Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mitt Romney

Don’t Fear Donald Trump on the Debate Stage

From almost the moment that reality television star and real estate mogul Donald Trump made his intention to run for the White House official by filing a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, establishmentarian Republicans have been gnashing teeth and rending garments. They fear that a Trump candidacy will be a circus, that it has the potential to sap support from the party’s (many) more electable candidates, and that it may damage the ultimate GOP nominee’s electoral prospects in November. But are those fears really well founded? It’s possible, in fact, that Trump’s candidacy might be a benefit to the more competent Republicans in the race. Read More

From almost the moment that reality television star and real estate mogul Donald Trump made his intention to run for the White House official by filing a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, establishmentarian Republicans have been gnashing teeth and rending garments. They fear that a Trump candidacy will be a circus, that it has the potential to sap support from the party’s (many) more electable candidates, and that it may damage the ultimate GOP nominee’s electoral prospects in November. But are those fears really well founded? It’s possible, in fact, that Trump’s candidacy might be a benefit to the more competent Republicans in the race.

Given that early polling is basically an exercise in gauging name recognition, it should come as no surprise that Trump’s level of voter support has spiked to the low double-digits both in national and early primary state polling. And while he might have the lowest ceiling of support of any of the prospective nominees, securing the backing 11 percent of the GOP electorate puts Trump on par with top-tier candidates like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul. What’s more, Trump’s polling stature almost certainly gives him access to the debate stage in August and possibly after that.

The prospect of Trump appearing on stage alongside the party’s groomed and capable 2016 candidates has horrified many observers. “The National Review called Trump a ‘ridiculous buffoon’ and ‘an ass of exceptionally intense asininity,’” Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur observed. “The conservative group Club For Growth said he “should not be taken seriously” and urged that he be excluded from the debates.”

Some have toyed with the idea of amending the debate rules to ensure that Trump and Trump alone is excluded from the process. Some of those, “like prohibiting candidates who gave money to Clinton’s past campaigns,” as National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar wrote, create criteria for participation in the debates that nakedly targets Trump individually. But the stakes are so high that such duplicitous rule bending seems justified.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called the notion of giving Trump a platform like a sanctioned GOP presidential debate a “nightmare” for the party. “He will interrupt, bully and seek to dominate the debate in ways that will make it impossible to get a word in edge-wise,” Cillizza wrote. “And, if past is prologue, the sorts of things he does say when he gains control of the debate floor will be stuff that appeals heavily to the Republican base and turns off, well, almost everyone else.”

And all that is true but is that really a “nightmare” for the GOP? While seeing Donald Trump share equal stature with Republican governors and senators will be a lamentable sight, there could be an upside that few seem to have entertained.

First, Cillizza is absolutely correct: If Donald Trump’s Twitter presence is any guide, Trump will bark and bleat, submit childish barbs and withering personal slights aimed at his GOP competitors, and lurch impractically to the right on every issue. After all, the man is deeply unprincipled, and he need not fear any consequence for embracing unworkable policy positions only to abandon them later with a shrug; it’s his style. And it seems the majority of Republicans are aware of that. The same national Fox News poll of Republican primary voters that found 11 percent backing Trump (putting near the top of the field of candidates, just below Jeb Bush) also revealed that 64 percent do not trust The Apprentice star.

In 2012, the commentary class on the left and right observed that the GOP’s presidential primary process had put their party’s nominee at a disadvantage. “It’s the primaries that push their presidential nominees far to the right,” former Politico reporter Jonathan Martin wrote in 2013, putting his finger on the conventional wisdom. It’s a myth but nevertheless a persistent one that holds Mitt Romney, a moderate Massachusetts man at heart, was dragged to the right by a grueling primary process that ultimately rendered him unelectable in the general election. If there is a kernel of truth to that notion, Donald Trump will only benefit Republicans by serving as a caricature of a populist conservative who merits no response, much less self-contortion on the part of his rivals.

Let’s examine a few of The Donald’s most recent jabs:

“Governor Rick Scott of Florida did really poorly on television this morning,” Trump said of the Florida governor who was asked for his opinion on the real estate mogul’s presence in the race and refused to comment. “I hope he is O.K.”

“I hear that dopey political pundit, Lawrence O’Donnell, one of the dumber people on television, is about to lose his show,” Trump averred of the longtime MSNBC host. “[N]o ratings? Too bad.”

“The ratings for The View are really low,” he added. “Nicole Wallace and Molly Sims are a disaster. Get new cast or just put it to sleep. Dead T.V.”

And this is just in the last 24 hours.

Anything short of effusive ego-boosting praise for this man yields a tirade of puerile taunts. How do you respond to this? Why would you respond to this? If this is the personality that Trump brings to the debate stage, it would be near impossible for any of his GOP competitors to muster a cogent response if only because they are so removed from their days in primary school.

And as for Trump’s policy positions, insofar as he has any, they are equally vapid. On illegal immigration: “I’ll build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” On trade relations with China: “The way you’re tough is they sell all of their products in this country, and if they don’t behave and act fairly we start taxing all their products coming into this country.” On Russian aggression: “They are all talk, no action.”

This isn’t policy; it’s deluded bluster. There is nothing here that merits a response. Trump may attract a few of the GOP’s populist voters with this kind of empty rhetoric, but his ceiling of support is low enough so that his fellow Republicans do not have to worry about losing much of their support to him. There is no getting to the right of Trump – he will always outbid you. The GOP field can safely allow Trump to stake out unprincipled, unrealistic policy positions in order to elicit applause lines and make a cogent case for their sober policy preferences to the remaining majority of persuadable and reasonable GOP primary voters.

