Commentary Magazine


Topic: Marco Rubio

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 them.

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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 them.

Rubio, who won a Senate seat as a Tea Party insurgent challenging establishment Republican (turned independent and then Democrat Charlie Crist) stock fell 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, who 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’ “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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Hillary Clinton Is Terrified of People. Will It Matter to Voters?

If, as a child, you expressed fear of a certain kind of insect, or a dog or a cat perhaps, you were probably told by an adult to buck up because “it’s more afraid of you than you are of it.” If so, you might find it endearing to learn that the same could probably be said about Hillary Clinton. It’s true that she seeks to punish dissent, embraces Nixonian power lust and rule breaking, and is even willing to support amending the Constitution to trash free-speech protections if it means keeping a negative movie about her out of theaters. But as we’re learning this week, as creepy and destructive as her view of government is, she’s almost certainly more afraid of you than you are of her.

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If, as a child, you expressed fear of a certain kind of insect, or a dog or a cat perhaps, you were probably told by an adult to buck up because “it’s more afraid of you than you are of it.” If so, you might find it endearing to learn that the same could probably be said about Hillary Clinton. It’s true that she seeks to punish dissent, embraces Nixonian power lust and rule breaking, and is even willing to support amending the Constitution to trash free-speech protections if it means keeping a negative movie about her out of theaters. But as we’re learning this week, as creepy and destructive as her view of government is, she’s almost certainly more afraid of you than you are of her.

IJ Review has a fun side-by-side comparison of what happened when the entertainment-news site TMZ attempted to question Marco Rubio in an airport, and what happened when TMZ tried to corner Hillary Clinton in an airport. Rubio walked over to the cameraman smiling, and chatted for a bit about his campaign, music, and even gracefully handled a question about his wife being an ex-cheerleader. He never looked uncomfortable, or bothered by the questions.

The video of Clinton consists entirely of her walking away in silence, hearing but ignoring the cameraman.

You may think that if there’s any fear at play in that video, it’s fear of the media or of accountability. And that’s surely true. But Hillary’s campaign rollout is revealing that it’s a more generalized fear than that: the woman who wants to be the next president is terrified of people.

Politico reports that while Hillary launched her campaign promising to fight for “everyday Americans,” she would prefer to do so at a distance. She drove to Iowa to meet with voters, but it turned out to be the early stages of a Potemkin campaign:

That’s because she didn’t actually have much face time with regular Iowans who weren’t handpicked by her campaign.

In part, that was by design: Clinton didn’t meet with that many people, period. The strategy going in was to focus on small groups — rather than stage big rallies — and to cultivate more intimate experiences. But Clinton’s foray into Iowa was also an exercise in preaching to the choir, largely executed in the safety of controlled environments.

All told, she met with less than a few dozen Iowans who weren’t pre-selected.

The Politico piece is a guided tour through Hillary’s Iowa trip and the carefully selected groups of “regular people” she met and spoke with along the way and who asked her canned softball questions that were really just liberal talking points with a question mark at the end.

But then, something happened that threatened to shake the very foundations of her Iowa trip: someone spoke to her unscripted. Politico tells the terrifying tale:

But Clinton appeared less at ease in less controlled situations. When two reporters yelled questions at her about why she ignored a 2012 letter from congressional investigators asking about her personal email use at the State Department, and why she appeared to change her position on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, Clinton bolted from the room without a word to the news media.

The subheadline of the Politico article is: “Clinton’s foray into Iowa was an exercise in preaching to the choir, executed in the safety of controlled environments.” That seems like an accurate summary of the trip as well as Hillary’s hopes for the campaign. She is uneasy when she doesn’t approve everyone’s placement in the room and when she doesn’t know what they’re going to say to her. She needs pre-programmed responses to questions. The act of thinking on the fly, of deciding for herself what she believes–of actually believing something, anything–is too much for her.

The extent to which Clinton’s interactions with the public must be stage-managed can get quite ridiculous. In September at the Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa, Hillary pretended to grill a steak that had been pre-grilled for her in order to fulfill the obligatory photo op. A picture of Hillary flipping a pre-cooked steak at a steak fry is possibly the quintessential image of Hillary’s presidential ambitions.

The question, as always, is whether any of this is going to matter. Hillary’s a disaster when actually speaking extemporaneously, so there’s an argument to be made that the image of an entitled aspiring monarch running away from “everyday Americans” at full speed is an improvement over what she might say when asked a question that hasn’t been pre-written and pre-answered.

