Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mitt Romney

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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Is Romney the GOP’s Best Option for 2016?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Early 2016 GOP Coronation Not in the Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ridiculous Controversy Over Hillary’s Speaking Fees

Hillary Clinton has made it clear she would like to be treated as a presidential candidate, even though she has yet to announce and make it official. This has obvious advantages: it signals to those Democrats who might otherwise want to run that the Clintons, famous for their grudge-holding, will be scanning the field for those who would stand between the Clintons and the seat of power. They will be making a list and checking it twice.

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Hillary Clinton has made it clear she would like to be treated as a presidential candidate, even though she has yet to announce and make it official. This has obvious advantages: it signals to those Democrats who might otherwise want to run that the Clintons, famous for their grudge-holding, will be scanning the field for those who would stand between the Clintons and the seat of power. They will be making a list and checking it twice.

But it also has its downsides. For example, Clinton is attracting a presidential candidate’s level of press attention. But there isn’t much of interest out of Clintonland just yet. Hillary will wait to express opinions on the issues of the day until she knows who her sacrificial opponents will be and can run all the polling and focus groups she needs to so she can memorize what she’s supposed to pretend to think. Additionally, the Clinton Global Initiative has taken to keeping reporters in the basement and preventing them from going to the bathroom unattended to make sure they don’t accidentally produce any interesting journalism from the organization’s events.

So what does a 24/7 political press have to write about, then? When it comes to Hillary Clinton, the answer is articles like this, from the Washington Post, on the going rate to get Clinton to speak at your college:

So you want to book Hillarypalooza? For starters, you’re going to need some serious wampum — like $300,000 worth, if you’re getting the “special university rate.” From there, things get somewhat easier, assuming you and your team have easy access to lemon wedges, quadrilateral pillows and hummus.

According to internal communications obtained and published by This Very Publication, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s notable requirements include:

  • A case of room-temperature water (still only — no bubbles)
  • A “computer, mouse and printer, as well as a scanner”
  • A lavaliere microphone
  • Chairs with two long rectangular pillows
  • “A carafe of warm/hot water, coffee cup and saucer, pitcher of room temperature water, water glass, and lemon wed­ges,” onstage as well as in a VIP meet-and-greet room.
  • And diet ginger ale and a platter of crudité and hummus in the green room.

The Post story then goes on to ask the question on everyone’s mind: how do Clinton’s demands stack up next to those of 50 Cent, Meat Loaf, the Rolling Stones, and, of course, Van Halen? The story answers that question, comparing contract riders between Hillary and those acts as procured by the website TheSmokingGun.com.

Of course, the famous Van Halen demand for a bowl of M&Ms with “ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES” was to make sure the hosts actually read the whole document. Presumably Hillary actually wants those lemon wedges, bubbleless water, and chairs with two rectangular pillows.

The inevitable question: who cares?

Well, on the merits, hopefully the answer is: absolutely nobody (aside from those contractually obligated to care about Hillary’s lemon wedges). But it’s news anyway, for two reasons. First, Clinton wanted to be treated as a presidential candidate, and presidential candidates’ current professional contracts are of some interest, especially to reporters with deadlines. Second, it feeds an existing narrative about Clinton.

And that’s where this gets dicey for Hillary. Not dicey in the sense that it would actually swing a single vote. Indeed, it’s dreadfully boring, entirely legal, and perfectly appropriate behavior. But as well all know, the mainstream media does not do complexity very well. They need a narrative, and a simple one at that, if they are to be able to process lots of information.

The current narrative about Hillary is one she intentionally created: that the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination should be a coronation, a crowning of the next member of the Democrats’ post-Kennedy royal family. The details likely to be picked up from such stories will conform to that narrative.

To wit: when Clinton gave a speech at UNLV and was paid $225,000 for it, students, “citing the rising cost of tuition,” protested and asked for the money to be returned to the school. But the school didn’t pay for the speech; a nonprofit foundation associated with the school did. And her appearance took in more in donations than the cost of the speech anyway.

At UCLA, her speech was paid for by a private donor. There is literally nothing objectionable about Hillary’s speaking fees. But far juicier to national newspapers than who paid for the speech are details like this: “Top university officials discussed at length the style and color of the executive armchairs Clinton and moderator Lynn Vavreck would sit in,” as well as this: “When university officials decided to award Clinton the UCLA Medal, Clinton’s team asked that it be presented to her in a box rather than draped around her neck.”

Clinton is fair game, and neither her speaking fees nor the stories written about them are out of line. To some extent, she’s walking a mile in Mitt Romney’s shoes. She’s rich and famous and awkward. But unlike Romney, she wants everyone to know at all times how important she is, and that she is to be treated as such. And so the royalty narrative, which she actively feeds, will persist, and it won’t always be flattering. And even when the stories are impossibly dumb and pointless, there won’t exactly be a reservoir of sympathy for the wealthy false populist who wants to be treated like a queen.