“Trump presents a great opportunity for those who will seize it: The chance to become a better, tougher, calmer, readier candidate earlier in the cycle,” the GOP consultant Liz Mair posited. Maybe. Those who do confront him will do so in good humor; there is, after all, only one way to disarm a hothead, and a skilled debater knows it well. But most will be better served by ignoring him and allowing him to implode without assistance. And when he does, he will take the GOP’s self-defeating populist strain down with him.

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Are You Poor Enough to Be President?

If you went to central casting looking for someone who could earnestly defend Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shady financial claims, you could hardly do better than Governor Shamwow himself, Terry McAuliffe. And that’s precisely what Meet the Press did yesterday. Yet in the process of trying to substantiate Hillary’s claim to being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House after Bill’s presidency, the Virginia governor, former Clinton campaign manager, and built-for-QVC traveling salesman did end up making a relevant point about the 2016 presidential election.

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If you went to central casting looking for someone who could earnestly defend Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shady financial claims, you could hardly do better than Governor Shamwow himself, Terry McAuliffe. And that’s precisely what Meet the Press did yesterday. Yet in the process of trying to substantiate Hillary’s claim to being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House after Bill’s presidency, the Virginia governor, former Clinton campaign manager, and built-for-QVC traveling salesman did end up making a relevant point about the 2016 presidential election.

Clinton’s insistence she was broke post-presidency was obviously ridiculous, which is probably why McAuliffe rushed out to defend it:

“I cannot tell you the distress in that family at that time, with all the issues and all the legal fees, banks refusing to even give them a mortgage. So listen, people go through tough financial times,” he said.

McAuliffe’s comments came when asked about remarks from Clinton quoted in his book depicting the former first lady saying “we own nothing” and “it was really horrible” when leaving the White House.

“They had nothing compared to a lot of rich friends,” host Chuck Todd pressed.

But it was the next part of the interview that was more interesting:

McAuliffe pointed to Clinton’s upbringing in an attempt to cast the presumed Democratic presidential frontrunner as someone who knows hardship, noting her “middle-class roots” and that her mother was abandoned.

This is the 2016 presidential election in a nutshell, and Hillary is far from the sole offender. Her Republican rivals are, if anything, even more desperate to project the false populism of poverty.

It recalls a classic McDonald’s commercial in which older diners are engaged in an uphill-in-the-snow-both-ways competition over childhood hardships. If memory serves (I can’t find the clip online), it ends with one elderly diner talking about walking barefoot when the diner behind him snaps “Feet? You had feet?”

The major difference between that commercial and the 2016 campaign is that the candidates are competing for most recent poverty, with the trump card being somehow still poor even today and running for president. At this rate we’ll be lucky if a future nominee doesn’t win the primaries on the strength of a biography that consists of still living with his parents. (On the other hand, being a grown adult who isn’t very good with money does seem to be a presidential prerequisite these days.)

This afternoon, CNN posted an article whose headline asked the following question: “Can a Jos. A Bank suit win the White House?” I bet now you wish we could go back to talking about Chipotle.

The story is about Scott Walker:

Presidential hopeful and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker boasted in New Hampshire last weekend that he shops for suits at Jos. A Bank. It’s famous for its huge discount deals. “All suits — Buy 1 get 3 FREE” reads the site’s current promotions.

Walker is using his everyman wardrobe to resonate with middle class voters.

“The shirt is from Kohl’s. The suit is from Jos. A Bank,” Walker, a Republican, told a crowd in New Hampshire over the weekend.

Walker has actually made his shopping at Kohl’s a regular feature of the campaign. In his defense, there is a point: in a January speech he explained how his wife had to teach him how to shop there properly, by waiting for deals, clipping coupons, and using reward points. Lesson learned, Walker finally returned to Kohl’s to buy a shirt and “the next thing you know they are paying me to buy that shirt!” (I’m sure former Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, whose family started the chain more than a half-century ago, was just delighted to hear it.)

Should we care which candidates shop at Kohl’s? No, we should not. Which is what made encountering the following note in the CNN story a pleasant surprise:

So what suits do other presidential hopefuls wear? Does the suit say anything about them or their policy? We don’t know.

Spokespersons for Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz did not respond for comment. Senator Rand Paul’s spokesperson declined to comment.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that this election is an outlier in this regard. In fact, it’s long been a tradition in American politics to lay claim to the famous American up-from-your-bootstraps work ethic and economic mobility.

And the candidates have perfectly valid reasons to partake in this tradition. Hillary Clinton is doing so because she is very, very rich, a situation made possible partly because the regular rules that apply to “everyday Americans” don’t apply to the Clintons. Hillary would like to shed the image of her as an out-of-touch crony capitalist extraordinaire. The problem is that the image is accurate.

Republicans are doing so both to contrast themselves with the rich and privileged Clintons as well as to continue exorcising the ghost of 2012, specifically Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. Conservatives hope to banish the image of the country club Republican, and are going out of their way to push back on the perennial media narrative of uncaring right-wingers. If the current string of Clinton scandal revelations continues at this clip, however, they won’t have to do much at all to look more relatable than the Democratic royal family they’re running against.

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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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More Nixonian Moments for Hillary

Hillary Clinton’s first official campaign appearance yesterday after announcing her candidacy on Sunday set off a media circus as reporters chased her around Iowa in search of a big political story. But though Clinton’s wooden appearance at a community college was newsworthy, it was not quite as interesting as the one about her that surfaced in Washington. As the New York Times reports, it turns out that contrary to the spin from her camp, Mrs. Clinton was actually asked about whether she was using a private email account to conduct business while serving as secretary of state a full two years ago. As long ago as December 13, 2012, Clinton was asked by Rep. Darrel Issa, the chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight, whether this was the case. Mrs. Clinton never replied to the query that would blow up in her face in 2015. In doing so, it must be admitted that the former first lady saved herself from possible charges of lying to Congress. But the revelation that she wiped her home server clean when she was already on notice that the House wanted to know about the emails is one more brick in the wall of Nixonian stonewalling that makes it hard to take her claims of transparency or of being the candidate of “everyday Americans” seriously.