But the contrast between her and the Republicans like Rubio, who wear a smile easily and are willing to interact with voters, is not going to be kind to her during this long campaign. Get to know America, Mrs. Clinton. You just might like it if you give it a chance.

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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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Rubio’s Path Is Steep But Doable

Marco Rubio’s timing couldn’t be better. A day after Hillary Clinton’s announcement for the presidency reminded us why the putative Democratic nominee will be running away from what should have been a strength—foreign policy—the Florida senator’s declaration illustrates why the youngest candidate in the field (five months younger than Ted Cruz) has a chance. Just as Clinton’s seeming inevitability is undermined by the sense that she is a stale retread from the ’90s who is looking to serve the third term of either her husband or her former boss, Rubio epitomizes the future of American politics. As a Hispanic and the son of working class immigrants, arguably the Republican candidate with the strongest command of foreign policy among the major contenders, and perhaps the best speaker, Rubio ought to rate serious consideration. But whether he does or not will depend on his ability to withstand the scrutiny and rigors of the big stage as well as that of his rivals.

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Marco Rubio’s timing couldn’t be better. A day after Hillary Clinton’s announcement for the presidency reminded us why the putative Democratic nominee will be running away from what should have been a strength—foreign policy—the Florida senator’s declaration illustrates why the youngest candidate in the field (five months younger than Ted Cruz) has a chance. Just as Clinton’s seeming inevitability is undermined by the sense that she is a stale retread from the ’90s who is looking to serve the third term of either her husband or her former boss, Rubio epitomizes the future of American politics. As a Hispanic and the son of working class immigrants, arguably the Republican candidate with the strongest command of foreign policy among the major contenders, and perhaps the best speaker, Rubio ought to rate serious consideration. But whether he does or not will depend on his ability to withstand the scrutiny and rigors of the big stage as well as that of his rivals.

There has always been a strong argument in favor of Rubio sitting out the 2016 race. Running now puts him in competition with his former ally and mentor, Jeb Bush, as well as obligating him to give up a Senate seat that could have been his for the indefinite future, something fellow senators Ted Cruz (not up for reelection until 2018) and Rand Paul (he may be able to avoid making a decision about staying in the Senate until after the presidential primaries are decided) may not have to do.

There is also the question as to whether Rubio’s youth and relative inexperience have not quite prepared him for presidential prime time. Though he was promoted as the next great thing by many in the GOP after their 2012 election defeat, he had a very bad 2013 that started with a dive for a water bottle during his State of the Union response speech and then cratered as the party base bitterly rejected his support for a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. By the end of that year as Rand Paul’s stock went up as even many Republicans were prepared to withdraw from engagement from the world, it seemed unlikely that Rubio would run for president, let alone be thought of as a potential first tier candidate.

But in the last year Rubio has rebounded. He managed to back away from the immigration bill by rightly concluding that the surge across the border last summer proved that security had to come first before a path to citizenship could be considered for those here illegally.

More than that, the very factor that undermined Paul’s confidence that the GOP was no longer the party of a strong America has boosted the rationale for a Rubio candidacy. As one of his party’s foremost spokesmen on foreign policy, Rubio offers a clear alternative to the once and future neo-isolationist Paul as well as defense and security neophytes like Scott Walker.

However, the obstacles in his way are formidable.

The first is that he can’t count on any one constituency to fall back on. Where Jeb Bush has the establishment, Rand Paul has libertarians, Ted Cruz has the Tea Party and, he hopes, Christian conservatives for whom he will have to compete with Walker, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee, Rubio has no such base.

What he does have is the ability to reach out to all of these constituencies, though many Tea Partiers, who once boosted him in his 2010 Senate run as one of their own, will never forgive him for his past support of immigration amnesty. That’s the conceit of Scott Walker’s candidacy as well, but the Wisconsin governor has not acquired the same enemies on the right that Rubio has made.

Also against him is the Obama precedent. As can also be said of Cruz, Republicans who have been complaining about the country being run by a first-term senator may not want to try the same experiment with a conservative instead of a liberal.

On top of all that is the fact that he must, at best, expect to split Florida fundraisers with Jeb Bush. And with his poll numbers still quite low, raising money may not be easy.

But there’s a reason Rubio seems willing to gamble his Senate seat on chances that some pundits don’t consider good.