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Do Early 2016 Polls Matter? For Democrats, Not Republicans

There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

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There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

Additionally, the polls tell us something else: Democratic voters are not interested in nominating Joe Biden. That’s significant this time if only because he’s the sitting vice president, and therefore has some claim to be next in line. It also means he has high name recognition, which is the key to leading such early polls. (Although it’s worth pointing out that if this Jimmy Kimmel man-on-the-street experiment is any indication, Biden has lower name recognition than you might otherwise think.)

Name recognition, in fact, is basically both the question and answer to deciphering such early polls. So while it’s the reason polls showing Clinton in the lead are worth paying attention to, it’s simultaneously the reason polls of the Republican side of the equation are meaningless. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll makes this point pretty clearly:

Hillary Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the potential Democratic field for president in 2016, while the GOP frontrunner in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is a familiar figure – but one not favored by eight in 10 potential Republican voters.

That would be Mitt Romney, supported for the GOP nomination by 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That’s double the support of his closest potential rival, but it also leaves 79 percent who prefer one of 13 other possible candidates tested, or none of them.

But what happens when you remove Romney’s name from contention and ask his supporters the same question? This:

When Romney is excluded from the race, his supporters scatter, adding no clarity to the GOP free-for-all. In that scenario former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have 12 or 13 percent support from leaned Republicans who are registered to vote. All others have support in the single digits.

As I wrote last month on Republicans and name recognition:

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. … If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). … Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

Now look at the new ABC/WaPo poll. There’s Huckabee, along with Jeb Bush and Rand Paul plus Romney at the top. Name recognition still roughly determines the outline of the race.

And that brings up another reason these polls aren’t much help: the actual makeup of the field when the primaries get under way. It’s doubtful Romney will run again. Huckabee is far from a sure thing to run again. Jeb Bush is probably more likely than not to pass as well, considering the fact that Christie still appears to be running and so does Bush’s fellow Floridian Marco Rubio.

Yet according to the ABC/WaPo poll, the top three vote getters on the GOP side are … Romney, Bush, and Huckabee. The pollsters took Romney out of the lineup to get a better sense of where Romney’s support was coming from (leaving Bush and Huckabee still in the top three), but they might have done better taking all three out of an additional question and seeing where the field would be without them. Rand Paul is the top voter-getter among those who either haven’t previously run for president or whose last name isn’t Bush.

After that, it gets more interesting–but not by much. Paul Ryan is a popular choice, but that’s name recognition as well since he ran on the 2012 national ticket. He also doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about a run for president. If he doesn’t run, that means there’s a good chance three of the top four vote getters in the Romney-free version of the poll aren’t running, leaving Romney’s supporters without any of their favored candidates except Rand Paul.

Here’s another such poll, this one of Iowa voters from last week. The top two choices are Romney and Ben Carson, followed by Paul, Huckabee, and Ryan. Perhaps Romney really is running and Carson is a strong sleeper pick. But I doubt it on both counts. I also doubt Romney would win Iowa even if he ran, no matter what the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll says.

This is an indication of how wide-open the race is on the GOP side. But not much else. And the polls should be treated that way.

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Bobby Jindal: One Wonk to Rule Them All?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Jindal is obviously smart, experienced, and fluent in policy. He’s also taken on the kind of “happy warrior” persona Republicans should embrace: outrage is not the same thing as anger. And seems to understand the importance of perceived authenticity, so he’s dropped the faux-folksiness he once wore on his sleeve and appears more comfortable in his own skin. But for the revenge of the nerds to be successful, Jindal is going to have to overcome the key challenge posed by how Republicans and Democrats see American electoral politics today.

On the Republican side, few if any doubt Jindal’s obvious intelligence and undeniable competence. But in a wide-open race for the nomination, it will be crucial for each candidate to have their own base within the conservative movement. In this respect, Jindal’s identity as a jack of all trades is less beneficial than it first appears.

Jindal’s defense plan is hawkish, but Marco Rubio long beat him to the punch in terms of establishing his political identity as a learned advocate for a robust American presence in the world. If the party’s hawks are to latch onto any prospective candidate, Rubio is likely to be the one. Most of the party’s potential nominees are hawkish and even Rand Paul has embraced the plain fact that President Obama’s unthinking retrenchment has been a disaster. (So have the president’s Cabinet secretaries; no one wants to take any credit for Obama’s colossal mishandling of world affairs.)

The same is generally true of the other major streams of American conservatism, as I’ve written in the past. But Jindal’s official identification as a hawk does not change the calculus.