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Hillary Clinton’s first official campaign appearance yesterday after announcing her candidacy on Sunday set off a media circus as reporters chased her around Iowa in search of a big political story. But though Clinton’s wooden appearance at a community college was newsworthy, it was not quite as interesting as the one about her that surfaced in Washington. As the New York Times reports, it turns out that contrary to the spin from her camp, Mrs. Clinton was actually asked about whether she was using a private email account to conduct business while serving as secretary of state a full two years ago. As long ago as December 13, 2012, Clinton was asked by Rep. Darrel Issa, the chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight, whether this was the case. Mrs. Clinton never replied to the query that would blow up in her face in 2015. In doing so, it must be admitted that the former first lady saved herself from possible charges of lying to Congress. But the revelation that she wiped her home server clean when she was already on notice that the House wanted to know about the emails is one more brick in the wall of Nixonian stonewalling that makes it hard to take her claims of transparency or of being the candidate of “everyday Americans” seriously.

Of course, Clinton and her supporters are dismissing the significance of this latest piece of an embarrassing scandal saying, as all those caught making mischief do, that the voters want to hear about more important things. To that end, Clinton was engaging in staged photo-ops in Iowa where she had to pretend to listen and to care about what community college students thought. Clinton’s demeanor or speaking style is so forced that she makes a stiff like Mitt Romney seem charismatic. Though there is little doubt about her inevitable coronation as the Democratic presidential nominee, convincing voters to embrace a candidate who is clearly out of practice when it comes to faking interest in what those who aren’t paying her six-figure honorariums have to say remains a problem.

But the drip-drip-drip of stories about the emails should remind voters that the apt comparison for Clinton is not Romney (GOP groups hope to demolish her with negative ads the same way Democrats eviscerated the 2012 Republican nominee) but the president whose impeachment Hillary worked to obtain as a young lawyer.

Clinton’s apologists can complain all they want about her critics seeking to distract voters with fake scandals, but the fact remains that she conducted herself in office in an unaccountable manner and then covered up evidence of her activities by using a private email server that was eventually destroyed even as House committees sought information it contained as they began the investigation of the Benghazi terror attack. Her private account shielded her communications from investigators and the press. The successful effort to cover this up and then to ensure that no one will ever know the truth about Clinton’s work was a brilliant piece of lawyering that will guarantee that her secrets will never be uncovered, whatever they might be.

Liberals are right when they say Clinton did nothing that will cause her to be subjected to investigations aimed at punishing her for violating or pushing the boundaries of government accountability regulations. But they are wrong when they assert this is meaningless. As the woman who intends to serve what will, in effect, be Barack Obama’s third term in the White House, the spectacle of such deceitful behavior that skirts the boundaries of legality is exactly the sort of thing that may be fatal to Democratic efforts to reassemble the hope-and-change coalition that won in 2008 and 2012. Combined with her shaky performances in even the most controlled circumstances such as yesterday’s show in Iowa, this is a bad beginning to a presidential campaign that ought to already be running smoothly.

Bad retail political skills combined with inauthenticity, a penchant for secrecy, and stonewalling is a bad combination for politician, though not necessarily ones that bar one from winning the White House. Unfortunately, the only real precedent for such a person winning the presidency is Nixon. That’s a bad omen for a woman that hopes to lead the party that regards him as the symbol of everything they hate about American politics.

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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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How Hugh Hewitt Could Shape All the GOP Primary Debates

There were several reasons that Republican primary debates have had such an impact in the last couple of election cycles for those seeking the GOP nomination, including that neither year had a Republican incumbent, the growth in influence of the grassroots, and the participation of non-politicians as candidates. But an additional reason the debates had such an effect was that the mainstream media moderators insisted on asking migraine-inducingly stupid questions. And so the increasing role of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is, as Jim Geraghty notes this morning at NRO, an encouraging development. But I wonder: with an adult in the room like Hewitt, will liberal moderators get serious too?

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There were several reasons that Republican primary debates have had such an impact in the last couple of election cycles for those seeking the GOP nomination, including that neither year had a Republican incumbent, the growth in influence of the grassroots, and the participation of non-politicians as candidates. But an additional reason the debates had such an effect was that the mainstream media moderators insisted on asking migraine-inducingly stupid questions. And so the increasing role of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is, as Jim Geraghty notes this morning at NRO, an encouraging development. But I wonder: with an adult in the room like Hewitt, will liberal moderators get serious too?

Geraghty points out that Hewitt will not only moderate a debate but he has already stepped into that role by subjecting Republican politicians to tough interviews on his radio show, just as he does to those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. If you go in to an interview with Hewitt unprepared, you’ll be left licking your wounds. Geraghty writes:

An obvious observation: Hillary Clinton will never subject herself to questioning from Hugh Hewitt.

And I contend there is no equivalent to Hugh on the Left. (I’d put Jake Tapper and Chuck Todd somewhere in the center region.) There is not a single liberal media personality who enjoys interviewing prominent Democratic officials, offering them tough, challenging questions, tough follow-ups, and making his interview subjects sweat the details.

Members of the progressive aristocracy don’t treat each other that way.

In truth, conservatives are so naturally suspicious of those seeking power, especially establishment figures, that it’s not easy for aspiring Republican nominees to avoid tough questioning along the way from any number of figures on the right, to say nothing of the questioning they get from the left. To state the obvious: this is not good for Hillary, nor is it particularly healthy for the republic to have power-obsessed pols treated like royalty.

But it’ll be interesting to see the effect of what Geraghty calls “The Hewitt Primary” on two other groups involved in the GOP nominating contest: liberal journalists and conservative firebrands. They might seem to be at odds, but they have in fact had a symbiotic relationship in recent years.

