jersey, one Wisconsin, the other Louisiana. Reining in public unions is not a regional fixation and it is not a fringe position in the GOP. If someone besides those three is to get the Republican nomination, in all likelihood they will press to demonstrate their bona fides on this issue along the way as well.

Trumka will view the upcoming presidential election–especially if Walker is the nominee–as nothing less than a battle for the unions’ very survival. He will say so, and he will use intemperate language in the process. He will emit a blinding rage, and give the impression that he is experiencing some sort of extended meltdown. What he will not do is withhold his support from the Clinton machine, nor will he convincingly pretend to.

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The Republicans Hillary Fears–And the Ones She Should

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The GOP Governors’ 2016 Derby

Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

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Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

As I noted last week, the assumption that governors make better presidents than, say, senators gets a mixed verdict from history. But the current crop of GOP governors do have a strong argument that their distance from Washington dysfunction and records of accomplishment stand them in good stead in any presidential race. The problem is not only that each of them also has their own set of liabilities but also that the sheer volume of contenders with a gubernatorial resume line makes it difficult for any one of them to credibly claim the mantle of the chief non-Washingtonian candidate of good governance.

Christie’s difficult path to the nomination is already well documented. While he may be in the process of putting the Bridgegate accusations behind him, the antipathy of the party’s conservative base for Christie is a formidable obstacle. So, too, is the difficulty of imagining someone with his irascible nature (“sit down and shut up”) and thin skin surviving on the stump amid the intense scrutiny of a presidential race.

But while doubts about the resurrection of Christie’s once high presidential expectations are well founded, the same skepticism ought to apply to the other governors preening for the national press this week. Chief among them is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who seems to be the flavor of the month after his huge reelection victory in perhaps the most crucial swing state in the country. But Kasich, with his equivocal stance on Medicare and ObamaCare as well his more moderate views on immigration is no more likely to be liked by the base than Christie, leaving him competing for establishment support with Christie and a flock of others.

Those others include Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who will have a stronger claim on the base while also being able to connect with moderates. Indiana’s Mike Pence is similarly situated, albeit without the folk hero status Walker earned among conservatives with his epic battles with unions and the unsuccessful liberal attempt to recall him. But as much as both men are veteran politicians, they are untested outside of their states leaving even their fans uncertain as to how they’d fare in a presidential campaign.

Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is another smart Republican governor with conservative credentials, but his efforts to edge out onto the national stage haven’t been universally successful. Buying into the notion that an intellectual southern governor/social conservative with as little charisma as he demonstrates can make the leap to the first tier in the primaries requires more religious faith than political acumen.

As for others, we also need to realize that the overlap between these candidates is a big problem. Whether or not you think Texas Governor Rick Perry has a shot at doing better in his second try for the presidency (after a wince-inducing and disastrous 2012 campaign), he is up against the fact that he will be competing for support with another Texan, Senator Ted Cruz, who has much a better chance of exciting Tea Partiers and other conservatives than Mr. “Oops.” Walker, Kasich, and Pence will compete for the title of leading Midwest governor making it difficult for any of them to seize a niche and make it their own.

That’s why outsiders like Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson are spinning scenarios in their heads about a path to the nomination even if their claims are far more dubious than those of potential competitors. The same applies to would-be establishment standard bearers like Jeb Bush and Christie. Yet Bush would also face competition in Florida from Senator Marco Rubio and Walker must also deal with the possibility that Rep. Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsin resident, will run.

Only Senator Rand Paul seems to have a constituency locked up—the libertarian crowd he seems to have inherited from his outlier father Ron—but there is doubt as to whether they will follow him blindly if he continues to edge closer to mainstream views on foreign policy in order to be more presentable.

But Kasich’s recent boomlet should also remind us about what will be the key factor in winnowing this field down to those who have an actual chance: gaffes. Kasich has stayed at home in Columbus the past few years far away from national media centers and earned a reputation as a good governor. But his past as a fast-talking, albeit relatively moderate conservative congressman and then as a sometime replacement host on Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly show makes it more than probable that Kasich will eventually say something that will undermine a presidential campaign. The same is true of the rest of this crowd. If it’s hard to know what will happen in the next year during the run-up to the start of the 2016 primaries, it is because we don’t know which of the candidates will sink themselves with a stray remark.

Seen in that light the competition for the 2016 nomination isn’t so much a cattle call for a bunch of governors as it is a demolition derby that will probably determine the outcome via gaffes and self-destructive impulses. All these governors have a chance but the one that is best at avoiding mistakes is the one who will get a shot at winning.

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Must Republicans Nominate a Governor?

Flush off his third election victory in four years, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasn’t shy about telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this past Sunday what he thinks the Republican Party should do in 2016: nominate a governor for president. Walker was clearly thinking of himself when he said that, but it’s a theme that his ally/antagonist New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also sounded (though doubtless he was thinking of a different name on the top of the ticket) as well as other less self-interested observers. But while the arguments for putting a person with executive experience outside of Washington in the Oval Office seem conclusive, the assumption that a governor is the only possible choice may not hold up under scrutiny or the travails of the presidential campaign trail.

