Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jeb Bush

Jeb’s Defense of W Isn’t Wrong, Just Not What GOP Needs

Liberal pundit Roger Simon was aiming for a cheap laugh when he wondered whether Jeb Bush had been “dropped on his head as a child” in a Politico piece in which he skewered the presidential contender for comments made last week about Iraq and other remarks in which he said his elder brother George would be his top adviser on the Middle East. According to Simon and most of the left, the only thing for which George W. Bush should be remembered is a disastrous war in Iraq. But even for those who don’t view things from the same partisan liberal perspective as Simon, Jeb got himself in trouble by defending the decision to invade Iraq. That since-corrected statement can be defended as can the notion of W being a good man to have as an adviser on U.S.-Israel relations. But the problem for Jeb isn’t that what he said about Iraq and foreign policy isn’t entirely or even mostly wrong. It’s not. The catch is that this exchange reminds Republicans of the two major reasons why nominating Jeb may not be such a hot idea: the dynasty problem and the fact that it would give Democrats a chance to run again against the former president rather than having to defend the records of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

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Liberal pundit Roger Simon was aiming for a cheap laugh when he wondered whether Jeb Bush had been “dropped on his head as a child” in a Politico piece in which he skewered the presidential contender for comments made last week about Iraq and other remarks in which he said his elder brother George would be his top adviser on the Middle East. According to Simon and most of the left, the only thing for which George W. Bush should be remembered is a disastrous war in Iraq. But even for those who don’t view things from the same partisan liberal perspective as Simon, Jeb got himself in trouble by defending the decision to invade Iraq. That since-corrected statement can be defended as can the notion of W being a good man to have as an adviser on U.S.-Israel relations. But the problem for Jeb isn’t that what he said about Iraq and foreign policy isn’t entirely or even mostly wrong. It’s not. The catch is that this exchange reminds Republicans of the two major reasons why nominating Jeb may not be such a hot idea: the dynasty problem and the fact that it would give Democrats a chance to run again against the former president rather than having to defend the records of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Let’s specify first that Jeb clearly blundered when asked by Megyn Kelly whether, given everything we know now, whether he would support the invasion of Iraq. Instead of acknowledging the mistakes that were made and the fact that weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, Bush answered a different question. He said that placed in that moment again with what he knew then, he would still have backed the idea and that Hillary Clinton (who voted for the war and defended it for years until it became too unpopular to do so) would have too. He’s right that most leading figures in both parties supported the war at the time. It’s also both unfair and untrue to claim that the Bush administration lied about the intelligence or that they cooked it to justify their goals.

Moreover, Jeb was right to note that the surge ordered by his brother in 2007 retrieved a dangerous situation. The sign of a true leader is the ability to admit a mistake and then change course to achieve the objective, something our current president is incapable of doing. When W left office in January 2009, Iraq was a war that had been won, something that the Obama administration acknowledged. If Iraq is back to being a disaster today, it’s solely the fault of President Obama whose decisions led to a wrongheaded evacuation of American troops that created the vacuum into which ISIS moved in recent years.

Let’s also acknowledge that contrary to Simon’s snark, George W. Bush is a good suggestion for someone to consult with about the U.S.-Israel alliance. When Obama came into office he said the reason for the stalemate in the Middle East was that Bush was too close to Israel. By establishing more daylight between Israel and the United States he thought he could achieve peace. But six years of constant fights with Israel that have led to open threats about the administration abandoning Israel at the United Nations haven’t brought us closer to peace. To the contrary, the daylight Obama sought encouraged more violence and Palestinian intransigence. More importantly, Obama’s decision to try for détente with Iran has alienating all of America’s allies in the region, the Arab states as well as Israel. For all of the abuse hurled at W from the left, the Middle East he left us looks pretty good in comparison to the chaos Obama has enabled.

But even if everything Jeb said about his brother is true, and most of it is, that doesn’t really help his cause.

The isolationist moment in American politics that seemed to give Senator Rand Paul a shot at the nomination has passed. Support for a foreign policy that seeks to exert American influence and defend its interests is important to most Republican primary voters and Bush has certainly articulated well thought out positions that will win him votes. But though a lot of Republicans are happy to defend the honor of W or even Dick Cheney against leftist slanders, that isn’t really the conversation anyone in the GOP wants to have right now.

To be fair to Jeb, it’s not as if he has gone out of his way to start this discussion. The comments about W and Israel were generated by the anger among many members of the pro-Israel community (and not just the billionaire that owns casinos) about former Secretary of State James Baker’s attacks on the Jewish state. The longtime faithful Bush family retainer is listed as one of Jeb’s advisers. Bringing up W was the only way he had of disassociating himself from Baker without actually throwing him under the bus.

But bearing the Bush family name brings with it clear disadvantages as well as benefits. Republicans know they’ll be better off nominating someone from a more humble background who can’t, as Mitt Romney was, be portrayed as a heartless plutocrat. Just as Hillary will carry around a lot of negative baggage, Jeb can’t escape the tired, old and deeply destructive arguments about Iraq. He may be a candidate who brings experience as a governor and well considered policy positions on both domestic and foreign issues. He’s also shown a willingness to and avoid flip-flopping even if it means daring the base to oppose him on immigration and the Common Core education standards. That illustrates character if not always the best political judgment.

But his greatest problem remains the challenge of trying to be the third president Bush. It’s certainly possible for him to overcome that obstacle. But whether or not it is fair, this latest kerfuffle illustrates how great the burden that W’s record will be for Jeb.

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A Lesson in How Faith Improves Politics

Jeb Bush delivered the commencement address at Liberty University on Saturday. It’s a beautifully written speech, and it constitutes the kind of thoughtful and balanced reflection on Christian faith that is unusual to find, especially among political leaders. To do justice to it requires me to quote extensively from it, so I shall.

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Jeb Bush delivered the commencement address at Liberty University on Saturday. It’s a beautifully written speech, and it constitutes the kind of thoughtful and balanced reflection on Christian faith that is unusual to find, especially among political leaders. To do justice to it requires me to quote extensively from it, so I shall.

Much of the commentary about the speech focused on Governor Bush’s defense of religious liberty, and understandably so, given the urgency of the matter. In speaking about what Bush called the Obama administration’s use of “coercive federal power” against the Little Sisters of the Poor — in which the federal government’s contraception and abortion mandate has attempted to force the Little Sisters to act in violation of their Catholic faith — Bush said this:

What should be easy calls, in favor of religious freedom, have instead become an aggressive stance against it. Somebody here is being small-minded and intolerant, and it sure isn’t the nuns, ministers, and laymen and women who ask only to live and practice their faith. Federal authorities are demanding obedience, in complete disregard of religious conscience – and in a free society, the answer is No.

But to me the most interesting parts of the address were those in which Governor Bush described how many critics of Christianity perceive it as a “backward and oppressive force… something static, narrow, and outdated… some obstacle to enlightened thought, some ancient, irrelevant creed wearing out its welcome in the modern world.”

Governor Bush described Christianity in a very different, and much truer and more textured, way. Faith doesn’t give answers to every question, he said, and it doesn’t spare us from doubt or difficulties in life. But if often awakens the conscience. “One of the great things about this faith of ours is its daring, untamed quality, which is underrated,” Bush said, adding:

As moral wisdom goes, for example, loving our neighbors seems kind of an easy call – especially if we already like them. But how about loving our enemies, too, as a bold challenge to leave our comfort zone and lift our sights to larger purposes?