Take the 2012 debates. Mitt Romney may have been the best debater of the bunch—polished, wonky, photogenic, and even-tempered. But the most entertaining man on the stage was usually Newt Gingrich, who has a ready command of history, a combative posture, and an unwillingness to play by the media’s rules. (It inspired the great tumblr, “Newt Judges You.”) And Newt was helped tremendously by the fact that his liberal questioners were so willing to set him up, allowing Gingrich to turn the debates into a bonfire of the inanities.

When Juan Williams suggested that Gingrich’s critique of welfare-state dependency was racist, Newt made mincemeat of the question and the questioner. When John King decided to lead off one debate by invoking tabloid coverage of an ex-wife of Gingrich’s comments, Newt similarly shamed King about the sorry state of the media as evidenced by what moderators considered worthy of debate.

There were others, of course, and it wasn’t only Gingrich. Geraghty quotes Hewitt as saying viewers of debates moderated by him would be “much more likely to hear about the Ohio-class submarine than contraceptives.” It’s a reference to what has become the flagship model of inane questioning of Republican candidates: George Stephanopoulos asking Mitt Romney if states could ban birth control. It was the very definition of a nonsense question, an example of Democratic officials-turned-media personalities steering debates miles away from anything relevant to American voters and into an attempt to partake in the culture wars as an operative and not a journalist.

Republican candidates are also often asked about their views on evolution, though it’s usually clear the journalists asking the question don’t actually understand the topic of evolution in the slightest. Probably the best response to such questions was in 2007 when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed in man-caused global warming. Fred Thompson appropriately said he wasn’t doing hand shows today.

And that gets at something that has been frustrating to Republicans for years: media ignorance of the issues translates into moderators’ total and utter lack of seriousness in questioning those who would be president. The presence of someone like Hugh Hewitt, who has a strong grasp of the issues and wants an intelligent debate, could encourage his liberal co-moderators to behave like adults and study up on the issues. It could also hurt candidates who are relying on “gotcha” questions and moderator nonsense to build their grassroots credibility as a straight-talking truth teller. But overall, it would be better for everyone involved, and the country at large, if everyone followed Hewitt’s example.

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Democrats Are Ready for Hillary and Stuck with Her

There was good news and bad news for Democrats yesterday. The good news was that after a week of ominous and politically damaging silence, Hillary Clinton emerged to answer questions from the press about her emails and demonstrated that she had no intention of letting this story deflect her from her goal of winning the presidency. The bad news was that barely-suppressed rage about having to answer those questions and arrogant “trust me” attitude not only failed to defuse this controversy, it also raised serious questions as to whether she had the temperament to run a successful campaign for the presidency. Taken together, it is more or less a perfect storm for a party seeking to hold onto the White House next year without having Barack Obama on the top of the ticket. It’s not just that there are unanswered questions about her conduct and judgment that will linger. It’s that the woman who stood up in front of the press at the United Nations yesterday made Mitt Romney look like a great retail politician.

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There was good news and bad news for Democrats yesterday. The good news was that after a week of ominous and politically damaging silence, Hillary Clinton emerged to answer questions from the press about her emails and demonstrated that she had no intention of letting this story deflect her from her goal of winning the presidency. The bad news was that barely-suppressed rage about having to answer those questions and arrogant “trust me” attitude not only failed to defuse this controversy, it also raised serious questions as to whether she had the temperament to run a successful campaign for the presidency. Taken together, it is more or less a perfect storm for a party seeking to hold onto the White House next year without having Barack Obama on the top of the ticket. It’s not just that there are unanswered questions about her conduct and judgment that will linger. It’s that the woman who stood up in front of the press at the United Nations yesterday made Mitt Romney look like a great retail politician.

An intrepid band of Clinton apologists and rationalizers are out in force throughout the media today telling us to move along because there’s nothing to see here and that any questions you might have about all this has been planted in your brain by the vast right-wing conspiracy that hates the Clintons. But if all Clinton can do is to say that we should trust her, all the spin in the world can’t make this go away.

That a person serving in an administration pledging transparency would think it more “convenient” to merge her work and personal emails together on a home server certainly raises questions about the former secretary of state’s judgment. As Politico reports today, cyber-security experts are having a field day picking apart the notion that her choice was in the best interests of the United States. She may admit now that it would have been smarter to do what everyone else in the government does and use an official email for work. Doing so would have been in keeping with both the letter and the spirit of the regulations that she keeps insisting she didn’t violate.

But it bears repeating that allowing her to decide which emails were private or public is not, despite her assertions, what all government employees must do. To the contrary, she appears to be the only person so empowered. That she then deleted those emails she considers personal is not only troubling; it is inexplicable. As our John Podhoretz writes today in the New York Post, those emails about Chelsea’s wedding are precisely the kind that most people keep. It’s junk that ordinary email users delete, not those concerning important personal events. And blaming it, as she did, on the fact that her husband shared the use of the server won’t wash because he keeps telling us that he doesn’t use email.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy monger or a Clinton hater to realize that this is all very fishy. Even if wrongdoing is not being covered by her absurd decisions, the story makes her appear foolish if not downright stupid.

But, for the moment, let’s leave the question of what’s in those emails that weren’t handed over to the State Department to Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chair of the special House committee investigating the Benghazi attack. Instead, let’s just focus on the former first lady’s performance yesterday.

You’d have to be a devout Clinton loyalist to view her stiff, angry, and arrogant demeanor as anything but off-putting. The sense of entitlement and the resentment at having to explain herself, the basic job of every politician, was palpable. Contempt for the press, even those seeking to fawn on her, is one thing. But what came through most was that she really doesn’t think the public is entitled to answers other than her canned responses about trusting her. And the longer the presser went on, the worse she came across.

