Commentary Magazine


Topic: Scott Walker

Walker’s Early Surge More Important Than It Might Seem

Given the frenetic activity by possible Republican presidential candidates in the last month, it’s important to remind ourselves at times that we’re still a year away from the first primaries. That’s why no one should be too impressed with polls this far away from the voting since they are still more of an indication of name recognition than firm support or how the various contenders will actually stack up against each other once the campaigning begins in earnest. But the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll of Iowa Republicans is significant not so much because its results give us an idea of who will win next year but because it shows that one particular candidate has started to catch on. The person in question is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who leads the crowded field, albeit with only 15 percent of Iowans claiming him as their first choice. But the question facing Walker and his supporters is whether this surge from the bottom to the head of the pack is coming too soon.

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Given the frenetic activity by possible Republican presidential candidates in the last month, it’s important to remind ourselves at times that we’re still a year away from the first primaries. That’s why no one should be too impressed with polls this far away from the voting since they are still more of an indication of name recognition than firm support or how the various contenders will actually stack up against each other once the campaigning begins in earnest. But the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll of Iowa Republicans is significant not so much because its results give us an idea of who will win next year but because it shows that one particular candidate has started to catch on. The person in question is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who leads the crowded field, albeit with only 15 percent of Iowans claiming him as their first choice. But the question facing Walker and his supporters is whether this surge from the bottom to the head of the pack is coming too soon.

The poll was taken before Mitt Romney decided on Friday that he wouldn’t run. But given that it asked respondents to list their first and second choices in the Republican caucus, Walker’s gains are not a fluke as he was also the runner-up for 10 percent, a figure that tied him with Romney for the most in that category. Indeed, if Romney’s supporters are given to those they named as their second choice, the standings with Walker on top don’t change.

The rave reviews for Walker’s speech at the recent Iowa Freedom Summit may have been the engine for the boost in his support. But Walker’s efforts to increase his national visibility in recent weeks, as he made no secret of his desire for the presidency, have gone well. Though he has yet to be put under the microscope of the national press or face the pressure of a presidential race, his experience as the left’s piñata during the battles over union legislation in Wisconsin during his first term in Madison have prepared him well for the ordeal.

And if we weren’t already convinced that he is moving up to the first tier from the ranks of the GOP wannabes, yesterday’s BloombergView column by Al Hunt made it clear that liberals are starting to take Walker seriously. Hunt previewed one of the key talking points that Democrats will use against the Wisconsin governor should he be the nominee by writing a piece that focused almost entirely on his lack of a college degree. As Seth Mandel wrote here last April, it was inevitable that should Walker become a presidential candidate, we would be hear the left dismiss him as a “college dropout.” Hunt digs deeper beyond the epithets and says the fact that more than 40 percent of Americans have such a degree bodes ill for Walker’s chances. What’s more, he says that anyone who doubts that this is a big problem for him should test out their theory at the next cocktail party they attend.

But if 60 percent of Americans are in the same boat as Walker, it’s likely that an even greater number of them don’t spend much time at cocktail parties, or at least the kind Hunt is referring to where those in attendance are expected to snigger at those lesser beings who haven’t finish college. Granted, it may be that a lot of us like the idea of putting the country in the hands of someone who is smart. But given the poor performance in the White House of a lot of the highly educated people we’ve put there in recent decades, as well as the fact that most Americans probably know a lot of dumbbells and timeservers who managed to graduate an institution of higher learning, that prejudice may not be dispositive. Certainly, Walker’s ability to articulate credible positions on the issues and manage a large government bureaucracy while withstanding withering attacks and attempts at intimidation by union thugs and their Democratic Party allies shows that not having a four-year degree is no bar to success in running a state.

Expect to hear more such attacks in the comings months as it becomes apparent that Walker is not merely one more outlier hoping for lightening to strike. Walker appeals to a broad range of Republican constituencies including the establishment business community that likes his record as governor, Tea Partiers who see him as a fellow opponent of taxes and spending, Evangelicals who see him as one of their own, and even foreign-policy hawks who like the things he’s been saying about President Obama’s failures. That gives him an edge that candidates who are despised by any combination of those groups don’t have.