As for the suggestion that Christianity is a static faith, that sure isn’t how it reads in the original. Offhand, I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than “the last shall be first, and the first last.”

Governor Bush also spoke about how, whether we acknowledge it or not, the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament still provide the moral vocabulary we use in America. He quoted C.S. Lewis, who said that trying to separate ideals from the source of ideals is like “a rebellion of the branches against the tree”, and added this:

Justice, equality, the worth of every life, the dignity of every person, and rights that no authority can take away – these are founding moral ideals in America, and they didn’t come out of nowhere.

“Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice,” Bush said, “there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action.”

In their unwillingness to bend to elite opinion, many people of the Christian faith believe thus: “Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love. Wherever women and girls in other countries are brutally exploited, or treated as possessions without rights and dignity, we Christians see that arrogance for what it is. Wherever Jews are subjected to the oldest bigotry, we reject that sin against our brothers and sisters, and we defend them.” The former Florida governor also spoke about a generation of Christians who are “striving to be protectors of creation, instead of just users, good shepherds instead of just hirelings – and that moral vision can make all the difference.”

When you read the speech in whole, what stands out, I think, is that Governor Bush is articulating his understanding of the Christian faith in a way that is principled but not harsh, in a manner that is persuasive rather than aggressive, unapologetic and not offensive. He cares very much about the state of the culture, but he’s no culture warrior. This speech was his effort to unwind some fairly widespread caricatures, to represent his faith in a way that invites understanding rather than promotes division and distrust.

To be sure, there is a gap between what the Christian faith calls us to be and how many of us carry that out in our daily lives. We are broken people whose hearts are often conflicted and divided. And too often we use faith as an instrument to achieve other, less elevated purposes. It’s true, too, that some of the most visible and vocal Christian leaders – speaking in ways that are shrill and graceless, angry and anxious — have given their faith a bad name.

But it’s also true that for many millions of people, the Christian faith has sanded off some of their rougher edges, making them more generous and alert to the suffering of others. Having received grace, they are better able to dispense grace. They are often found volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens, befriending inner city children and the elderly, working at crisis pregnancy and drug addiction centers, helping people in other lands whose lives have been blown apart by natural disasters and epidemics. Most people of faith don’t life heroic lives or make heroic sacrifices. But their faith does make them better than they would otherwise be. It makes them somewhat more likely to extend a hand of mercy, or write a note of condolence, or offer a listening ear to people in pain and need. And in some cases we see how faith gives people the strength to face death with great dignity and equanimity, reminding them that life on this earth is but a single chapter in a much longer and glorious story.

Yes, people’s faith sometimes informs their politics. And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, sometimes – maybe even more times than you might imagine – it makes our politics better than it would otherwise be. (See William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. for more.) That is, I think, what Jeb Bush was saying in his exceptional commencement address.

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Will Rubio Be Sunk By Immigration?

Since he declared for the presidency, a lot of the comments about Marco Rubio’s candidacy have been about the rivalry between the Florida senator and his onetime mentor and ally Jeb Bush. But the two Floridians have more than a state in common. As the pair joined the other 17 declared or potential Republican candidates in New Hampshire this past weekend for an inconclusive scrum that told us nothing about the outcome of the race, Rubio’s effort to clarify his stance on immigration yesterday raised an interesting question about both his and Bush’s chances of winning the nomination. Though it is impossible to know how a competition with such a crowded field will play out, it remains to be seen whether the willingness of Rubio to contemplate a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, even in theory as opposed to actual practice in the foreseeable future, will sink him.

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Since he declared for the presidency, a lot of the comments about Marco Rubio’s candidacy have been about the rivalry between the Florida senator and his onetime mentor and ally Jeb Bush. But the two Floridians have more than a state in common. As the pair joined the other 17 declared or potential Republican candidates in New Hampshire this past weekend for an inconclusive scrum that told us nothing about the outcome of the race, Rubio’s effort to clarify his stance on immigration yesterday raised an interesting question about both his and Bush’s chances of winning the nomination. Though it is impossible to know how a competition with such a crowded field will play out, it remains to be seen whether the willingness of Rubio to contemplate a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, even in theory as opposed to actual practice in the foreseeable future, will sink him.

Rubio, who won a Senate seat as a Tea Party insurgent challenging establishment Republican (turned independent and then Democrat) Charlie Crist, saw his stock fall badly among movement conservatives when he embraced a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013 that promised illegals a path to citizenship. The bill died in the House, and Rubio took such a drubbing among GOP activists that it appeared that his once promising 2016 hopes were at an end. But Rubio ultimately walked away from the bill declaring, as did many of his House colleagues, that a necessary reform of the immigration system would have to wait until the border was secured. The 2014 surge of illegals at the Texas border vindicated that opinion and Rubio seemed to have subsequently put himself in line with the views of much of the party base.

But though Rubio now says a comprehensive approach to immigration is neither politically possible nor good policy, he’s not willing to disavow the concept of ultimately allowing some illegals a way to come in out of the shadows. That’s what he said yesterday on CBS’s Face the Nation even as he admitted that it could only happen after a “long process” that wouldn’t involve “a massive piece of legislation” that reform advocates, including President Obama, demand. However, that disclaimer may not be enough to persuade many Republicans that he hasn’t disqualified himself from presidential consideration.

That’s the gist of the abuse being flung at Rubio by radio talkers like Laura Ingraham and pundit Anne Coulter, all of which seem aimed at labeling Rubio as a Hispanic version of moderate Lindsey Graham. They won’t forgive Rubio for his past advocacy of the Senate bill. As far as they are concerned anything that smacks of amnesty for illegals, either by President Obama’s extralegal executive orders or constitutional legislation, is equally suspect. Bush, who is counting on establishment support, already knows that the party base won’t back him. Indeed, at times, Bush has seemed to be willing to run against the base in the hope that this would facilitate his general-election campaign if he wins the nomination.

But Rubio is neither foolish enough to run against the base nor possessed of sufficient establishment backing that he can afford to ignore taunting from radio talkers that can fire up people against him.

In a race in which foreign policy plays a major role, Rubio, the most articulate of the likely contenders on security and defense issues, can expect to shine. His launch also reminded the country about why so many Republicans thought he was the perfect candidate to help them break the mold of the last two elections in which the GOP seemed to be doomed to permanent minority status. The bump he received recently in the polls is an indication that he has a higher ceiling than many of those Republicans planning on jumping into the fray. But it remains to be seen whether any candidate who needs, as Rubio does, to get some share of the conservative vote can survive the pasting he’s going to continue to get from elements of the activist core that consider any leniency on immigration to be the third rail of politics.

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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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Rubio, Immigration, and the Long Road to the Nomination

Yesterday, on the day of the announcement of his presidential candidacy, Marco Rubio had two very good reasons to talk about immigration. And that’s the problem. Rubio took a risk in trying to reform the federal immigration system. It was, in many ways, an admirable risk, since the system really does need an overhaul, and Rubio seems to have learned an important lesson about prioritizing border security and preventing another border surge over increasing low-skilled immigration. But it was an expensive lesson.