Just as Obama didn’t wait his turn in 2008, it’s not crazy to think that Rubio could catch fire too. The fact is, the polls still mean very little right now, a point that Scott Walker should keep reminding himself about. The nomination will hinge on the debates and that ought to stand Rubio in good stead. He may not be able to count on any one sector of the party, but that can help him too since it means he can’t be pigeonholed as either a Tea Party or libertarian extremist who can’t win in November (as can be said of Cruz and Paul) or a product of the establishment or the past (as is the case with Bush). And unlike Walker, he won’t have to learn about foreign policy—the main job we hire presidents to do—on the fly.

The point about a large field with no real frontrunner is that it means that any one of the candidates who can engage the imagination of the voters can win. Rubio might not turn out to have the right stuff to win a presidential nomination let alone the election. But with his immigrant/working class background, Hispanic identity, and impeccable conservative credentials on social and economic issues, he remains the computer model of the kind of candidate Republicans need to nominate. His immigrant narrative is a powerful tool that not only helps him but also hurts Jeb Bush. He is a candidate of change and youth in a way that fellow Hispanic and relative youngster Ted Cruz is not.

Can it work? It has before in American politics when John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama did it. Those are tough comparisons to live up or down. But with chances that are at least as good anyone else’s, there’s no reason for him not to give it a try.

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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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Rand Paul, Paleoneoconrealitarian Uniter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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End the GOP’s Iowa Ethanol Panderfest

Wherever Iowa famers gather, presidential candidates are never in short supply. So if you’re planning on attending the annual Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines tomorrow, it may be difficult to avoid tripping over potential Republican contenders. But not all the GOP hopefuls will be there. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are skipping the event. Why? Both oppose the renewable fuel standard, a measure beloved by Iowa corn growers that requires blending corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into the gasoline supply. Rubio and Jindal aren’t the ones who have crossed the Iowa agriculture industry. Other candidates have voted for measures seeking to eventually end ethanol subsidies. But the farm lobby has forced Republicans who believe in the free market to bend to their will before and is determined to punish those who don’t pledge allegiance to ethanol and make them pay at the Iowa Caucuses next year. The question is, will 2016 mark the moment when conservatives prefer their principles to corn-based votes?

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Wherever Iowa famers gather, presidential candidates are never in short supply. So if you’re planning on attending the annual Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines tomorrow, it may be difficult to avoid tripping over potential Republican contenders. But not all the GOP hopefuls will be there. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are skipping the event. Why? Both oppose the renewable fuel standard, a measure beloved by Iowa corn growers that requires blending corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into the gasoline supply. Rubio and Jindal aren’t the ones who have crossed the Iowa agriculture industry. Other candidates have voted for measures seeking to eventually end ethanol subsidies. But the farm lobby has forced Republicans who believe in the free market to bend to their will before and is determined to punish those who don’t pledge allegiance to ethanol and make them pay at the Iowa Caucuses next year. The question is, will 2016 mark the moment when conservatives prefer their principles to corn-based votes?

Ethanol and biofuels sound like a green dream that combines the needs of farmers with the nation’s desire for energy independence and less carbon-based pollution. The clout of the powerful farm lobby might have been enough to ensure that Congress subsidized the ethanol business. But the fact that Iowa becomes the center of the political universe once every four years with the campaign lasting longer every election has made corn king.

But even the outsized influence of the Hawkeye State has not been enough to suppress the growing realization that the massive federal subsidies lavished on corn growers was a boondoggle of epic proportions that has done little to help the environment and a lot for the bank accounts of those connected to this industry. After a long fight, Congress passed a sunset provision on the subsidies, but Iowans who are used to being Uncle Sam’s favored relations aren’t giving up. They are defending the renewable fuel standards against sensible criticisms and seek, as they always do, to use the first-in-the-nation caucuses to bend would-be presidents to their will.

Industry groups are prepared to invest millions in media blitzes backing candidates who conform to their wishes and oppose those who don’t. Given its past success, it’s hard to blame the corn/ethanol lobby for feeling confident that they can intimidate Republicans again.

After all, a free market supporter like Mitt Romney folded like a cheap suit in 2012 in his bid to win the caucus. As it turns out, Rick Santorum, another conservative who discovered how much he loved corn when running for president, edged him. They weren’t alone; that year Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party favorite candidate who won the Iowa Straw Poll before flopping in the caucus, also dropped her anti-government mantra long enough to embrace ethanol.