But is it too soon for a candidate surge? During the 2012 race seemingly every candidate had his or her moment, including weeks or even months when people like Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and even Herman Cain moved temporarily to the top of the pack. Good poll results are only meaningful if they lead directly to winning states.

But good poll results for Walker are important because they illustrate, just at the moment when Jeb Bush has assumed the mantle of frontrunner, that there is a viable alternative with significant support. That will give Walker the ability to raise money, including from some establishment types who might otherwise gravitate to Bush or Chris Christie, that will enable him to set up the organizations in states around the country that will give him a real chance for the nomination.

One poll does not a nominee make. But this one may have given Walker the ability to compete on something like a level playing field with all the other GOP hopefuls. And that, rather than winning a particular news cycle, is a very big deal indeed.

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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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More to Scott Walker Than Battling Unions

Earlier this week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was sworn in for a second term and to no one’s surprise, some of his most vociferous critics, such as the editors at the New York Times, seem to be disappointed. That’s not just because liberals and Democrats have expended enormous resources trying to end his political career both in a failed recall effort and his recent successful reelection campaign. What really bothered them about his triumphant second inaugural in Madison is that he seems to lack interest in another knockdown drag-out battle with unions such as the nasty dustups that highlighted his first years in office. While being sworn in for a second term, Walker pointedly did not express support for plans to enact right-to-work legislation that would further erode the power of the unions. That’s not what opponents who would like to continue their vendetta against him were anticipating and even some members of the Republican majority in the state legislature weren’t happy about it either. But Walker’s decision to try and stay out of that fight shows that he has a wider agenda than just that one issue. It also is a clear indication, as if one were needed, that he is very interested in running for president in 2016.

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Earlier this week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was sworn in for a second term and to no one’s surprise, some of his most vociferous critics, such as the editors at the New York Times, seem to be disappointed. That’s not just because liberals and Democrats have expended enormous resources trying to end his political career both in a failed recall effort and his recent successful reelection campaign. What really bothered them about his triumphant second inaugural in Madison is that he seems to lack interest in another knockdown drag-out battle with unions such as the nasty dustups that highlighted his first years in office. While being sworn in for a second term, Walker pointedly did not express support for plans to enact right-to-work legislation that would further erode the power of the unions. That’s not what opponents who would like to continue their vendetta against him were anticipating and even some members of the Republican majority in the state legislature weren’t happy about it either. But Walker’s decision to try and stay out of that fight shows that he has a wider agenda than just that one issue. It also is a clear indication, as if one were needed, that he is very interested in running for president in 2016.

Walker has supported right-to-work legislation in the past but though the majority leader of the State Senate says he plans to present such a bill, the governor obviously wants no part of that tussle. But Wisconsin voters not only gave Walker a third victory in four years. They also increased the Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature. That’s encouraged the Senate majority leader to push for a bill that would end the ability of unions to force even those who are opposed to them to contribute to their coffers and he may have the votes to do just that.

But Walker seems to feel that unlike his efforts to prevent unions from bankrupting the state in his first term, this is a war of choice that both he and Wisconsin can live without. Instead, he wants to dedicate this next year to proving that he is a commonsense executive who is more interested in getting things done to improve the lives of the voters than in engaging in ideological battles.

That’s a smart strategy for any governor intent on building on his past victories in a second term. But it is also a good idea for someone with his eyes on the White House. Though the battles he fought with union thugs who sought to silence and intimidate their opponents forever endeared Walker to the conservative base of the GOP, he knows that another such bloody fight would be more of a distraction than a feather in his cap. Indeed, his inaugural speech seemed to indicate his 2016 strategy in which he would tout the contrast between the needless strife and gridlock in Washington and his effective style of governing.

Instead of locking horns with a union movement that he has already hamstrung with limits on collective bargaining that make it difficult for them to hold a cash-starved state hostage in negotiations for new state worker contracts, Walker prefers to concentrate his efforts on job creation. That’s something that would not only help Wisconsin but would do a great deal to burnish Walker’s image as a potential president. His emphasis on controlling taxes and spending also highlights his qualifications for fixing Washington’s budget mess with the same strong conservative medicine he has given Wisconsin.