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Flush off his third election victory in four years, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasn’t shy about telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this past Sunday what he thinks the Republican Party should do in 2016: nominate a governor for president. Walker was clearly thinking of himself when he said that, but it’s a theme that his ally/antagonist New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also sounded (though doubtless he was thinking of a different name on the top of the ticket) as well as other less self-interested observers. But while the arguments for putting a person with executive experience outside of Washington in the Oval Office seem conclusive, the assumption that a governor is the only possible choice may not hold up under scrutiny or the travails of the presidential campaign trail.

Walker’s case for nominating a governor is based partly on the notion that a president must be a proven executive, partly on the general disgust most Americans have for the inhabitants of Washington D.C. and partly on the ideological preference of conservatives for devolving power to the states away from the federal government:

SCOTT WALKER: We offer a fresh approach. Any of us, now 31 governors across the country have the executive experience from outside of Washington to provide a much better alternative to the old, tired, top-down approach you see out of Washington D.C. We need something fresh, organic, from the bottom up. And that’s what you get in the states.

CHUCK TODD: You’re not deferring to Paul Ryan, then? It sounds like you believe a governor, not a member of Congress should be the Republican nominee?

SCOTT WALKER: Paul Ryan may be the only exception to that rule. But overall, I think governors make much better presidents than members of Congress.

The first question to ask about this thesis is historical. Have governors always been better presidents than members of the Senate or House?

Conservatives start this discussion by citing the obvious example of Barack Obama, a senator with not even much experience on the Hill who never ran anything before arriving in the White House and has, in their view, run the country straight into the ground since then. In that sense, if one leaves aside his unique historical status as our first African-American president, we can view him as a latter-day Warren Harding, another senator who presided (albeit briefly before he died in office) over a government that was a disaster. By contrast, some of the most effective presidents in our history have been governors. Examples from the last century include Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt.

But not all governors make good presidents and not all good presidents were governors.

Leaving George W. Bush out of the discussion (liberals think him the worst president since Nixon or Harding while conservatives believe history will judge him more kindly), the name of Jimmy Carter should stand as a definitive rebuke to those who say all governors are better presidents than other individuals. And while he still has many admirers, Woodrow Wilson also strikes me as a cautionary tale for those who laud gubernatorial virtues, though it can be argued that his memory is more of an argument against electing university presidents than governors.

As for non-governors who were effective in the White House, there is Dwight Eisenhower, who proved a career as a staff officer in the U.S. Army was as good a preparation for the presidency as it was for leading the Allied Expeditionary Force against Hitler’s Nazi empire. Even more counterintuitive for the Walker-Christie thesis is Harry Truman, who was only a senator and yet proved capable of running the country and making the sort of executive decisions on foreign policy, military, and domestic issues that are the epitome of managerial accountability (“the buck stops here”). Less convincing is the example of Lyndon Johnson, who demonstrated that knowledge of how Congress works could enable a president to achieve an ambitious legislative agenda while still being hopelessly ill-prepared for crucial foreign-policy issues.

These comparisons, like all presidential rating games, make for fun arguments but don’t tell us much about what is truly important in a future president. Though being a governor is probably the best preparation for the presidency, it must be recognized that operating a successful state house doesn’t remotely compare with the enormous burdens of running the United States of America. For all of the good qualities governors like Walker or John Kasich in Ohio, Mike Pence in Indiana, or even Rick Perry of Texas bring to a presidential campaign, such persons have no idea of the intense scrutiny that goes with running for the White House. Just as Perry, who flopped as badly as anyone in history in his 2012 presidential run, showed us that being governor didn’t mean he was ready for the challenge, so, too, might even as battle-scarred a politician as Walker fail to be ready for prime time. As for Christie, the different expectations for potential presidents make it hard to imagine anyone who likes to tell rude questioners to “sit down and shut up” navigating through the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire. The same applies to senators who may not be prepared for the rigors of the presidential election gauntlet.

A resume as a government executive is important. The GOP needs no novices who want to parachute into politics (sorry, Dr. Ben Carson). The ability to distinguish oneself from Washington dysfunction or the impression that they are part and parcel of the same corrupt federal establishment is also a key selling point especially if you are planning on running against a woman like Hillary Clinton.

But a successful Republican nominee needs more than that. They’ll need a principled vision of America’s future, both at home and abroad and the guts to stand up to the chattering classes who clamor for more government. A governor might fit that bill but so might a senator. That’s why we need tough campaigns to sort out the presidential wheat from the political chaff. Perhaps the person the Republicans need is a governor. But we won’t know that until all these would-be presidents put themselves to the test against equally talented candidates from other backgrounds. Being a governor or even an ex-governor (like Jeb Bush) will help. But it is no guarantee of electoral victory, let alone a competent presidency.

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