Going back to 2008, the caucus was won by Mike Huckabee, another politician who extolled the virtues of small government except when it came to federal largesse being doled out to Iowa farmers. Among the losers in Iowa that year was John McCain, the eventual nominee who largely stuck to his guns when it came to opposing ethanol subsidies.

Will a Republican Party whose mainstream as well as its Tea Party faction have spent the last several years lambasting the Obama administration for its green corruption schemes like Solyndra make an exception for Iowa again? To their credit, Rubio and Jindal say no. As the Journal notes, Jeb Bush has yet to say much about the issue but has in the past backed a Brazilian ethanol scheme that irked Iowans. Libertarian Rand Paul is in no position to genuflect to the corn growers. Tea Party stalwart Ted Cruz is risking the ire of the lobby by co-sponsoring legislation to repeal the renewable fuels standard.

But past Iowa winners Huckabee and Santorum are back to try again in 2016 and appear ready to pander to ethanol if that’s what it takes to get them into the first tier of a race with a huge field.

That leaves Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has an early but commanding lead in Iowa right now. Will Walker, a man who became a conservative folk hero by opposing big government and unions, decide that government handouts to farmers don’t offend his conscience? If not, then perhaps we will have really turned a corner. But until a candidate who spurns corn wins the caucus, Iowa will remain a quadrennial panderfest. Conservatives who are dismayed by the way their would-be standard-bearers check their principles at the state border when they enter Iowa hope 2016 is the year when this will happen.

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Republicans Who Are Rising to the Challenge

A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 72 percent of those polled say that, in general, the government’s policies since the recession have done little or nothing to help middle class people. This isn’t surprising, since median household income actually decreased after the official end of the recession in the summer of 2009. As many of us have argued before, the middle class is feeling anxious, insecure and uneasy — and they are right to feel that way.

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A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 72 percent of those polled say that, in general, the government’s policies since the recession have done little or nothing to help middle class people. This isn’t surprising, since median household income actually decreased after the official end of the recession in the summer of 2009. As many of us have argued before, the middle class is feeling anxious, insecure and uneasy — and they are right to feel that way.

This unhappiness provides Republicans with an opportunity — and two senators, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, are stepping up at just the right time. Senators Lee and Rubio, the Tea Party’s great gifts to American politics, have put forward an outstanding tax plan. As my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin writes in summarizing the plan, it would:

  • Cut the business tax rate to 25 percent (including for all pass-through business income, so that large and small businesses pay the same rate);
  • End the taxation of capital gains, dividends, and interest;
  • Allow businesses to deduct capital investments from their taxable income immediately rather than over time;
  • Consolidate today’s seven tax brackets into two brackets at a 15 percent and 35 percent rate (although business income would be taxed at 25 percent and income from savings would not be taxed);
  • Repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax and most of the deductions in the code (leaving only the charitable deduction and a capped mortgage interest deduction that would both be available to all taxpayers, not just those who itemize); and
  • Replace today’s standard deduction with a $2,000 individual ($4,000 per married couple) credit, end the marriage penalty in the tax code, and provide a new $2,500 per child credit (alongside the existing $1,000 credit, which phases out with income).

There’s more to it than that, of course, and there are still important matters still to be determined, most especially the details of the cap on mortgage interest deductions (meaning the design and level of the cap). But the key thing to take away from this effort, I think, is that it would lesson the tax burden on working families and businesses, and in doing so provide help to the middle class and promote economic growth.

“Our hope here isn’t to pick winners and losers. Our hope here is to trigger economic growth,” Senator Rubio told reporters. He added that he believes “the vast majority of Americans” would see tax cuts if the plan was implemented.

This is a model approach for Republicans, whether they are running for president, the House or Senate, governor, or state legislator: To put forward ideas that are substantive and specific, bold, and address to the needs and challenges of our time. By which I mean they will actually and materially improve the conditions of ordinary Americans.

Too often these days politics is about theatrics, about silly threats, banalities and rhetorical recklessness. What Senators Lee and Rubio have done is to provide something of an antidote to this. Like others — Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Rob Portman, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Pence and many more — these are serious individuals promoting good (conservative) ideas in a responsible fashion, and in a way that will appeal to voters. It’s a powerful contrast to the Democratic Party, which is reactionary, tired, increasingly bitter and out of ideas.

These are politically interesting times we’re in — and for conservatives, increasingly hopeful ones.