It wasn’t merely a bad show. It was a neon sign telling Democrats that they are stuck with a candidate without the kind of appeal needed to win tough elections. But the really bad part of this for her party is that rather than having mellowed or improved in the eight years since Barack Obama snatched the 2008 Democratic Party nomination from her grasp, Clinton’s political skills have actually deteriorated.

As her disastrous book tour last year proved, being in the State Department rather than the Senate seems to have damaged Clinton’s never particularly deft grasp of retail politics. She does well enough when isolated from questions or the public but when put in the cross hairs of a press corps that smells blood, she reveals herself to be a fragile, even brittle personality that has no natural flair for the profession she has chosen. By comparison to the Hillary we saw yesterday, even a stiff like Mitt Romney looks easygoing and natural.

This ought to be an open invitation to other Democrats to jump into the 2016 race against such a weak candidate. But given the strength of the Clinton machine and the poll numbers that illustrate that all possible Democratic alternatives other than Elizabeth Warren are ciphers, there’s no reason to think that she is any less likely to win the nomination. That means that Democrats are not only ready for Hillary. They’re stuck with her. Given their many advantages in any presidential election (a docile media being just the most prominent), they shouldn’t despair of victory especially with a candidate who is seeking to make history. But winning with such a poor candidate is going to be tough sledding, especially if the Republicans put up a plausible alternative.

Rather than putting the email story to rest, yesterday’s press conference wound up illustrating just how hard it’s going to be to elect Hillary Clinton president.

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A Vaccine for Gaffes? Chris Christie Needs It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mitt Romney and His Decision Not to Run

During the last few months of the 2012 presidential election, I took a leave of absence in order to work for Mitt Romney, after having gotten to know him in previous years. So I thought it might be worth offering some perspective on him in light of his decision not to run for the Republican nomination in 2016.

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During the last few months of the 2012 presidential election, I took a leave of absence in order to work for Mitt Romney, after having gotten to know him in previous years. So I thought it might be worth offering some perspective on him in light of his decision not to run for the Republican nomination in 2016.

Governor Romney is one of the finest individuals ever to run for president. His basic decency and personal kindness are often mentioned, though too often in an obligatory manner. That shouldn’t be. Character is the paramount quality in a person, and Governor Romney is solid gold in that regard. His core integrity is the most important thing, I think, to know about him. It is telling that to a person, those who have worked for Mitt Romney speak about him in the most respectful and affectionate ways.

It was Mitt Romney’s fate to face a man who, as a sitting president, brought enormous advantages to the 2012 presidential race, which explains why so many other Republicans took a pass on it. Barack Obama has been a failure as a president, but he is a supremely gifted politician. He was born to run, and he ran a very effective — if brutal and dishonest — campaign against Governor Romney. Still and all, Governor Romney turned in the most impressive and convincing debate performance in modern presidential history, when even Mr. Obama and his aides conceded that the former Massachusetts governor trounced the president.

Governor Romney made some mistakes during the campaign for sure; he has been quite open about that. But the main problem, in my view, was our inability to convey to the American people the intellectual and personal qualities Governor Romney possessed that would have made him an outstanding president. The gap between who he is and how he was perceived was unusually wide. The very positive reception of the documentary Mitt indicated that the true Romney is enormously impressive and likable. And his love for America is deep and unqualified. It is impossible, for example, to think of Mr. Romney traveling to foreign capitals in order to denigrate the United States. As president he would never attempt to elevate himself at the expense of his country.

It’s worth considering, too, that Governor Romney won the nomination of his party despite not being a natural politician in the way, say, Bill Clinton was. Governor Romney excelled in business; that was what came most readily and easily to him. (I find it odd, and a bit troubling, that these days success, especially in business, is viewed by many people as something to hide and apologize for, rather than being evidence of hard work and human excellence.) For Governor Romney to succeed in politics required hard work of him. He did that, and more, and he rose higher than most politicians ever do. But it wasn’t an effortless climb; it took concentration of mind and will.

I’d add this: Governor Romney, in defeat, did not become resentful or embittered, as others have. He didn’t blame other people for his failure or become brittle. Instead, he accepted the loss with equanimity and class.

As time has passed, it’s become obvious to more and more people, I think, that in re-electing Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney, the American people made a significant error in judgment. That happens from time to time, and we have surely paid a price for that mistake, and will for some time to come.

Governor Romney would have loved to have been president and he possessed the qualities to excel at it. But from what I know about him, he doesn’t need the presidency to feel he has led a full and meaningful life. Which probably made his decision on Friday, as difficult as it must have been, easier than it might have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scott Walker Rejects Your Premise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beinart explains how the media missed this story until now:

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

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

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

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

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

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General Romney Refights the Last War

A year away from the first primaries in 2016 and without having actually declared for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be in full campaign mode. Yesterday he was at Mississippi State University for a speech and a photo op with the school’s successful football coach eating pulled pork sandwiches, the sort of stunt that one usually sees in an election year instead of the closed-door fundraising that generally characterizes campaign activities this far in advance of the voting. But Romney’s message was not only that he was interested in running. His main point is that he has learned the lessons from his defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Romney joked about his wealth and talked about the need for outreach to minorities and working-class voters. Those are good ideas but the notion that correcting the mistakes of 2012 gives him a good argument for the presidential nomination next year is a fallacy. As much as the Republicans do need to learn from their errors, refighting the next war with the tactics that might won the last one is a mistake that failed generals always make.

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A year away from the first primaries in 2016 and without having actually declared for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be in full campaign mode. Yesterday he was at Mississippi State University for a speech and a photo op with the school’s successful football coach eating pulled pork sandwiches, the sort of stunt that one usually sees in an election year instead of the closed-door fundraising that generally characterizes campaign activities this far in advance of the voting. But Romney’s message was not only that he was interested in running. His main point is that he has learned the lessons from his defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Romney joked about his wealth and talked about the need for outreach to minorities and working-class voters. Those are good ideas but the notion that correcting the mistakes of 2012 gives him a good argument for the presidential nomination next year is a fallacy. As much as the Republicans do need to learn from their errors, refighting the next war with the tactics that might won the last one is a mistake that failed generals always make.