Can his strategy work?

It’s far from clear that the state’s Democrats or Republicans are particularly interested in cooperating with Walker’s plans. Democrats will look to sabotage and demonize a national GOP star as they have always done. Meanwhile conservatives in the legislature think they’d be foolish not to use their victories to enact all of their agenda. But even some Democrats appear to think that Walker’s influence over his state party is sufficient to allow him to stop anything that might serve as a distraction or a burden to his plans.

With Jeb Bush seemingly already the victor of the hidden establishment primary and a host of other candidates thinking about getting into the race, Walker has a difficult task ahead of if he hopes to win the GOP nomination next year. But just as he has managed to retain the affection of Tea Partiers and social conservatives while also endearing himself to many in the party establishment, Walker seems to be counting on his ability to thread the needle and make himself acceptable to all branches of his party. But as he has shown throughout his time as governor, those who underestimate him are in for a shock.

There was always more to Walker than the union-basher stereotype that his opponents love to hate. It remains to be seen if he can mount a credible campaign for president or if he will hold up as well on the national stage as he has on that of his state. But by carefully steering his administration away from fights that won’t enhance his electoral appeal, Walker is signaling that he is a very serious candidate for president.

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The More, the Merrier for the GOP in 2016

In the aftermath of President Obama giving the Castro regime diplomatic recognition, Senator Marco Rubio has been pretty much everywhere, including multiple television appearances and authoring this Wall Street Journal op-ed. According to Senator Rubio, “By conceding to the oppressors in the Castro regime, this president and his administration have let the Cuban people down, further weakened America’s standing in the world and endangered Americans.”

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In the aftermath of President Obama giving the Castro regime diplomatic recognition, Senator Marco Rubio has been pretty much everywhere, including multiple television appearances and authoring this Wall Street Journal op-ed. According to Senator Rubio, “By conceding to the oppressors in the Castro regime, this president and his administration have let the Cuban people down, further weakened America’s standing in the world and endangered Americans.”

Whether or not one agrees with Rubio’s position–and I’m sympathetic to it–he makes his case clearly, intelligently, and with passion. Despite some differences with him now and then–I found his advocacy for the tactics that resulted in the 2013 government shutdown to be inexplicable, for example–I find Rubio to be one of the best advocates for conservatism in American public life.

Which brings me to the 2016 presidential race. Senator Rubio has signaled that the decision by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to actively explore a run won’t affect what he does. I for one hope that’s the case.

I say that as someone who admirers Bush, who was a marvelously successful governor and someone I’ve defended several times (including here) against the ludicrous charge that’s he’s a RINO/moderate/neo-statist. So I’m delighted he’s inclined to throw his hat into the ring. Yet I’d feel the same way about Senator Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan, who I’m particularly close to; as well as others I have a high regard for, including Governors Kasich, Walker, and Jindal.

Beyond that, I hope that even those I’ve been critical of–including Senators Ted Cruz (for his style and approach to politics) and Rand Paul (who is too libertarian for my taste)–run as well. The same goes for Rick Perry, who seems to be preparing for this run more diligently than he did in 2012; and Governor Christie, who would be formidable if he enters the race.

There are several reasons I hope all these individuals (and others, like Mike Huckabee) run, starting with the fact that it’s impossible to know with certainty how well a candidate will do in a presidential campaign. Some people might look great on paper and do quite well during interviews on, say, Fox News Sunday–but that’s very different from running for president. The scrutiny, intensity, and demands of a presidential race–the fog that often descends in the middle of a campaign–are impossible to convey to anyone who hasn’t been a part of one.

Some candidates who run the first time, like George W. Bush, do very well; others, like Governor Perry, flame out. Still other candidates, like Ronald Reagan, run several times before they win. You just never know. To borrow an aphorism from sports: That’s why they play the game. I’d like to see who does well, and who doesn’t, in the heat of an actual campaign. So should you.