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Watch As the Media Creates A False Race Narrative in Real Time

The Obama administration’s recent losing streak has been a problem not only for the president but also for the bearers of bad news. As I wrote yesterday, the political media get noticeably uncomfortable when the White House’s failings can’t be easily spun away. What they needed was a distraction. And that’s exactly what they got when Politico reported Rudy Giuliani’s off-the-record remarks at a fundraiser casting doubt on whether Barack Obama “loves America.” In the media’s completely predictable and utterly embarrassing overreaction, you could watch two narratives develop in real time.

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The Obama administration’s recent losing streak has been a problem not only for the president but also for the bearers of bad news. As I wrote yesterday, the political media get noticeably uncomfortable when the White House’s failings can’t be easily spun away. What they needed was a distraction. And that’s exactly what they got when Politico reported Rudy Giuliani’s off-the-record remarks at a fundraiser casting doubt on whether Barack Obama “loves America.” In the media’s completely predictable and utterly embarrassing overreaction, you could watch two narratives develop in real time.

An overarching rule of the mainstream media’s in-kind contribution to the Obama political machine is to avoid anything that can be construed as actual debate. So while Giuliani’s comments were following in Obama’s own footsteps, as the president has not hesitated to question the patriotism of those who disagree with him, the outrage was immediate. In an indication of just how bad things have been for the Obama White House lately, the press has now made “Giuliani was mean to Dear Leader” a two-day story. And they’ve also telegraphed how they hope to take it further.

The first way is to make it part of the 2016 conversation. This is generally how the press responds to any controversial statements by a Republican: try to get the other Republicans on the record about it. Thus while Democrats are never held responsible as a party for the extreme statements made by fellow liberals, Republicans are to be hounded by the president’s attack dogs for the perceived thought crime of any other Republican.

Scott Walker was asked about it, and gave the proper reply: he’s not Giuliani’s keeper. So the press went to annoy other Republicans. Talking Points Memo posted a piece describing the leftist media’s battle plan: “5 Points On How Obama’s Love For America Became The GOP’s Next 2016 Test”:

“I’m not questioning his patriotism. He’s a patriot, I’m sure,” Giuliani said. “What I’m saying is that in his rhetoric, I very rarely hear him say the things that I used to hear Ronald Reagan say, the things I used to hear Bill Clinton say, about how much he loves America.”

In a Thursday morning interview on CNBC, Walker was asked about Giuliani’s remarks but declined to comment on whether he believed Obama “loves America.”

Later in the day, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) stood apart from his GOP counterparts by openly saying he has “no doubt” Obama loves the country, although he disagrees with the President’s policies.

And before long, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) issued a statement declaring his refusal to condemn Giuliani’s comments because the gist of them was “true.”

With that, it was official: Whether the President of the United States actually loves the United States had become the debate du jour among potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates.

Notice Republicans did not actually set out to make this silly debate a litmus test. But as TPM points out, the media did. And so it shall be.

And while this may seem haphazard, as if the media’s just throwing whatever it can against the wall to change the conversation from Team Obama’s serial incompetence, there’s a point here. Why does the left want Republicans to talk about Giuliani’s criticism of Obama? Because they—of course—have deemed it racist.

Although—or perhaps, because—this particular accusation is obviously untrue, political reporters chased it feverishly. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Confessore got Rudy on the record in response:

“Some people thought it was racist — I thought that was a joke, since he was brought up by a white mother, a white grandfather, went to white schools, and most of this he learned from white people,” Mr. Giuliani said in the interview. “This isn’t racism. This is socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.”

In other words: Giuliani thinks the racism angle is silly, because the aspect of Obama’s worldview he’s criticizing comes from Obama’s immersion in white environments. The president’s “blackness” has nothing to do with it; if anything, it’s the opposite.

So naturally the Times manipulated Giuliani’s statement and slapped a patently false headline on the story that seems almost designed to destroy the credibility of the reporters who got the quote: “Giuliani: Obama Had a White Mother, So I’m Not a Racist.” I don’t know if Haberman and Confessore objected, but I would hope so. They’re far more honest than their editors want you to think they are.

But the Times report did get one more good quote out of Giuliani. This one was also prefaced with concern it would be controversial, but at least this time Giuliani helped himself by saying something indisputably true:

Mr. Giuliani said he also objected to the president’s comments about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast this month, in which Mr. Obama said that during the Inquisition, people had “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

“Now we know there’s something wrong with the guy,” Mr. Giuliani said of the president. “I thought that one sort of went off the cliff.’’