Most Republican activists as well as the pundit class haven’t given Romney much love since he made it clear late last month that he was interested in a third run for the presidency. But despite the negative reviews, Romney is still polling well in primary and caucus states. Even GOP voters who were never enthused about him in the first place regard him with some affection due to the strong fight he gave Obama and the fact that much of what he said in the campaign, especially about foreign policy, proved to be true. His critique of Hillary Clinton on a whole range of issues is also very much to the point. Nor can there be much doubt that he can raise all the money needed for a serious run even if Jeb Bush snatches up most of the establishment’s biggest donors. Mock him all you like but unlike many of those mentioned as possible candidates, Romney is a credible contender, especially in a crowded and highly unpredictable field.

But Republicans still need to be wary of the “I learned my lesson” routine.

Even if Romney does everything right that he did wrong the last time—and that includes not making gaffes that wrote off much of the electorate—that doesn’t get him very far in the next election.

Republicans may have needed a more minority-friendly candidate in 2012 and the same quality will be helpful in 2016. But the circumstances have changed.

In one major sense, that’s all to the good for the GOP. In 2012, they were up against a historic candidate who didn’t have to do or say much to justify support because merely voting for him made a lot of Americans feel good about correcting historic injustices. Obama’s electoral magic will not be on the ballot and even if Hillary Clinton will have her own brand of history that she will be trying to make as the first female president, it won’t have the same resonance with many voters as Obama’s efforts. Whereas Obama was a brilliant campaigner (albeit a poor president), Clinton is as much of a gaffe machine as Romney.

Moreover, Democrats won’t be running on hope and change with Clinton at the top of their ticket. Rather it will be an attempt to recycle the old Clinton magic with a feminist touch.

That is exactly why it would be a mistake for Republicans to run a recycled candidate against her.

Just as important, the assumption that Romney learning how to talk about his wealth or even his faith will help him win the next time is a profound misunderstanding of both the previous election and the next one.

Fewer such mistakes might have helped Romney in 2012, but even a perfect GOP candidate might have fallen short against Obama. Even more to the point, having a candidate who knows how to talk about being a plutocrat or even a millionaire investor isn’t the problem. The problem is avoiding nominating someone who can be falsely characterized as a member of the ruling class in this manner. The same is true in terms of minority outreach since those who were so offended by it or any other of his mistakes won’t forget Romney’s 2012 lurch to the right so quickly.

We don’t know yet what all of the most important obstacles to Republican victory will be in 2016. Each election presents its own set of challenges based on the circumstances of the moment and the dynamic of the candidates. But whatever the answer will be, obsessing about 2012 won’t get you even halfway to victory. Indeed, too much concern about the election that was recently lost almost certainly ensures that the next will also be a disaster.

Romney has earned a respectful hearing from Republicans. But the more he talks about last time and the tactics that would have won the last election, the less GOP voters should be paying attention to what he says.

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New Liberal Attack Meme: Romney 3.0 a ‘Mission From God’

So far the reviews about the rollout of a campaign to elect Mitt Romney president in 2016 haven’t been raves. Many Republicans and conservatives see no reason to give their 2012 nominee another shot at the big prize. The rationale for a third attempt at the presidency seems lacking especially in the context of a large field of fresh and appealing GOP candidates. But given his advantages in terms of name recognition and money, his chances can’t be entirely discounted. But unfortunately for Romney, that will put him back in the cross hairs of liberal mainstream media that skewered him mercilessly last time out. As today’s feature in the New York Times about the role religion might be playing in his decision shows, they won’t be any nicer this time. After the Obama machine successfully branded the first Mormon major party candidate as “weird”—a dog whistle for prejudiced charges that he was an adherent of a bizarre minority faith—the liberal attack meme this time will be to mock him as a man on a religious mission rather than a sober patriot trying to help his country.

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So far the reviews about the rollout of a campaign to elect Mitt Romney president in 2016 haven’t been raves. Many Republicans and conservatives see no reason to give their 2012 nominee another shot at the big prize. The rationale for a third attempt at the presidency seems lacking especially in the context of a large field of fresh and appealing GOP candidates. But given his advantages in terms of name recognition and money, his chances can’t be entirely discounted. But unfortunately for Romney, that will put him back in the cross hairs of liberal mainstream media that skewered him mercilessly last time out. As today’s feature in the New York Times about the role religion might be playing in his decision shows, they won’t be any nicer this time. After the Obama machine successfully branded the first Mormon major party candidate as “weird”—a dog whistle for prejudiced charges that he was an adherent of a bizarre minority faith—the liberal attack meme this time will be to mock him as a man on a religious mission rather than a sober patriot trying to help his country.

According to the Times, the reason Romney is running again has more to do with his religion than anything else. It leads with a story of a Mormon admirer telling him to run because it was part of a “higher calling” from his faith. It goes on to speak of his “sense of service and patriotism” being rooted in “his abiding Mormon faith.” It says that “his religion is the lens through which he often filters achievements and setbacks in his life.”

Of course, the same could be said of many, if not most of his fellow Americans, though it is likely that is not true of many members of the press corps and other pillars of the liberal media establishment.

Even more to the point, the conceit of the piece is that a third Romney run will be more open about his faith rather than downplaying it as was the case in 2012, when Republicans said little about their candidate’s exemplary record of personal service to his church and his charitable behavior. If true, that would be a good idea since the more voters learn about what a truly decent individual Romney is, the more they are bound to like him, a point that came across very clearly in the Netflix documentary Mitt.