Beyond that, though, I’d like the most articulate advocates to make their case on the biggest political stage we have. Let Rand Paul and Marco Rubio debate America’s role in the world. Let Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush engage one another on immigration. Let John Kasich and Paul Ryan discuss whether governors should accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Let’s find out, too, what areas of agreement there are; what each candidate’s priorities are; and whether they can move people’s hearts as well as appeal to their minds. Let’s give them the chance to elaborate on their views of the purposes of government and the nature of conservatism.

I considered the 2012 presidential field to be, with a few exceptions, a clown act. It was discouraging almost from beginning to end. This time around, I hope the very best in the ranks of the GOP run–and out of that contest the most impressive and attractive conservative emerges. That individual, after all, will probably be a slight underdog to whomever the Democratic Party nominates.

I have my favorites, of course, and I’m happy to offer my counsel to anyone who cares to hear it or read it. But generally speaking my view of the forthcoming race is as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Let the sharpening proceed.

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Walker’s Drug Test Move Is a Mistake

During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

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During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

Walker’s plans are, as the Wall Street Journal reported today, part of a series of similar moves by Republican governors across the nation seeking to create a new wave of welfare-reform measures to help people rise above poverty while also providing accountability for the taxpayers. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has already tightened restrictions on assistance and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whom some also see as a potential presidential candidate even though he seems far less eager than Walker, wants Medicaid recipients to give back some of what they get to the state as a condition for their participation.

All of these ideas are, in theory, quite reasonable. Requiring people to stay off drugs while they are seeking work or getting extra assistance makes sense. The worst aspect of the welfare state is the way it subsidizes and even encourages destructive behavior. It’s also usually good politics since most citizens think of welfare as a privilege rather than a right and believe those who get it should give up a bit of their right to misbehave since such activities are, almost by definition, being conducted on the public’s money.

But Walker, who has to this point moved steadily if not flawlessly from a Milwaukee county executive unknown outside of his state to the status of a conservative folk hero on the strength of his epic fight with public employee unions and their Democratic allies, should rethink any emphasis on this issue if he really wants to run for president. This is not because he’s wrong—he’s not—but because what works politically when you’re running for governor can come across very differently when the presidency is the goal.

The problem with drug testing is twofold. The first is the legal obstacle to implementing such measures. Federal laws about such tests are fairly clear and have consistently been upheld by the courts. While states have rightly sought to gain the right to carry out assistance plans according to their own lights rather than being forced to follow rules designed by out-of-touch D.C. bureaucrats, such battles tend to end in the same way. While the fight for drug testing goes on all across the nations, the legal battles this idea has engendered don’t usually end well for conservatives.

Either the states give up and concede that this isn’t a fight they can win or they are slam dunked by the courts.

But the problem goes further than legal technicalities. Though the issue polls and often tests well at the local or statewide ballot box for conservatives, running for the presidency on the strength of denying aid to poor people may be a different story. The reason why these laws are usually overturned by judges is that they presuppose guilt in a manner that singles out the needy for treatment not afforded other Americans. Drug testing may be a good incentive to keep the poor out of trouble but it also can be portrayed as a form of discrimination. Even worse, it can be blamed for denying help to the poor, especially minorities.

Rightly or wrongly, this is a time when Americans are becoming more focused on racial issues because of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and the choking death of Eric Garner. That’s why Republican presidential candidates need to remember that the liberal press will interpret any move on their part that relates to large numbers of minorities as an excuse to justify tearing them apart.

The reason Walker has been so successful is that his conservative activism has focused on public-employee unions and their members who often receive better pay and far more benefits than ordinary citizens in the private sector get. Though the unions worked hard in three elections in four years to convince Wisconsin voters that Walker was a villain, he won each time because the object of his wrath was a class of people most citizens despise.

Walker has as good an argument to be made for his presidential candidacy as anyone else in the field including figures like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who have more establishment support but can’t rouse the enthusiasm of the Tea Party or the GOP base as Walker can. But that doesn’t mean he is immune to liberal efforts to smear him as a racist because of his welfare reform fight.

Welfare recipients aren’t terribly popular but measures that can be distorted to portray Walker as not only insensitive but responsible for taking away food stamps or unemployment from the poor won’t help elect him president. While welfare reform is the right thing to do, Walker and other Republicans should avoid picking fights with people who are far more sympathetic than union fat cats and their thuggish storm troops. This is a battle that he can’t win and will damage his political brand.