He added: “What I don’t find with Obama — this will get me in more trouble again — is a really deep knowledge of history. I think it’s a dilettante’s knowledge of history.”

As I wrote last week, Obama’s historical ignorance has come to be the defining feature of his public remarks. What was more troubling was the fact that no one around Obama seems to know much history either. But no matter: whenever the president’s own behavior is indefensible, they can always find someone to call a racist.

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ISIS’s Rise Means 2016 May Be a Foreign-Policy Election

In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

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In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

As our Max Boot termed it, Obama’s proposal for authorizing U.S. actions against terrorists in the Middle East is “a classic muddle.” By attempting to balance the administration’s allergic reaction to a U.S. commitment that might actually defeat ISIS while providing a legal basis for its ongoing half-hearted efforts, the president has provoked criticism from both the right and the left. But rather than being a compromise that makes sense, it merely confirms for those who weren’t already convinced that the president has no real strategy for eliminating ISIS or even for significantly “degrading” it.

It’s not clear what exactly will come out of the Congress as both House and Senate leaders struggle to come up with a formula that makes more sense than the administration’s attempt to set up one with limitations that ensures the U.S. can’t prevail in the conflict. But while his critics may demand that the president demonstrate that he has a path to victory over ISIS, they have very little leverage over his choices. No matter the outcome of the votes on a force authorization, nothing can make the president prosecute this war with conviction. Indeed, the U.S. is increasingly showing signs that the president is more interested in making common cause with Iran than in actually rolling back ISIS’s vast territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. That means the connection between Obama’s equivocal approach to the nuclear talks with Iran is not only worrisome in and of itself but a sign of an overall strategy in which the U.S. will acquiesce to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state and obtaining regional hegemony in return for cooperation against ISIS.

All this makes it even more important than it normally might be that potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates have more to say about foreign policy than platitudes. In 2008 the presidential contest—or at least the Democratic nomination that year—was essentially decided on the basis of Barack Obama’s adamant opposition to the Iraq war. Yet every new ISIS atrocity and terror attack is going to make it harder for anyone—whether on the right or the left—to run on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of the Middle East or to avoid conflicts.

For Democrats, this might make it even harder for those outliers with the temerity to challenge the Hillary Clinton juggernaut to get some traction by outflanking her on the left with another anti-war campaign. For Republicans, the more attention paid to ISIS murders of Americans, the harder it will be for Rand Paul to break out from the ideological box that his libertarian isolationist base has put him.

Nevertheless, Republican candidates need to do more than merely carp at Obama or issue ringing rhetoric about fighting terror. Unlike in 2008 and 2012, when many Americans thought they were electing a president to get them out of unpopular wars, the force authorization vote ensures that whoever wins next year will be leading a war effort that may well dominate their presidencies.

Unless something very unexpected happens in the next year, Republican candidates will be competing in primaries where they will be expected to tell us how they are prepared to beat an enemy that is, contrary to President Obama’s assurances, very much not on the run. That gives an advantage to a candidate like Senator Marco Rubio, who has been speaking with some authority on foreign policy throughout his first term in the Senate. Jeb Bush will have to also show whether his approach to foreign policy is, as some reports have indicated, a knockoff of his father’s “realist” policies that may not provide much of a contrast with Obama’s equivocations. By contrast, it puts those GOP governors that many of us have been assuming will be formidable candidates on the spot to quickly get up to speed on foreign policy. Walker is not the only one who fits in that category, but after his recent surge in the polls in Iowa, it’s obvious that if he wants to stay on top, he’s going to have to say something more than “no comment” about Iran.

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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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Marco Rubio Finds His Voice

While the Iowa Freedom Summit got most of the attention over the weekend, three potential Republican presidential candidates—Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz—engaged in a preview of the 2016 GOP foreign-policy debate at a forum in California. Both Cruz and Rubio are the sons of Cuban immigrants, and when the debate turned to the recent Obama administration decision to normalize relations with the island prison, Paul learned the hard way that ideological principles, if paired only with theoretical knowledge, struggle when challenged by personal experience.

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While the Iowa Freedom Summit got most of the attention over the weekend, three potential Republican presidential candidates—Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz—engaged in a preview of the 2016 GOP foreign-policy debate at a forum in California. Both Cruz and Rubio are the sons of Cuban immigrants, and when the debate turned to the recent Obama administration decision to normalize relations with the island prison, Paul learned the hard way that ideological principles, if paired only with theoretical knowledge, struggle when challenged by personal experience.