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Yesterday, on the day of the announcement of his presidential candidacy, Marco Rubio had two very good reasons to talk about immigration. And that’s the problem. Rubio took a risk in trying to reform the federal immigration system. It was, in many ways, an admirable risk, since the system really does need an overhaul, and Rubio seems to have learned an important lesson about prioritizing border security and preventing another border surge over increasing low-skilled immigration. But it was an expensive lesson.

The first reason Rubio had to talk about immigration was that he was asked. He gave an interview to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, and at one point in the wide-ranging discussion the subject turned to immigration. Rubio mentioned that he understands now that immigration reform can’t be “comprehensive,” as he had hoped, especially because distrust of massive government legislation is so high. He also talked about how difficult it would be to get such legislation passed during Obama’s presidency. (Obama has famously torpedoed immigration reform time and time again.)

And then Inskeep asked about the presidential election and the Hispanic vote, and the two had this exchange:

How do you keep from getting hammered on that in a general election where the Hispanic vote may be very important?

Well, I don’t know about the others, but I’ve done more immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did. I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that’s more than she’s ever done. She’s given speeches on it, but she’s never done anything on it. So I have a record of trying to do something on it. It didn’t work because at the end of the day, we did not sufficiently address the issue of, of illegal immigration and I warned about that throughout that process, as well, that I didn’t think we were doing enough to give that bill a chance of moving forward in the House.

It’s understandable that Rubio chose this answer. The phrasing of the question hemmed him in a bit, tying immigration reform to the Hispanic vote. But the truth is, supporting immigration reform will not do much for Republicans’ attempts to win over Hispanic voters, and “taking the issue off the table” by actually successfully passing and instituting reform won’t do much more.

As far as attempting to pass reform, this is because Hispanic voters have much more in common with Democrats than Republicans on policy than simply immigration. And Republicans knew this even before the 2012 election. On the day of that election, for example, I pointed out a poll showing President Obama getting 73 percent of the Hispanic vote and Hispanic voters trusting Obama and the Democrats on the economy over Mitt Romney and the Republicans by a 73-18 percent margin.

Other polls have shown similar results with even more specifics, but the numbers in that poll were so clear as to be a neon sign: Hispanic voters were, like their fellow voters, concerned about the economy. That poll also indicated that promising to address immigration reform wasn’t very valuable to Hispanic voters, because they didn’t believe congressional cooperation would have improved much no matter who won.

And “taking it off the table” doesn’t get you very far either, because it won’t be done by 2016 anyway (in part because Democrats don’t want to take this issue off the table). It might help somewhat, but it’s not the main issue and treating it as if it were can be a distraction. This is also why mainstream reporters will always want to tie immigration reform to the Hispanic vote: the odds are against it, and therefore they can keep badgering Republicans on it.

The other good reason Rubio had for talking about immigration is that Republican candidates are already pivoting to the general election by contrasting themselves with Hillary Clinton. Jeb Bush does this because he wants to prove himself to the establishment and look like a frontrunner. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Rubio will do this because they are young enough to pitch the election as “yesterday” vs. “tomorrow.” (Rubio did this explicitly, and brilliantly, in his announcement speech.) Age is no advantage against each other, though, for the latter three.

Rubio also had perfect timing to turn his criticism to Hillary, since she announced her campaign the day before he did. It’s possible she thought she was upstaging him, but he turned it to his advantage flawlessly. Going forward, the GOP candidates will surely criticize each other, but Rubio was right to turn toward the general this week, and doing so opens the door to talk about immigration.

But Rubio doesn’t have to run from this issue to avoid antagonizing the base. He just has to understand that pivoting to the general election before the actual general election is different than after winning the nomination, because he’s making his pitch to Republican primary voters.

The “I can beat Hillary” rationale does not have a great track record, if 2007-08 is any guide. But whatever credit Rubio will get for attempting immigration reform, he’s already received. For now he needs to remember who his audience is, because if he’s lucky they’ll be his primary audience for the next year.

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Jeb’s Identity Crisis Fuels Rubio Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Scott Walker’s Front Runner Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baker Creating J Street Challenge for Jeb

The announcement that former Secretary of State James Baker was one of the advisors to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign created a minor stir a few weeks ago. As our Michael Rubin noted at the time, Baker’s long record of hostility to Israel and consistent backing for engagement with rogue regimes ought to make him radioactive for a candidate seeking to brand himself as a supporter of the Jewish state and a critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But Baker’s status as a faithful family retainer for the Bush family might have given Jeb a pass, especially since, as Michael wrote, another far wiser former secretary of state — George P. Schultz — is considered to be Jeb’s top foreign policy advisor. But the news that Baker will serve as a keynote speaker at the upcoming annual conference of the left-wing J Street lobby ought to change the conversation about this topic. Coming as it does hard on the heels of the president’s open threats to isolate Israel, having someone so closely associated with his campaign serve in that role at an event dedicated to support for Obama’s hostile attitude toward Israel obligates Jeb to not let this happen without saying or doing something to disassociate himself from Baker.

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The announcement that former Secretary of State James Baker was one of the advisors to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign created a minor stir a few weeks ago. As our Michael Rubin noted at the time, Baker’s long record of hostility to Israel and consistent backing for engagement with rogue regimes ought to make him radioactive for a candidate seeking to brand himself as a supporter of the Jewish state and a critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But Baker’s status as a faithful family retainer for the Bush family might have given Jeb a pass, especially since, as Michael wrote, another far wiser former secretary of state — George P. Schultz — is considered to be Jeb’s top foreign policy advisor. But the news that Baker will serve as a keynote speaker at the upcoming annual conference of the left-wing J Street lobby ought to change the conversation about this topic. Coming as it does hard on the heels of the president’s open threats to isolate Israel, having someone so closely associated with his campaign serve in that role at an event dedicated to support for Obama’s hostile attitude toward Israel obligates Jeb to not let this happen without saying or doing something to disassociate himself from Baker.

Baker won’t be the only celebrity in attendance at the conference. White House chief of staff James McDonough will also be there signaling the president’s approval for his faithful liberal fans. That’s an encouraging development for a group that, despite its boasts about supplanting AIPAC as the voice of American Jewry on Israel, has struggled for influence even during the administration of a president they ardently support. J Street has little juice on Capitol Hill, as only hard-core left-wingers tend to endorse their proposals with the overwhelming majority of members of both political parties rightly understanding that AIPAC remains the address for the pro-Israel community.

Even the Obama administration has often bitterly disappointed J Street, especially during the president’s re-election campaign, when the White House made clear that its focus was on appeal to the mainstream pro-Israel community, not its left-wing base. In 2012, the president not only addressed the AIPAC conference but also went farther toward the pro-Israel community on the Iran nuclear issue than ever before.

But in recent months as Obama openly feuded with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over the president’s pursuit of détente with Iran, J Street has been feeling more love from the administration. After the White House responded to Netanyahu’s re-election with petulance and threats, J Street is thrilled with a president who seems to have finally decided that he need not hide his disdain for the Jewish state’s electorate.

Baker served the last president before Obama who engaged in feuds with Israeli leaders. Though rightly considered egregious at the time, George H.W. Bush’s provocations against the Shamir government seem tame when compared to Obama’s stunts. But as the moving force behind the elder Bush’s attacks on AIPAC as well as a policy of pressure against the Jewish state, Baker is rightly remembered as a foe of Israel.