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Big Labor’s Big Bluff

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

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

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

In fact, they will. Politico reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Republicans Hillary Fears–And the Ones She Should

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The GOP Governors’ 2016 Derby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Must Republicans Nominate a Governor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Scott Walker Doesn’t Need a Landslide

The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

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The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

That is, the failure to win a convincing referendum on his tenure as governor is a major red flag for his presidential hopes. The best article making this case from the right (who Walker would have to win over in a primary) comes from Ramesh Ponnuru, writing at Bloomberg View. There are bound to be real obstacles to a Walker bid, and some of them are indeed wrapped up in how Walker has handled–and in some cases, perhaps mishandled–his reelection campaign. That’s one reason the accusations that Chris Christie, as head of the Republican Governors Association, supposedly left Walker high and dry rang hollow. If Walker’s opponent was underestimated, it wasn’t by Christie; it was by Walker.

Here’s the crux of Ponnuru’s argument:

For one thing, Walker’s struggle raises the question of whether a politician can make a credible run for the presidency after barely winning over his own state’s voters. The last two presidents each won their states convincingly before they ran. George W. Bush won 68 percent of the vote to be re-elected governor of Texas in 1998, and Barack Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Illinois to become a senator in 2004.

Walker, assuming he wins, won’t have numbers anywhere close to those. And if he decides to seek the 2016 nomination, he’ll have to make the best of it. The argument he could make to Republicans nationwide is that he took risks to get conservative reforms enacted in a liberal state, and he succeeded. The closeness of his recall campaign and his re-election are a testament, he could say, to his boldness.

There’s another way Walker is different from Bush and Obama. Bush said he would be a “uniter, not a divider,” and Obama said he’d “change the tone” in Washington for the better. A candidate as demonstrably polarizing as Walker — his anti-union reforms sparked huge protests and an occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol — won’t be able to run that kind of campaign.

I think Ponnuru is right on the particulars but wrong on the implications.

It’s true that both Obama and Bush had won resounding statewide victories before running for president. And historically, candidates who lose their home state in a presidential election usually lose the election too. But Walker’s ability to win over Wisconsin’s voters means he’d put the state in play in a presidential election. Unlike Bush and John McCain, whose home states were red, and Mitt Romney, who never had a chance to win Massachusetts, that gives Republicans a chance to expand the map. Walker’s close election means it is precisely the kind of state Republicans have to learn how to win if they want to end their slide in presidential elections.

It’s easy to convince Texas to keep public unions in check, and it’s impressive but arguably irrelevant to convince New Jersey voters to back such a platform, as did Chris Christie. New Jersey is not going red any time soon, so Christie’s success offers an example of how to win over public opinion on union issues, but doesn’t change the Electoral College calculus.

Speaking of Christie, Ponnuru’s second point is also worth delving into in order to make a crucial distinction. Ponnuru writes that Walker can’t make the claim to be some kind of postpartisan uniter. His agenda is divisive. But there’s a difference between a personally divisive candidate and a divisive agenda–and there are also differences between types of divisive agendas.

Christie is an example of someone with a divisive personality. Walker is not. Walker is personable and relatable, not combative. He’s a happy warrior. His agenda is divisive, but that’s for a good reason: it’s an actual governing agenda, and the defenders of the self-enriching status quo will always fight real reform.

Walker’s opponents made the issue divisive because they completely lost their minds. Democratic state senators actually fled the state, like criminals and cowards, rather than participate in the democratic process that would have led to an outcome they didn’t like. His opponents could barely speak a full sentence that didn’t have the word “Hitler” sprinkled generously throughout. I’ve seen the unions threaten the lives of people I know who they discovered supported Walker.

But the fact remains: anti-public union policies are gaining steam and support in blue and purple states, despite the divisiveness caused by union leaders and their most ardent supporters experiencing a psychotic break over sensible reforms. Entrenched interests cannot be given a heckler’s veto.