The other challenge for Jindal here is how the two parties have reacted to the failure of the Obama presidency. When Obama was a candidate, he was built up by the media and his supporters (but I repeat myself) as a very smart, nuanced thinker. When that turned out not to be true, and when it became clear he also didn’t have the intellectual curiosity necessary to remedy his broad lack of knowledge, the right and the left each reacted differently.

Conservatives responded by turning forcefully against the pretensions of the academic elite. Rule by experts was always under suspicion because of the folly of treating people as science experiments and the repellant culture of eugenics so many of the policies seek to legitimize. But with Obama it became perfectly clear that the experts weren’t actually experts. Liberals just pretended to know what they were talking about, and hid behind credentialism when questioned.

Who is better positioned to take advantage of the discovery that the professor has no clothes, someone like Jindal or someone like, say, Scott Walker, the successful reformist governor without even a college degree? To conservatives, the answer seems clear. They will almost surely end up nominating someone more knowledgeable than the current president, just because the bar is so low. But they would take special pleasure in nominating precisely the kind of politician who would be looked down upon by the Democrats but who would nonetheless run circles around their Democratic opponent intellectually.

Liberals responded to Obama’s failure in a different way: by reverting to the mean of left-liberal politics. Democratic Party politics is traditionally a method of organizing a coalition of interested parties in such a way as to reward them for their support. There is not much of a coherent ideological component outside of the extremely ideological character of the party’s positions on social and cultural issues. Ben Domenech touched on this in last month’s COMMENTARY by noting that:

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax.

Political science has begun to catch up with this reality as well. In a recent paper, Matt Grossman and his coauthor David A. Hopkins studied the way Democrats and Republicans each seek to govern, and explain that Republicans tend to govern according to ideological principles while Democrats govern by rewarding constituencies. They write:

The partisan asymmetry in the governing style of political elites has its roots in the mass public. Party identifiers in the electorate perceive political choices differently: Republicans are more likely to reason ideologically whereas Democrats are more likely to think of politics as a competition among groups over benefits. This difference is durable over time.

The authors add that “Republican politicians and interest groups thus represent both their partisan base and a wider public majority when they think, speak, and act ideologically, advocating restrictions on government activity in a broad sense. By contrast, Democratic politicians and affiliated interests prefer to stress their advocacy of particular policies that have wider public support and that offer targeted benefits to members of their electoral coalition, placing themselves on the side of social groups favoring government action to ameliorate perceived disadvantages.”

That also helps explain the proliferation of put-upon groups in the constellation of liberal identity politics. If Democrats need more votes, they stoke resentment and create a new category for taxpayer-funded benefits. Their response to the revelation that their experts can’t be trusted, in other words, was to go back to inviting enough voters to raid the treasury to win national elections.

What does that mean for Jindal and the wonks? It means an uphill battle. Republicans believe they nominated a competent managerial technocrat last time around–and lost decisively. And Democrats aren’t particularly interested in intellectual prowess–they simply want to divide and conquer the electorate. Jindal is obviously qualified to be the nation’s chief executive. But it’s lonely out there for a wonk.

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Dem Senate Candidates: Bombs Away!

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need Jeanne Shaheen.

As Politico recounts in a story today, Democratic Senate candidates are finding their inner hawks on the campaign trail, but none more noticeably than Shaheen, the New Hampshire incumbent trying to fend off a challenge from Scott Brown. Shaheen, on matters of war and peace, is a walking focus group:

When she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said at a debate: “I’ll stand with President Bush on national security, the war on terrorism and to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

In a 2008 rematch against then-Sen. John Sununu, after the war had gone south, Shaheen vowed to fight to bring the troops home.

“I would vote to authorize military action if the U.S. or any of its treaty partners are attacked militarily, and to prevent an imminent attack,” she said on a 2008 questionnaire. But “I oppose the Bush doctrine of preemption because it implies that the United States will use preemption as a first option, rather than a last resort.”

Setting aside her obvious ignorance of the Bush doctrine (an ignorance she shares with virtually everyone on the left), we should ask Shaheen: Which way are the winds blowing this time? Answer:

Republican candidate Scott Brown has been hammering Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for failing to understand “the nature of the threat,” as he put it in one commercial that began airing last week.

This has prompted the freshman Democrat to begin quietly running a response ad (her campaign has not released it to the news media), in which she says: “I support those airstrikes. I think it’s important for us to take the fight to ISIL.”

A narrator accuses Brown of playing politics and says, over patriotic music, that Shaheen “always works to keep America strong.”

Even her ads are a study in contradiction. It’s apparently “playing politics” for politicians to campaign on the issues, and yet Shaheen takes the bait and claims that she, too, enthusiastically wants to bomb some folks, as the president might say.