Baker did help the campaign of George W. Bush, especially during the Florida recount. But he was a consistent critic of Bush 43’s foreign policy. While it is to be expected that he would rally to support the third member of the Bush clan to seek the presidency, for someone so publicly identified with Jeb’s campaign to be the keynoter at J Street’s conclave creates a much bigger problem for the candidate than even Michael Rubin thought a few weeks ago.

Simply put, Bush can’t let Baker’s appearance at the J Street event go unremarked upon. He must either explicitly distance himself from Baker’s appearance and from J Street’s support for Obama’s threats against Israel or ask Baker to formally disassociate himself from his presidential effort. That will be hard for Jeb as, like the rest of this family, he prizes loyalty and Baker has been the most faithful soldier in their family retinue for decades. But if he allows this to pass without telling the world that he condemns J Street’s activities and Baker’s support for Obama’s policies, it will taint him and his campaign. The man who would be Bush 45 has a strong record of personal support for Israel and was rightly among the first to congratulate Netanyahu on his decisive victory in Tuesday’s election. But if he keeps Baker on now, it will be difficult to argue that he can be counted upon to stand with Israel against Obama.

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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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Walker, Cruz, Bush and the Iowa Crucible

It is now conventional wisdom that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a first-tier candidate, if not the frontrunner, for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It is just as much a given that Senator Ted Cruz is not regarded as likely to win the nomination. The reasons why this is so were on display yesterday at the Iowa Ag Summit, a cattle call event that brought leading politicians from both parties to Des Moines to hawk their wares to farm-state voters. As in the past, the agriculture industry and political observers were interested to see which of the potential candidates would show their obeisance to corn farmers by supporting ethanol subsidies and, in particular, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that mandates its use in gasoline. Though Walker has opposed the RFS in the past, as Politico noted, this year he acted like the Iowa frontrunner the polls tell us he is and backed it. By contrast, Cruz launched a frontal attack on it. It’s not clear that such a stand is as sure a guarantee of political death as it has been in the past. But these two stands as well as Jeb Bush’s more equivocal approach provide us with a chance to see how the crucible of principle works these days in Iowa as the rest of the country pays close attention.

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It is now conventional wisdom that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a first-tier candidate, if not the frontrunner, for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It is just as much a given that Senator Ted Cruz is not regarded as likely to win the nomination. The reasons why this is so were on display yesterday at the Iowa Ag Summit, a cattle call event that brought leading politicians from both parties to Des Moines to hawk their wares to farm-state voters. As in the past, the agriculture industry and political observers were interested to see which of the potential candidates would show their obeisance to corn farmers by supporting ethanol subsidies and, in particular, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that mandates its use in gasoline. Though Walker has opposed the RFS in the past, as Politico noted, this year he acted like the Iowa frontrunner the polls tell us he is and backed it. By contrast, Cruz launched a frontal attack on it. It’s not clear that such a stand is as sure a guarantee of political death as it has been in the past. But these two stands as well as Jeb Bush’s more equivocal approach provide us with a chance to see how the crucible of principle works these days in Iowa as the rest of the country pays close attention.

Given that recent history tells us that winning Iowa requires a candidate to support the ethanol boondoggle that helps support corn farmers, it’s hard to quarrel with Walker’s decision. Walker needs to win Iowa and he feels he can’t afford to antagonize the farmers and the Ag industry groups that will pour millions into the GOP caucus fight to support candidates that back ethanol and oppose those who don’t. Walker is a man who has taken chances in his political life, taking on the unions and left-wing special interests in Wisconsin and winning fights that made him a conservative folk hero. But he sees no great benefit to playing the same game with Iowa farmers. He played it safe at the Ag Summit.

By contrast, Cruz knows that if he is to assume leadership of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, it won’t be by playing it safe. Instead, he chose to take on the ethanol/corn interests head on saying he was there to “tell them the truth.” There was no hedging his bets or resort to nuance. He said he’s against corporate welfare and the government picking winners and losers. Ethanol and the RFS are exactly that and he opposes them.

Does that doom him in Iowa? Maybe. But, then again, maybe not. Corn may be king in Iowa but not everyone who votes in the GOP caucus is looking to the federal government for a handout or hoping that government policies will keep pushing up the value of their land. Moreover, there is a case to be made that what voters want is principle rather than pandering. With many conservatives who talk a good game about small government nevertheless falling over themselves to make an exception for ethanol in order to win in Iowa, Cruz may be able to stand out as the candidate who isn’t willing to sell out.

It also presents an interesting contrast to Bush’s belief that he, too, won’t pander in order to win the nomination. Yesterday in Iowa, the former Florida governor reiterated his support for a path to citizenship for illegal aliens as well as his continued backing for the Common Core education standards. That’s consistent with his theory that seems to hold that in order to win in November 2016, he’s going to have to stand up to his party’s base on issues where he disagrees with it. But he wasn’t willing to extend that principle to ethanol. On that issue, he was all nuance yesterday, floating ideas about eventually phasing out the RFS “somewhere in the future.”

I believe it’s a mistake to think that any candidate can run against his party’s base and win its nomination, though Bush has an opportunity to prove me wrong. But I think it’s hard to take that sort of stance seriously when the same candidate is unwilling to be just as tough on a local GOP constituency whose desires for subsidies runs afoul of the party’s basic principles about the role government in the economy.

Walker appears to have made a powerful impression on the audience in Des Moines yesterday, taking shots at Jeb Bush for having “inherited fame and fortune” and signaling farmers that he will do their bidding. That may ensure that he will hold onto his current lead and follow in the footsteps of past ethanol appeasers like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney and do well in the first-in-the-nation caucus.

It’s a long, hard slog to next winter but if Walker is to be knocked off, I doubt that Bush’s odd combination of challenging the party core on hot-button issues while folding on ethanol will do the trick. Cruz may still be a long shot but I think he’s right in thinking that the only way for him to prevail is to slay all the sacred cows and not just those in states other than Iowa. As much as his well-earned image as an uncompromising zealot may make him an unlikely nominee, sticking to his guns on even this Iowa litmus test will make an interesting experiment in modern politics. Though Cruz is widely accused of debasing our political culture with his take-no-prisoners style, he may actually be enhancing it by giving us an example of what it means to stand on principle. And he may do himself no harm in the process.

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Why Politicians Are Right To Refuse to Take the Anti-Tax Pledge

Jeb Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said in a recent statement that the former Florida governor would not sign any pledges, including ones saying he won’t increase taxes. Not surprisingly, some anti-tax crusaders aren’t happy. No matter. Governor Bush is right.

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Jeb Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said in a recent statement that the former Florida governor would not sign any pledges, including ones saying he won’t increase taxes. Not surprisingly, some anti-tax crusaders aren’t happy. No matter. Governor Bush is right.

Before explaining why, it’s worth pointing out that Bush’s decision – contrary to some silly headlines — is not based on a desire to raise taxes. How do I know? Because Bush, as governor of Florida, had an impeccable tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor — a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion. In that sense, Bush is exactly the right person to oppose taking an anti-tax pledge, since no governor I’m aware of has a better record on taxes than Bush. (As a reference point, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown.)

Now let’s turn to the substantive arguments against signing the anti-tax pledge.

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that taxes should be lower. (I’m partial to this plan by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio.) But it’s quite another to declare that there are no circumstances, ever, in which taxes can be raised. The proper tax rate is a prudential matter, not an inviolate principle. It needs to be judged in the context of circumstances and trade-offs. Which taxes are we talking about? Increasing them in exchange for what?