But while it makes sense for Romney to speak more about his personal faith and the way it has inspired his private behavior as well as his public service, it should be remembered that the media has very different motives. As much as the GOP campaign did not center on Romney’s religion, it was no secret. To the extent that it was discussed then, it was generally in the context of efforts to brand him as extreme or, as the Obama campaign plan intended, as “weird.”

The Times rediscovery of Romney’s faith was replete with discussions of whether the candidate thought himself the fulfillment of a religious prophecy—a “white horse” whose purpose is to save the nation—rather than merely a sober analysis of his character. The point of such efforts isn’t so much to flesh out the outlines of a deeply religious man as it is to paint him as something of a nut whose background is alien to most Americans.

That this is deeply unfair almost goes without saying. But Romney should expect plenty of it whether he talks more about faith or if, as he did in 2012, he stuck to wonkish analyses of issues, something that he probably feels more comfortable doing. Romney and his family are wrestling with the question of whether another run would be a function of duty or an obsessive pursuit of long cherished personal goal. But the editors and reporters at the Times seem to be viewing his decision as more a farcical Blues Brothers’ “Mission from God” than a principled process that deserves respect. Even Republicans who believe another Romney candidacy isn’t a good idea should be angry about the prospect of the press enjoying another game of “pin the tail on the Mormon” at their former standard-bearer’s expense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Has Romney Really Thought This Out Yet?

Days after telling supporters that he is considering another run for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be moving quickly to prepare his campaign and to give it a clear rationale. Given that only a few weeks ago most Republicans were not exactly clamoring for the former Massachusetts governor to make a third attempt at the White House, that is probably the most important thing Romney can do. His confidants are telling reporters like Politico’s Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann that he intends to run to the right of Jeb Bush on some issues but also to make tackling the issue of poverty one of the key elements of his campaign. In theory that sounds good, but like his statements about changing his approach to a presidential run while retaining what seems like most of his 2012 staff, the disparate elements to Romney 3.0 don’t seem to match. All of which leads one to wonder just how thoroughly the normally meticulous wonkish Romney has thought all of this out prior to jumping into the fray last week.

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Days after telling supporters that he is considering another run for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be moving quickly to prepare his campaign and to give it a clear rationale. Given that only a few weeks ago most Republicans were not exactly clamoring for the former Massachusetts governor to make a third attempt at the White House, that is probably the most important thing Romney can do. His confidants are telling reporters like Politico’s Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann that he intends to run to the right of Jeb Bush on some issues but also to make tackling the issue of poverty one of the key elements of his campaign. In theory that sounds good, but like his statements about changing his approach to a presidential run while retaining what seems like most of his 2012 staff, the disparate elements to Romney 3.0 don’t seem to match. All of which leads one to wonder just how thoroughly the normally meticulous wonkish Romney has thought all of this out prior to jumping into the fray last week.

Romney’s entire effort seems geared toward preventing Bush from gaining a stranglehold on the party’s establishment wing and major donors. To that end, he has seized on a key flaw in Bush’s strategy: his seeming determination to run against the party’s base by sticking to his unpopular positions on Common Core and immigration. This way he’ll avoid having to tack to the right during the primaries and then back to the center in the general election as Romney did in 2012, an inelegant process that is at least partially blamed for the Republican defeat in November. Romney, who sought to appease a party base that distrusted him on ObamaCare by taking an uncompromising stand on immigration in his last campaign, understands that this could be a formula that could help a candidate from the party’s more conservative wing gain an advantage in the primaries.

Yet at the same time, Romney thinks he can talk more about poverty. Is that possible?

The short answer is that there is no contradiction between a tough stance on immigration or even education and concern about poverty. Indeed, it is high time that Republicans began following the lead of Rep. Paul Ryan (who just declared that he won’t run for president) and become the party of ideas again by charting a conservative approach to economics and opportunity that will help the poor. Indeed, the idea that the only way to help the impoverished is to create more big government and entitlements is antithetical to the notion of promoting self-sufficiency.

But it will take a deft touch on policy to be able to swing between those two modes convincingly. To imagine that Romney, a brilliant thinker and analyst but a poor political communicator, is the man to do it requires a considerable stretch of the imagination.

Even worse is the fact that the public’s image of Romney is that of a wealthy plutocrat.

It should be conceded that this image is the creation of a systematic campaign of Democratic attacks more than reality. Though he is wealthy, Romney’s extensive religious activities, a story that he and the GOP did a poor job of telling in 2012, were largely focused on good deeds and helping others. But unfair or not, politicians rarely get a second chance to define themselves before the general public. To do so on one’s third run for national office is unprecedented.

This is, after all, the same man who was caught on tape claiming that the “47 percent” of the country that were beneficiaries of government largesse would never vote for the Republicans. He disavowed that statement as an unfortunate gaffe but he reinforced it after the election on a conference call when he seemed to be saying more or less the same thing about Democrats buying the votes of various groups with funding.

For any politician to undo such an image while speaking convincingly about poverty while also running to the right of the leading moderate in the race would seem to be the sort of nuanced trick that might challenge the talents of even a communicator as skilled as a Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. But does anyone seriously think Romney can pull it off even if it is, as it surely must be, a sincere reflection of his views?

Like the idea that he had created a completely different kind of campaign that is smarter and more attuned to technology with a lot of the same people running it, this set of ideas doesn’t exactly compute. Perhaps with more preparation and a more experienced Romney at its helm, this campaign can head off Bush, a host of conservatives challengers, and then defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election. But until this gets sorted out, it’s hard to shake the impression that all of this hasn’t been entirely thought out very well. If Romney is to succeed, he’s going to need to sort out all of this out in a manner that so far does not seem to have happened. Until he does, Jeb Bush may be forgiven for thinking that Romney’s entrance into the race is a problem but not a catastrophe.