But Shaheen is just a product of a Democratic Party that has not had a coherent approach to national security in over a decade. During President Bush’s first term, Al Gore maniacally accused him of betraying the country. The Democrats then nominated John Kerry in 2004, to make crystal clear they didn’t have the energy to even pretend they cared about national security.

In 2008, Democrats nominated Barack Obama, whose antiwar speech in 2002, lauded by the left, was startlingly unintelligent and Ron Paul-esque in its wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Obama followed the usual fringe leftist critique of blaming Wolfowitz and Perle for manipulating the country into war. He also called them “weekend warriors,” showing he doesn’t know what “weekend warrior” means. He then accused Karl Rove of manufacturing the war to distract the country from the economy and to protect corporate evildoers from public opprobrium. The speech sounded like a raving fusion of Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones. So naturally the Democrats chose him to represent their party.

And then when he won, the script had to be flipped. The president was introduced to reality, and he embraced his power to expand America’s war in the Middle East and Central Asia. He had genuine successes, like the operation to take out Osama bin Laden, which he then made his campaign slogan to the extent that it was actually surprising his nominating convention speech didn’t feature him standing over bin Laden’s body while exclaiming to the audience “Are you not entertained?

Indeed they were entertained. The thousands of Democratic Party voters and activists cheered on targeted assassination. In his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney, Obama taunted his challenger’s lack of appetite for the messy business of spilling bad-guy blood. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, then stepped down and immediately spread the word that Obama was insufficiently hawkish for her, and that, as she rocketed to the top of 2016 Democratic polls, she would take the country further into battle. You only think you’re entertained now, Clinton’s message intimated; you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And that was all before Obama abandoned Iraq and watched ISIS rise, march on territory, and then start beheading Americans. The public may have been war weary, but they won’t stand for being targeted with impunity. Obama did the right thing and agreed to try and push back ISIS and protect the ethnic and religious minority groups whose existence ISIS was trying to extinguish. He also was informed of credible threats against America and acted accordingly.

And Democratic candidates are following suit. The idea of “antiwar liberals” was always something of a misnomer. They were, mostly, anti-Bush or anti-Republican liberals. What matters most to the left is not who is being bombed but who is ordering the bombing. It’s why Jim Webb is probably kidding himself if he believes an antiwar candidate poses a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton. If he wants to know if there’s space on the left for a serious antiwar campaign, he’s going through entirely too much effort by traveling around the country and talking to prospective supporters. All he really needs to do is ask Jeanne Shaheen.

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The Ever-Expanding 2016 GOP Field

The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

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The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Other than those two, the potential candidates who had run presidential campaigns in the past tended to score higher than those who haven’t yet run–a quite logical finding. If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). Walker was involved in a high-stakes national issue: the fight over public unions. And thanks to that, he was subject to a recall election that saw national press and mobilized national liberal groups. Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

And that poll didn’t even include Mitt Romney, who shows up leading New Hampshire polls for the same reason Huckabee polls well in Iowa. And while a Romney candidacy would certainly have its cheerleaders, Huckabee is talking openly about testing those polls:

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls.

Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures.

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

Huckabee had a decent run for an underdog in 2008 and he has a natural constituency, as well as an amiability that translates into votes. The same cannot be said for another retread who is the subject of speculation: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman has a few things going for him: he’s got gubernatorial experience as well as foreign-policy chops from his time as ambassador to China, and he has considerable financial resources at his disposal. But unlike Huckabee, outside of the media Huntsman has no natural base (and the reporters who love him will vote for Hillary anyway in the general). And also unlike Huckabee, Huntsman is almost shockingly unlikeable for a politician.

Huntsman has a general disposition that is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. He does not like Republican voters, and he does not want them to think otherwise. The feeling is mutual: Huntsman’s numbers from 2012 suggest the pool of Huntsman voters is made up entirely of people who are either named Huntsman or owe him money.

And then there is Jindal, a smart, wonky conservative with executive experience and a strong command of the issues. Jindal’s name recognition is so low that he’s forced to be less coy than others about his possible presidential ambitions:

“There’s no reason to be coy,” Jindal said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I am thinking, I am praying about whether I’ll run in 2016. I said I won’t make that decision until after November.”

Jindal has certain strengths: he’s as smart as Huntsman pretends he is, for starters. And he’s far from insufferable about it: he doesn’t project arrogance, just competence. He’s been twice elected governor of Louisiana, so he has experience on the campaign trail. He’s proved himself in a crisis. And he seems to genuinely like interacting with voters.

But his competition would include another impressive, reformist conservative governor in Scott Walker; other young conservatives with poise and presence, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and possibly Ted Cruz; and more experienced social conservatives such as, potentially, Huckabee, Rick Perry, and perhaps Mike Pence. The question, then, is whether Jindal could find some way to stand out from the pack. And with polls like those we’ve seen so far, that roster of rivals is likely to keep expanding.

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