Foreign policy rarely plays too much of a role in general elections, though since 9/11 it has probably had a more sustained impact on voters, since the country was at war. But whatever its effect on the 2016 general election, it will likely be an important part of the conversation in the battle for the GOP nomination, due in large part to the presence of Rand Paul. The senator advocates a “conservative realism” (though I’ve pointed out in the past why it’s really more of a utopian realism) and thus gives voice to conservative critics of the party’s interventionist status quo. And if Rubio runs—and indications are that he’s leaning toward a run—the GOP will have its most eloquent spokesman for a robust American presence in the world in decades. Add in Cruz’s legendary debating skills, and the three-man forum over the weekend provides a glimpse of the battles yet to come.

According to The Hill, Rubio pressed his advantage on foreign affairs:

In making his case, Rubio argued the next Republican nominee needs to be a foreign policy expert with a “global strategic vision” who understands the “seriousness, breadth, and scope of the challenges we face” internationally.

Taking an apparent swipe at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who electrified conservatives over the weekend at the Iowa Freedom Summit, Rubio also said the GOP nominee shouldn’t necessarily come from the party’s stable of conservative governors.

“Taking a trip to some foreign city for two days does not make you Henry Kissinger,” Rubio said. Walker is planning a trip to Israel soon in a move meant to bolster his foreign policy credentials.

Governors tend to have a certain advantage over senators, in that they usually have a clear record. This is especially true during times of divided government, and for much of his time as Senate majority leader Harry Reid made it a Democratic priority to grind the Congress to a halt, not even passing basic legislation like budgets. But the other side of that coin is foreign policy: governors don’t usually have much experience there, while senators—if they’re on the right committees—do. And Rubio does.

But the Cuba debate reveals the other advantage Rubio and Cruz have. Namely, the kind of granular and personal understanding of an issue that even a few years on a foreign affairs committee won’t get you. That benefit, of course, has its limits. Personal experience can help a candidate craft a more compelling message, but there is no such thing as a true trump card in such debates. On Cuba, Paul also has one advantage: the polling is on his side. Americans appear ready for a policy shift there. Rubio and Cruz will be arguing passionately and intelligently, but they’ll begin by spotting Paul a few points here.

That, however, could change. One interesting aspect of the polling on Cuba is that President Obama’s policy has received higher marks than his handling of the issue, which suggests that there is still plenty of room to argue about how poorly Obama negotiated this deal. Today’s report from the Associated Press also demonstrates why even the approval numbers of the policy itself could slide back in the other direction if it continues to be mishandled:

Following the highest-level open talks in three decades between the two nations, Cuban officials remained firm in rejecting significant reforms pushed by the United States as part of President Barack Obama’s surprise move to re-establish ties and rebuild economic relations with the Communist-led country.

“One can’t think that in order to improve and normalize relations with the U.S., Cuba has to give up the principles it believes in,” Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, told The Associated Press after the end of the talks. “Changes in Cuba aren’t negotiable.”

Paul will be watching this carefully. His one major disadvantage on the Cuba issue is that he is reliant on the Obama administration’s handling of negotiations. The president’s bumbling foreign policy could easily lead to Paul being saddled by a flailing Cuba policy that Paul might have handled better. (It’s inconceivable that, for all his faults, Paul could possibly be a worse negotiator than Obama.)

And Cuba’s not the only such issue. On Iran, unsurprisingly, both Rubio and Cruz took a harder line, saying all options should be on the table while Paul was reduced to straw-man arguments about negotiations. Here, too, his fate for now is in the president’s hands. Fair or not, Obama’s thus-far disastrous Iran policy, which hasn’t stopped its march toward nuclear capability while also enabled it to expand its influence across the Middle East, is what voters will associate with talk of engagement that isn’t backed up by a credible threat of force or additional sanctions.

Obama’s name might not be on the ballot, but thanks to his handling of foreign affairs, his policies will be—not just in the general election, but in both parties’ nominating contests as well.

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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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Rivals Should Heed Santorum’s Appeal to Working Class Voters

The 2016 Republican presidential race continued to be clarified today when Rep. Paul Ryan announced that he was passing on a run for the nomination. Whether it was due to Ryan’s interest in making a difference as chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the coming years or because his running mate on the 2012 GOP ticket Mitt Romney entered the race, Ryan’s exit from the race is the first major withdrawal of a potential contender. But Romney isn’t the only 2012 retread eager to try his luck again. As the New York Times reports, Rick Santorum came out swinging today against all of his most prominent rivals for the Tea Party and social conservative vote. But while Mike Huckabee and Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio may not be shaking in their boots about Santorum, they would probably be well advised not to entirely dismiss him.