Here’s where this mindset eventually leads. In a 2011 GOP presidential debate, eight candidates were given a hypothetical: If you could get $10 in spending cuts for $1 in tax increases – the assumption in the question was that the cuts could be enforced, that they were real — would you walk away from the 10-to-one deal? All eight candidates said they would.

I was critical of them at the time, believing this was turning an economic policy into a dogma, conservatism into an adamantine ideology, and lawmakers into absolutists. I get why people whose professional lives are dedicated to low taxes want politicians to take pledges. But it’s the job of politicians and lawmakers to have the courage and wisdom to say: I’m sympathetic to your cause, but I’ll respectfully decline your offer.

It’s perhaps worth keeping in mind that if the Founders had taken and abided by the 18th-century equivalent of the anti-tax pledge, the Constitution would never have been created. After all, it was the product of a remarkable series of difficult compromises on matters ranging from the Bill of Rights to proportional representation to how we elect the president to how Supreme Court justices were picked to the thorniest issue of all: slavery.

Taxes are obviously in a wholly different category than slavery, which was a moral obscenity. Yet in the words of James Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the wisest Founders understood is that the Constitution would put slavery on a path to extinction. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” But if abolitionists had insisted that the Founders, including those who supported their cause, take a pledge that they would not become a signatory to the Constitution unless it ended slavery, the whole project would have come crashing down. (The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery.)

So here’s my advice to conservatives: Familiarize yourselves with the records of the candidates. Learn their stands and listen to their arguments. Make a judgment about their public and personal character. Judge them in the totality of their acts. And then vote for the individual you believe will govern in the most responsible way — without taking pledges to do anything except to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. George Washington did it. Abraham Lincoln did it. Ronald Reagan did it. And they did just fine.

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Jeb Bush’s James Baker Problem

Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

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Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

Jeb Bush gave a fine speech, even if a bit anodyne. Sure, Jeb criticized Obama’s “inconsistent and indecisive” leadership on the world stage, but that’s an issue of style and competence, not philosophy. Pretty much any successor to Obama, whether Democrat or Republican, will do better on the world stage. The same holds true for Jeb Bush’s insistence that red lines should matter. Few presidents would disagree, Obama being the exception. Calling for greater economic growth at home is also a no-brainer: Would any president really want moribund growth? Greater defense spending is a step in the right direction, as so many military and national-security experts and scholars across the partisan divide recognize.

While it may be commendable that Jeb Bush has hired folks who represent different sides of past policy debates, former Secretary of State James Baker who, alongside former Secretary of State George Shultz, is Jeb’s most senior and, perhaps because he is not fishing for a job himself, most influential advisor, has a track record of policy recommendations that hone closer to what Obama has implemented than the clean break Jeb Bush suggests he wants.

Baker was co-chair back in 2006 of the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission which, in the darkest days of the Iraq war, not only counseled the type of retreat which George W. Bush refused but also blessed the idea of unilateral retreat which Barack Obama implemented. Baker went further, however, and worked into the report a call for Israel to make concessions under fire and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to be rewarded. Both a latent hostility to Israel and a benign reading of the Syrian regime have long been characteristic of Baker’s philosophy, as they have been Obama’s. Remember, Obama came into office believing Assad was a reformer and, despite the horrific civil war in subsequent years, now appears ready to again legitimize Assad as a partner. Baker also sought to partner with Iran in order to resolve difficulties in Iraq, leading to this brilliant David Zucker parody featuring Baker.

If there’s one thing that the past decade should have made clear it is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not central to the divisions and problems which undercut Middle Eastern stability and American national security. The whole Iraq Study Group was a put-up job, with Baker and Lee Hamilton stroking the egos of those testifying all the while ignoring the substance of their input while aides wrote a pre-ordained report. As such, Baker should be held fully accountable for the report’s often counterproductive and self-defeating recommendations.

Alas, the Baker-Hamilton report was the rule rather than the exception. Against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential campaign, Baker traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he appeared to give an endorsement of the type of diplomacy with rogue regimes which George W. Bush shied away from, but which Obama had made the centerpiece of his campaign. Then, again, this merely restated the policy which Baker blessed as secretary of state with regard to North Korea. In The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989–1992, he explained, “Our diplomatic strategy was designed to build international pressure against North Korea to force them to live up to their agreements.” In reality, however, Baker pioneered a philosophy which Obama has now perfected; that is, a belief that a bad deal is better than no deal, even if it means turning a blind eye toward an enemy’s cheating. As the State Department negotiated with Pyongyang, Baker accepted North Korea’s insistence that limited inspections regarding North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure to sites “agreed upon between the two sides,” in effect giving Pyongyang a veto. Baker offered this concession even though the CIA had warned that North Korea was hiding parts of its nuclear program. Such a philosophy laid the groundwork for a process that culminated during the Clinton administration in “The Agreed Framework,” an achievement celebrated in Washington but treated disdainfully in Pyongyang as the North Korean regime pocketed associated aid and accelerated its drive toward a nuclear bomb. Baker, however, bragged in his memoirs (published after the Agreed Framework was signed) that “American diplomacy [was] directly responsible for an end to six years of intransigence by the North.”

Much of Baker’s positive reputation comes from how he and George H.W. Bush handled Operation Desert Storm. And, for this, they deserve plaudits. What is interesting, however, is how Baker was for Saddam before he was against him. On February 15, 1990, after the Voice of America broadcast an editorial into several Arab countries celebrating the collapse of dictatorship in Eastern Europe and castigating Iraq as belonging to a club whose leaders maintained power “by force and fear, not by the consent of the governed,” Saddam was furious. Rather than defend the premise and maintain moral clarity, the Bush administration apologized and decided that the secretary of state, James Baker, would personally clear future editorials. Again, instinct matters.

Baker has been outspoken in his support for Jeb Bush. While Baker is friendly with Jeb Bush’s father, that did not stop the former secretary of state from signaling his displeasure with the governor’s brother. It is hard to imagine Baker giving such full-throated support to Jeb Bush unless he sees in Bush a kindred spirit. If that’s the case, then there is much to worry about as Jeb Bush develops his foreign policy.

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Jeb’s Strength Is Also His Weakness

Jeb Bush traveled to Chicago today to give a speech on foreign policy that demonstrated a good command of important issues as well as some cogent critiques of the Obama administration. But most observers were parsing each line in the speech seeking the answer to the question on seemingly everyone’s mind: Would a third President Bush be more like Bush 41 or Bush 43? Jeb’s answer is that he will be his own man even as he presented a list of foreign-policy advisors peppered with figures from both of those presidencies setting up the possibility that a Bush 45 administration would be divided between realists like James Baker and neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz. But while his ability to summon such broad support from the GOP foreign-policy establishment is a clear strength, like much else about his candidacy it is also a weakness. In a year in which the Democrats will be trying to recycle the Clinton magic of the 1990s, the prospect of a third Bush presidency won’t provide a strong contrast that a fresh face might provide.