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Mitt and Jeb Are Right About Each Other

Much to the surprise of those who thought Mitt Romney was done with presidential politics after failing to defeat Barack Obama’s bid for reelection, the 2012 Republican nominee is indicating that he is running again. Last Friday’s announcement to supporters that he is seriously considering jumping into the fray for 2016 was necessitated by Jeb Bush’s recent announcement. Any further delay would have been fatal to his hopes as Bush is rapidly working to secure the support of major financial donors from the party’s establishment faction who might otherwise be expected to give to Romney. This will alter the course of the battle for the nomination, but what we need to unpack today is the rationale for each candidate and the nature of the critiques these two not dissimilar heavyweight contenders are making of each other. What many Republicans who are sympathetic to both men must admit is that they are both right about each other.

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Much to the surprise of those who thought Mitt Romney was done with presidential politics after failing to defeat Barack Obama’s bid for reelection, the 2012 Republican nominee is indicating that he is running again. Last Friday’s announcement to supporters that he is seriously considering jumping into the fray for 2016 was necessitated by Jeb Bush’s recent announcement. Any further delay would have been fatal to his hopes as Bush is rapidly working to secure the support of major financial donors from the party’s establishment faction who might otherwise be expected to give to Romney. This will alter the course of the battle for the nomination, but what we need to unpack today is the rationale for each candidate and the nature of the critiques these two not dissimilar heavyweight contenders are making of each other. What many Republicans who are sympathetic to both men must admit is that they are both right about each other.

If reports about Romney’s statements to his past and perhaps future backers are true, the former Massachusetts governor thinks Bush isn’t the right candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016. Romney believes that it is foolish for the GOP to ask Americans to vote a third member of the same immediate family into the White House within a span of three decades especially after the way George W. Bush limped out of the presidency in January 2009 in the wake of the Iraq War and a financial collapse. Though there is no indication that he has any personal dislike for Jeb or any of the Bush clan, he also seems to think Jeb faces the same liability for his participation in the investment world. The Romney camp believes Bush faces severe challenges in his quest for the nomination because of his support for the Common Core education program and his more liberal approach to immigration reform.

Even more to the point, Romney may believe any Republican who runs against the base, as Bush has seemed to signal that he will do, is not likely to be able to beat back the challenge from Tea Party and other conservative contenders that would be less electable in November.

But those criticisms are matched by Bush’s thinking about a third try by Romney for the White House. Jeb and his backers see another Romney candidacy as exactly what the party doesn’t need. Romney had his chance and failed, in no small measure because he was a poor retail politician who lacked the ability to tell his own very good story convincingly or to defend himself against smears about his business career. Indeed, Bush’s early steps taken toward the nomination—including resignation from corporate boards, the massive early release of his emails while governor, and ten years of tax returns—indicate that he has studied Romney’s campaign closely and has no intention of making the same mistakes. He also believes that Romney’s pandering to the party base during the primaries helped sew the seeds of his defeat in November, leading him to think that the only path to victory for Republicans lies in nominating someone with a strong conservative record who is nevertheless willing to take centrist stands.

These are strong arguments, but the problem for Republicans listening to their respective appeals is that both men are right.

Romney understands all too well the difficulty of trying to arouse the base if is convinced the party’s candidate doesn’t represent their views. The assumption that the establishment candidate always wins in the end may be unfounded in 2016 when a far more formidable array of conservatives will be running. And though the reputation of George W. Bush has risen considerably during the six miserable years of the Obama presidency, he’s also not wrong to assert that there is something profoundly unsettling about the GOP embracing a political dynasty of this sort. If the Democrats are, as seems almost certain, going to nominate a Clinton, the Republicans’ best opportunity should be with a talented and fresh face, not another Bush, albeit one that is as talented and serious as Jeb. Though his name is famous, we also don’t know how well Jeb will do under the pressures of a presidential campaign since he has never personally done it before.

Nor is it clear that even Bush’s attempts to forestall or pre-empt a Democrat assault on his character will succeed since that party’s attack machine will be primed and ready to smear no matter what he does to prevent it. Having already been thoroughly slimed by the Obama reelection campaign, it is possible to argue that Romney won’t be as badly hurt by another round of low blows. Indeed, having lost gamely while battling long odds and making assertions that were subsequently proven to be true, Romney may start out the race with a degree of sympathy from the mainstream media accorded no other Republican (even if it is likely that those good feelings will disappear once it’s clear he is running again).

But Bush is also right that another Romney run is unlikely to yield a better result than the last attempt. Bush may not be the freshest face on the Republican bench, but it is surely fresher than that of a man making his third run for the presidency. Presidential fever is something that few politicians get over and Romney’s decision to run seems motivated as much by ambition as any genuine belief that no other Republican can win. Even if he has absorbed some of the lessons of his defeat, no amount of analysis can fix Romney’s basic defects as a candidate. We all know he is a very good man but it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to think that he will be a better or wiser candidate in 2016 than he was in 2012 or 2008.

So where does that leave the GOP?

Having Romney and Bush both in the race will make it harder for anyone else to run in the hidden establishment primary, meaning that a Chris Christie candidacy is looking like even more of a long shot than it did a few weeks ago. It also ought to encourage conservatives to jump in since it will mean there will be no repeat of the 2008 and 2012 races where a single well-funded moderate was able to overwhelm a split conservative faction. The presence of Romney makes the race even more unpredictable and should tempt figures like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who combines Tea Party support with stands that endear him to the establishment to think that perhaps 2016 will be a year in which a non-establishment candidate who is not considered a bomb-thrower can win.

But most of all, the entry of Romney into the race will mean a tremendous struggle for the hearts and minds of the GOP center. Having gotten in first and with his family’s network behind him as well as having the support of many other establishment types, Bush must be considered as having the edge until proven otherwise. But he must also worry that the two will ultimately knock each other off and let someone new, whether or not they are more electable, have a chance.

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Jeb Bush Pivots to the General Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winning Establishment Primary Guarantees Jeb Nothing in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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