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The 2016 Republican presidential race continued to be clarified today when Rep. Paul Ryan announced that he was passing on a run for the nomination. Whether it was due to Ryan’s interest in making a difference as chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the coming years or because his running mate on the 2012 GOP ticket Mitt Romney entered the race, Ryan’s exit from the race is the first major withdrawal of a potential contender. But Romney isn’t the only 2012 retread eager to try his luck again. As the New York Times reports, Rick Santorum came out swinging today against all of his most prominent rivals for the Tea Party and social conservative vote. But while Mike Huckabee and Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio may not be shaking in their boots about Santorum, they would probably be well advised not to entirely dismiss him.

Santorum should be forgiven for having an attitude these days. Almost all pundits, including me, gave him short shrift in the lead-up to the 2012 primaries but he proved us all wrong. His indefatigable campaigning and a deft touch when it came to appealing to social conservatives and working-class voters allowed him to ascend to the first tier of GOP candidates when several other better funded and better known Republicans fell by the wayside even before the voting started. Santorum narrowly won the Iowa Caucus (though we would not know that for several days) and then went on to beat eventual nominee Romney in a dozen more states enabling him to claim the dubious title of runner-up in a race where only first place counts.

Since, by tradition, Republicans like to nominate someone who has already tried and waited his turn, Santorum might have thought he’d get some respect heading toward 2016, but he’s gotten none. The deep GOP bench of new faces, successful governors, as well as establishment heavyweights like Jeb Bush and Romney have caused Santorum, who still wants to be president as much as he ever did, to be overlooked again.

He thinks this is unjust and attacked Huckabee as a tax and spend big government liberal who doesn’t deserve to win back the Iowa social conservatives who backed him in 2008 and then switched to Santorum in 2012. He denounced Cruz and Paul as “bomb throwers” who get nothing done in the Senate. He refrained from trashing Rubio, whose work on foreign-policy issues has to engender the former Pennsylvania senator’s respect, but that’s probably only because he might assume the Floridian won’t choose to compete with Jeb Bush for his state’s donors. Santorum also thinks the trio of freshman senators have no business running for president with such thin resumes, a point that should resonate with critics of Barack Obama’s administration.

This didn’t bother those potential candidates much with some, like one of Paul’s representatives, answering with a reminder that Santorum was ousted from the Senate in a 2006 landslide and has spent most of his time since then trying to get elected to a much higher office.

While the jury is out on whether Huckabee’s long stint as a Fox News host will have helped or hurt his chances for a political comeback, both Cruz and Paul will arrive in Iowa with built-in national constituencies after years of being in the center of national debates. Santorum may also have to compete against figures like Rick Perry and, more importantly, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who can make compelling cases as outsiders who have governed states successfully.

So it will take more than Santorum flashing some of the sharp elbows he occasionally showed during his 12 years in the Senate to get past newcomers to the GOP presidential derby that will start ahead of him in the polls and in the ability to raise money. Indeed, given that the talent level in the 2016 Republican field seems to be far greater than the 2012 version where Santorum shined, it can be argued that he has virtually no chance to repeat his limited success, let alone beat out both sets of conservative and establishment candidates for the nomination.

But Santorum still shouldn’t be ignored. That’s because, alone of all the 2012 GOP candidates, Santorum sought to speak for working-class voters as well as their socially conservative values in a way that was persuasive as well as strategically smart.

In 2012, Republicans proved that running a man who could be caricatured as the man on the Monopoly box come to life isn’t a good idea. If they are to win in 2016, they’ll need to engage the interest and the support of the sort of Reagan Democrat whose vote is up for grabs in most elections. There may be others, notably Walker, who may be better able to strike this tone. But the ability to harness Tea Party principles to the sensibilities of ordinary, non-wealthy voters is a must if Republicans expect to win. Until other Republicans prove that they’ve learned the lesson Santorum taught us in the last primary season, he deserves to be treated as a serious candidate, albeit an extremely long shot, in a crowded Republican field.

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Can Christie Find His Foreign Policy Voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rubio-Paul Debate Bigger Than Just Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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