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Jeb Bush traveled to Chicago today to give a speech on foreign policy that demonstrated a good command of important issues as well as some cogent critiques of the Obama administration. But most observers were parsing each line in the speech seeking the answer to the question on seemingly everyone’s mind: Would a third President Bush be more like Bush 41 or Bush 43? Jeb’s answer is that he will be his own man even as he presented a list of foreign-policy advisors peppered with figures from both of those presidencies setting up the possibility that a Bush 45 administration would be divided between realists like James Baker and neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz. But while his ability to summon such broad support from the GOP foreign-policy establishment is a clear strength, like much else about his candidacy it is also a weakness. In a year in which the Democrats will be trying to recycle the Clinton magic of the 1990s, the prospect of a third Bush presidency won’t provide a strong contrast that a fresh face might provide.

As Politico notes today, the rollout of Jeb’s foreign-policy platform was just as professional and well thought out as the rest of his campaign. “Shock and awe” is a good way to describe the Bush blitz that drove Mitt Romney out of the race and has put other challengers on notice that if they wait much longer to line up staff and donors, Bush will have stolen a march on them they may not be able to make up.

Moreover, the same applies to Jeb’s foreign-policy views. His speech projected strength both in terms of his unabashed desire to “take out” ISIS terrorists and to reject engagement and appeasement of Iran. Putting his finger on a key problem of the Obama administration’s approach, he said that he, like many Americans, had come to doubt whether the president thinks U.S. power “is a force for good.” He rightly noted that the administration’s record is one that has caused it to be no longer trusted by friends or feared by allies.

Nor was he shy about mentioning Iraq, the memory of which is considered to be his greatest weakness as many voters might blame Jeb for the unpopular war his brother took the U.S. into. He correctly praised the 2007 surge that essentially defeated al-Qaeda and left W’s successor with a war that was won. Obama, whose abandonment of Iraq led to both the rise of ISIS and the strengthening of Iran, squandered that victory. Bush also took aim at Obama’s handling of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, a problem that his brother punted on during his time in power. He correctly accused him of seeking to “manage” the nuclear threat rather than to solve it.

Moreover, in a clear shot across the bow of the White House, Bush said he was interested in hearing what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had to say about Iran when he speaks to Congress next month and that he felt the U.S. had already given away too much to Tehran in the nuclear talks.

All this positions Bush as a serious foreign-policy voice that compares favorably to most of his rivals for the nomination. Bush’s ability to articulate a traditional GOP message of international strength contrasts particularly with Rand Paul’s views, which bear a troubling resemblance to those of Obama. It also shows him to be better prepared to be commander in chief than the pack of governors and former governors lined up against him, including fast-rising Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who refused to answer questions on the topic when in London last week.

But Bush’s speech also reminded us why there is good reason to be skeptical about his front-runner status. Though his mother has finally come around to supporting the idea of another member of her family becoming president, Jeb needs to win over the party’s grass roots too. Bush comes into the race as not only the leading member of his party’s establishment but as the candidate who is already pledged to run against the base on issues like immigration and common core. That may ultimately help him win the general election, but it might make it difficult for him to gain the GOP nomination.

In a year when terrorism and Obama’s weakness has elevated foreign policy to the front burner of American concerns, Bush’s foreign-policy competence gives him a clear leg up on virtually every other Republican contender with the possible exception of Marco Rubio. But his ability to summon the party mandarins on his behalf is also a sign that he needs to provide a rationale for his candidacy that is more compelling than it being his turn in the family rotation.

Today was a good start for Bush. But merely saying that he’s going to be his own man even as he lines up his father and brother’s men behind him will not be good enough to convince voters that there is a reason to vote for Jeb. The coming year will give him plenty of opportunities to prove that he really is something different despite the Bush brand in a contest that will ultimately place him up against another retread like Clinton. Shock and awe is all well and good for the beginning of a war, but it will take more than that to carry him through a crowded primary field.

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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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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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Scott Walker Rejects Your Premise

The conventional wisdom after Republicans lost two presidential elections to Barack Obama was that the GOP needed to concede the premise of certain Democratic talking points. Suddenly immigration reform became urgent enough for a prospective GOP candidate to lead the effort in the Senate. And even more suddenly, talk of inequality has emerged in conservative circles. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if, instead, Scott Walker is right?

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The conventional wisdom after Republicans lost two presidential elections to Barack Obama was that the GOP needed to concede the premise of certain Democratic talking points. Suddenly immigration reform became urgent enough for a prospective GOP candidate to lead the effort in the Senate. And even more suddenly, talk of inequality has emerged in conservative circles. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if, instead, Scott Walker is right?

The Wisconsin governor is enjoying a bit of a boomlet right now, as Peter Beinart notes in a sharp piece on Walker’s unapologetic conservatism. And he’s earned it. He won three statewide elections in four years, and did so with national media attention and the concerted lunatic tactics of public unions (death threats, violence, compulsive Hitler comparisons) aimed at him and his supporters. He won comfortably and with a smile on his face. Walker never lost his composure and never stooped to the level of his fanatical liberal opponents.

None of this is news. What’s changed is that Walker has, in the last week, gone national. His speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit earned rave reviews, and was followed with what appears to be the first pro-Walker presidential ad. And everyone seems to have noticed what Walker’s opponents in Wisconsin have learned the hard way, repeatedly: he’s a formidable politician. This should worry his GOP rivals not only because of Walker’s win streak, but also because Walker is doing something many of them aren’t: he’s setting the terms of the debate instead of following the terms the Democrats have set.

A good example of how this plays out concerns Mitt Romney, who had been flirting with another presidential run. Romney was hurt by his infamous “47 percent” remark in which he appeared to write off voters he considered contentedly dependent on government. It became a catchphrase for the Republicans’ so-called empathy gap.

Before deciding to pass on running again, Romney had been trying to undo the lingering damage of the Monopoly Man reputation by expressing his concern for the poor. He was rewarded for stepping into this rhetorical bear trap with a giddy President Obama in full class warrior mode, as Politico notes:

“Even though their policies haven’t quite caught up yet, their rhetoric is starting to sound pretty Democratic,” Obama said of the Republicans during a House Democratic retreat. “We have a former presidential candidate on the other side and [who is] suddenly deeply concerned about poverty. That’s great, let’s go. Let’s do something about it.”

Even when trash talking, the president is not exactly a wordsmith. But the point, clumsy and juvenile though it is, shines through: whatever your policies, to simply care about poor people makes you sound “pretty Democratic,” as the intellectually cloistered president sees it.

This helps Democrats because even if Republicans come around to demonstrating the empathy they supposedly lack, it sends the message that the Democrats were right. Walker rejects the premise.

Beinart explains how the media missed this story until now:

Walker’s rise illustrates the pitfalls of media coverage of the GOP race. Not many national reporters live within the conservative media ecosystem. They therefore largely assume that in order to win over the non-white, female, millennial and working class voters who rejected John McCain and Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidates must break from conservative orthodoxy, if not substantively, then at least rhetorically. Journalists are also drawn to storylines about change. Thus, when potential GOP candidates show signs of ideological deviation, the press perks up. After 2012, Marco Rubio garnered enormous media attention for his efforts at immigration reform. Rand Paul’s transgressions—whether on foreign policy, civil liberties or race—make headlines almost every week. In covering the launch of his new Super PAC, journalists made much of Jeb Bush’s discussion of income inequality and his fluent Spanish. Most recently, reporters have lavished attention on Mitt Romney’s new focus on the poor.

The lesson, as I interpret it, is that the press and the Democrats speak the same language. That’s not surprising; the mainstream press, especially during national elections, functions as a messaging office for the Democrats. Because of this, they just assume that in order to be a serious presidential candidate you have to be like them, like the Democrats.

Walker doesn’t agree. And he’s been extraordinarily successful of late by not agreeing.

Part of the media’s terrible coverage of national politics is the reliance on the personal: it matters to them who is saying it more than what is said. Romney got tagged as uncaring because he’s rich. But the classic conservative policies don’t reek of plutocracy when coming from the new crop of Republican stars, many of whom came from modest beginnings or are the children of immigrants, or both. Walker doesn’t even have a college degree, which itself is incomprehensible to modern Democrats, who are elitist and credentialist and genuinely don’t know what life is like in much of the country.

And neither does the media. Which is how someone like Walker could be so successful and still blindside the national press, who would struggle to find Wisconsin on a map. And it’s why Walker is a threat to other high-profile Republicans who have accepted the Democratic/media framing of the issues in order to make a national pitch. Only one of them can be right.

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Jeb Doubles Down on Challenging GOP Base

Anyone who thought that Jeb Bush was kidding when he made noises late last year about challenging his party’s base while running for its presidential nomination better think again. In a speech given yesterday in San Francisco, Bush reaffirmed his support for immigration but also made clear that he believed, “We need to find a path to legalized status for those who have come here and have languished in the shadows.” But while Bush was staking out a centrist position on immigration, most of the other potential Republican candidates were in Des Moines attending the Iowa Freedom Summit where they were coming down on the opposite side of that issue as well as the Common Core education curriculum that Bush also supports. The juxtaposition of these two events again raises the question whether anyone, even someone as talented as Bush, can win by flouting the sentiments of most of his party’s activists.

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Anyone who thought that Jeb Bush was kidding when he made noises late last year about challenging his party’s base while running for its presidential nomination better think again. In a speech given yesterday in San Francisco, Bush reaffirmed his support for immigration but also made clear that he believed, “We need to find a path to legalized status for those who have come here and have languished in the shadows.” But while Bush was staking out a centrist position on immigration, most of the other potential Republican candidates were in Des Moines attending the Iowa Freedom Summit where they were coming down on the opposite side of that issue as well as the Common Core education curriculum that Bush also supports. The juxtaposition of these two events again raises the question whether anyone, even someone as talented as Bush, can win by flouting the sentiments of most of his party’s activists.

Bush wasn’t the only would-be candidate missing in Des Moines. Mitt Romney, who continues to act as if he is ready for a third try for the presidency, was also absent and the presence of the two moderate heavyweights was reportedly noted with scorn by some of those in attendance. But while we’re still a year away from voting in the first-in-the-nation caucus, the decision of Bush to double down on his immigration stand illustrates just how different his approach to the 2016 race is from the rest of the field.

Bush isn’t wrong when he notes that those who are opposed to a path to legalization need to come up with a better answer than deportation (or the tragicomic “self-deportation” idea that helped sink Romney in 2012) for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. This is a long-term problem that requires a solution that goes deeper than slogans. That is the same attitude that motivated his older brother to make a futile attempt to pass immigration reform in 2005 and led a number of other conservatives (including Senator Marco Rubio, a possible 2016 rival) to support a comprehensive bipartisan immigration bill that allowed for a path to citizenship in 2013. As Rubio learned to his sorrow, most Republicans opposed that position at that time. But while Rubio has backed off, Bush is digging in despite the fact that, if anything, conservative opposition to what most still call “amnesty” has only increased.

While any support for legalization was always going to be an uphill slog among Republicans, two events in the intervening years have made it even more difficult.

The first was the surge in illegal immigration this past summer that threatened at one point to overwhelm the country’s resources as unaccompanied minors flooded over into Texas from Mexico. Though some argued that worsening conditions in Central America was the primary motivation for what happened, it was also clear that pro-amnesty rhetoric from President Obama and other prominent figures on both sides of the aisle had raised unreasonable expectations among potential illegals. This convinced Rubio and many other pro-reform politicians and pundits (such as myself) that the comprehensive approach of the Senate bill was wrong. The border had to be secured first before any consideration should be given to amnesty.

But far more important, at least as far as the discussion about this issue among Republicans was concerned, was President Obama’s decision to grant de facto amnesty to up to five million illegals via executive orders last month. This decision offended many that might otherwise agree with both the president and Bush that a solution must be found for the illegals. It raised the specter of one-man rule and ignored the Constitution with respect to the right of Congress to pass the laws of the land. One may try, as Bush will, to treat this as a separate issue from that of immigration reform. But, thanks to Obama, the two are now inseparable. One can’t talk about a path to legalization anymore without, in the same breath, acknowledging that Obama’s extra-legal moves have fundamentally altered the debate. That makes it even more difficult to advocate more amnesty, as Bush is doing, without it making it appear as if he is on the same side as Obama. That may be unfair but that is the way the issue will be framed and the former Florida governor is too experienced a political hand to expect anything different.

Much of the liberal mainstream media may believe opposition to amnesty will make it impossible for Republicans to ever win another national election. But while the Hispanic vote is a major factor, the rest of the country is unhappy with amnesty and illegal immigration in a way that can swing many working and middle-class voters of all races to the GOP. Bush is assuming he’s on the right side of history with his stance but Obama may have permanently altered the political landscape on this question in a way that makes his position less saleable among all voters and poison for Republicans.

Bush has other problems besides immigration and Common Core. Romney’s decision to jump in eliminates the possibility that he can monopolize the establishment vote. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s seeming determination to run (he deserves credit for showing up in Iowa despite his unpopularity among conservatives) also complicates things for Bush. He has great assets too, including a famous name, a conservative record as governor, a thoughtful approach to the issues, and the ability to raise all the cash he needs. Bush may also believe the altered primary and caucus schedule and rules in 2016 will benefit him. But his fate will hang more on the validity of his thesis that you can win by running against the base than anything else. If he can pull it off, it will make history and put him in a great position to win the general election against the Democrats. But count me as one of those who will believe it is possible after I see him do it and not before.

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Jeb’s ‘Shock and Awe’ Campaign Isn’t Thinning 2016 GOP Field

According to the Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush’s strategy for winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is based on what campaign aides are calling a “shock and awe” approach that will intimidate potential opponents. The plan is for the former Florida governor to blitz Republican donors around the nation and raise so much money that other GOP contenders will decide they have no chance. But while Bush has certainly done himself a world of good in the last months as he jumped into the race early enough to earn the title of the frontrunner, the plan isn’t working. Bush not only hasn’t deterred Mitt Romney from taking the first steps toward a 2016 run; the field is rapidly filling with serious candidates that many thought wouldn’t run, like Senator Marco Rubio as well as not so serious ones like Senator Lindsey Graham and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. The Bush fundraising tour may be impressive, but other Republicans appear to be insufficiently shocked and awed.

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According to the Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush’s strategy for winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is based on what campaign aides are calling a “shock and awe” approach that will intimidate potential opponents. The plan is for the former Florida governor to blitz Republican donors around the nation and raise so much money that other GOP contenders will decide they have no chance. But while Bush has certainly done himself a world of good in the last months as he jumped into the race early enough to earn the title of the frontrunner, the plan isn’t working. Bush not only hasn’t deterred Mitt Romney from taking the first steps toward a 2016 run; the field is rapidly filling with serious candidates that many thought wouldn’t run, like Senator Marco Rubio as well as not so serious ones like Senator Lindsey Graham and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. The Bush fundraising tour may be impressive, but other Republicans appear to be insufficiently shocked and awed.

Bush met with the primary obstacle to his 2016 hopes earlier this week in what one conservative blogger humorously slammed as a “RINO Yalta.” Though supposedly the meeting with Mitt Romney in Salt Lake City was scheduled before he made it clear that he still wants to be president, presumably Bush was still hoping to persuade the 2012 nominee to back him this time or at least to back off on his plan for a third try at the presidency. But apparently Mitt was also neither shocked nor awed by Jeb’s prospects. What former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt described as a “gentlemanly conversation” has still left the two establishment heavyweights competing for the same donors and moderate GOP voters. It also seems to leave others hoping for the same type of support like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie out in the cold.

But the establishment logjam is exactly what is encouraging other Republicans like Rubio to jump in. Were either Bush or Romney to have the moderate niche to themselves, it might set up a repeat of the 2012 race when Mitt coasted to the nomination as a field of weak conservatives split the rest of the votes. But Rubio and other conservatives are right to think that at this point it doesn’t matter how many fundraisers Bush attends in the next couple of months. Nor is the size of his already impressive campaign war chest likely to deter candidates who understand that the crowd on the ballot gives virtually any of them a real shot to score a breakthrough in one or more of the early primaries and use that as a launching pad toward the nomination.

Not all of them are actually running for president in a serious sense. Fiorina who fell short in her bid to win a California Senate seat in 2010 is too moderate to have even a prayer to win the nomination of what is a clearly conservative party. Nor is someone with her pro-choice views on abortion likely to be tapped for the second spot on a national GOP ticket. But she is a very plausible candidate for a Cabinet seat in the next Republican administration, assuming one takes office in 2017. At the very least, Republicans will be grateful to have at least one woman on the platform when their 2016 contenders debate, especially one who won’t say goofy things about vaccines as Michele Bachmann did in 2012.

Graham’s motivations for making noises about the presidency are more obscure. Though he can reasonably claim to be the candidate who can champion his friend John McCain’s strong foreign-policy views, Rubio can do that too and with more eloquence. Graham isn’t establishment enough to compete for that kind of support while also being disliked by Tea Partiers. If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the candidate who is best positioned to unite both establishment types and Tea Partiers, Graham is the polar opposite in the way he brings both factions together in antipathy for him.

But whatever we might think about the forlorn hopes of Fiorina or Graham or even Rubio’s brightening prospects, the one firm conclusion we can draw about the 2016 GOP race at this point is that no one is being deterred from running by Bush’s all-out push to lock up major donors. Bush may still be a strong candidate, though it remains to be seen whether anyone can run, as he has seemed to indicate that he will, against his party’s base rather than seeking to win it over and still get the nomination. But if Jeb is going to win next year, he’s going to have to do it by defeating any and all comers the old-fashioned way: by out-campaigning them and receiving more votes. Shock and awe isn’t working in a race where seemingly everybody feels free to jump into the pool.

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Room For Rand? Actually, For Everyone.

Last week, Senator Rand Paul told Sean Hannity that he wouldn’t run for president “just for educational purposes,” but would only do so if he thought if he thought he could win. To which a great many Republicans might have responded that if he felt that way, he should probably pass on the attempt. The chances that Paul could expand on his libertarian base have diminished due to the increased attention on Islamist terror after ISIS and the Paris attacks. But despite all that, Paul isn’t crazy to think that he could win the GOP nomination next year. With the pileup of plausible establishment candidates as well as the plethora of strong conservatives either in the race or considering it, the Republican race is, as Karl Rove wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “the most volatile and unpredictable Republican contest most Americans have ever seen.” This means that despite the confidence among some large donors that they will be able to pick from Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Chris Christie, the sheer size of the field may enable someone far less electable like Paul to win pluralities and actually win the nomination.

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Last week, Senator Rand Paul told Sean Hannity that he wouldn’t run for president “just for educational purposes,” but would only do so if he thought if he thought he could win. To which a great many Republicans might have responded that if he felt that way, he should probably pass on the attempt. The chances that Paul could expand on his libertarian base have diminished due to the increased attention on Islamist terror after ISIS and the Paris attacks. But despite all that, Paul isn’t crazy to think that he could win the GOP nomination next year. With the pileup of plausible establishment candidates as well as the plethora of strong conservatives either in the race or considering it, the Republican race is, as Karl Rove wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “the most volatile and unpredictable Republican contest most Americans have ever seen.” This means that despite the confidence among some large donors that they will be able to pick from Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Chris Christie, the sheer size of the field may enable someone far less electable like Paul to win pluralities and actually win the nomination.

That explains Paul’s confidence as he came out swinging this week, taking shots at establishment heavyweights like Bush and Romney and expressing his disdain for Senator Marco Rubio, who has strongly criticized the Kentucky senator’s support for some of President Obama foreign-policy initiatives. It isn’t clear whether Rubio, who could put forward perhaps the strongest alternative to Paul’s foreign-policy approach among the GOP field, will actually run. But his point about Paul being much closer to Obama on these issues than he is to most Republicans is well taken.

In a relatively small field of candidates, Paul’s foreign-policy views might consign him to the margins just as was the case for his far more extreme father Ron, whose posse of libertarian voters is expected to fall into Rand’s lap. But in a field with so many potential first-tier candidates, it is realistic to think that primaries could be won with relatively small percentages of the vote. Most importantly, if more than one establishment candidate or even three are seriously competing, that changes the entire dynamic of the race and will make it possible, maybe even probable, that someone other than that trio will eventually emerge as the victor.

That runs counter to conventional wisdom about Republican nominating contests that have in the past few cycles revolved around the futile efforts of challengers to knock off front-runners with establishment backing. The Republican National Committee has changed the rules for next year’s contest by limiting the number of debates and by pushing back caucuses and primaries by a month in an effort aimed at staging a contest that will lead to a relatively quick victory by a consensus candidate. But those changes could help create a stalemate in a race where no one candidate has enough support to dominate the field. That means that any one of a large number of candidates, including Paul, is able to construct a scenario that will end with an acceptance speech in Cleveland in July 2016.

If that frightens the establishment, it should. Their assumption that Bush or Romney, or perhaps even Christie (whose chances are, at best, very poor) will prevail is based on the belief that the conservatives in the race simply can’t win the nomination. But in such a scrum, Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, or perhaps even Rick Santorum could theoretically win a few states with very small pluralities and then take some winner-take-all states later in the process that will enable them to amass enough delegates to coast to victory.

Of these, Paul’s scenario is perhaps the most realistic, since he will start with a large chunk of voters already in his pocket. Though his ceiling is relatively low, his base might be enough to win him some victories before any of the alternatives are able to strike back.

It’s far from clear that any of the establishment candidates are strong enough to win the nomination. As poorly received as Romney’s entry into the race has been, few have tried to refute his assumption that Bush’s decision to run against the party’s base may be a fatal mistake. But whether or not he is fated to lose, the former Florida governor is wrong if he thinks the size of the field will not materially impact his chances of winning. If this is an election in which no one will need a consensus to squeak to victory in Republican primaries, don’t be surprised if a consensus about a single candidate never emerges. That means the Republicans may well be stuck with a candidate without much chance to win a general election. That nightmare scenario is exactly what Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are counting on.

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