And the lesson here is that while the Wisconsin electorate is polarized, so is the national electorate. Liberal interest groups and the media (but I repeat myself) will paint any Republican agenda as the end of the world. The vapid Obama campaign managed to make Big Bird a divisive issue, to say nothing of the “war on women” or race-baiting. Any Republican running on anything resembling a conservative agenda will get this apocalyptic treatment from the left. The candidate might as well make it worth the trouble and actually stand for something.

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Scott Walker’s Fate and 2016

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker emerged triumphant from a recall election in 2012, he immediately moved to the front ranks of those Republicans considering a 2016 presidential run. But before he could think about the White House, he needed to win reelection in 2014. Many would-be presidential candidates have used such state races as vehicles to further the argument that they are political dynamos deserving of national attention. But as Politico notes today, Walker’s struggles in his fight to hold onto his job may impact his hopes for the White House even if he manages to beat Democrat Mary Burke.

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When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker emerged triumphant from a recall election in 2012, he immediately moved to the front ranks of those Republicans considering a 2016 presidential run. But before he could think about the White House, he needed to win reelection in 2014. Many would-be presidential candidates have used such state races as vehicles to further the argument that they are political dynamos deserving of national attention. But as Politico notes today, Walker’s struggles in his fight to hold onto his job may impact his hopes for the White House even if he manages to beat Democrat Mary Burke.

Walker has had a bull’s eye on his back ever since he decided to take his 2010 campaign promises seriously and to take action to save his state from rapacious public employee unions. Walker stood up to the union thugs and obstructionist Democrats who sought to prevent the legislature from enacting legislation that would end the vicious cycle by which state employees sank Wisconsin further into debt. He then ably fended off the recall effort and assumed the status of conservative folk hero as the foremost among a class of GOP governors intent on reforming a corrupt system.

But three all-out liberal assaults on Walker in five years have taken their toll. Instead of waltzing to reelection as Chris Christie did in New Jersey, Walker has faced the fight of his political life against Burke, a wealthy businesswoman who has been able to pour her considerable personal resources into attacks on the governor in a state that remains fairly evenly divided between the two parties. Showing signs of strain at times, Walker has appeared to falter occasionally and it can be argued that his blunt style has gotten a little stale in his third go-round with the voters.

Up until this week, most polls have shown the race essentially tied or with Walker holding a razor-thin edge. However, the latest survey of Wisconsin voters form Marquette University shows him opening up a 7-point lead, the same margin by which he won the recall. It could be that Walker will benefit from the accumulation of Obama administration disasters even as the president comes to the state to back his opponent. Yet even if that poll proves to be right about the governor achieving an easy victory, 2014 wasn’t the sort of coronation for Walker that Christie achieved in New Jersey before “Bridgegate” changed his political image.

Knocking off Walker has been a top Democratic objective this year and would provide them with some consolation even if they lose the Senate. Doing so would not only effectively eliminate him for 2016 consideration but also send a cautionary message to any Republican in the country who would think to emulate Walker’s courageous stand against unions and traditional tax-and-spend policies.

It would also have some interesting consequences for the Republicans who remain standing in the presidential sweepstakes. Without Walker, other GOP governors like Christie and Indiana’s Mike Pence will get more attention. The Jeb Bush boomlet will also be helped, as Walker is one of the few Republicans who could challenge for both Tea Party support as well as the backing of establishment Republicans who share his fiscal conservatism.

But as much as it might help Christie, a Walker defeat would also create another and perhaps bigger problem for him. This is thanks in no small measure to Walker’s own complaints about insufficient support for his reelection from the Republican Governors Association run this year by Christie as well as other national GOP groups. Whether or not the charge is accurate—and Walker soon backed off on his claims—conservatives won’t forget it and you can count on them blaming the New Jersey governor for a loss. It will be one more count in an indictment charging him as a RINO that stems from his controversial embrace of President Obama days before the 2012 election.

There will be those who will argue with some justice that even a narrow Walker victory next week will undermine his 2016 argument. Critics will say that if he can’t decisively win at home how can he hope to carry the nation against Hillary Clinton. Unlike George W. Bush’s 1998 landslide or, as Christie backers will point out, the New Jersey governor’s enormous win last year in a far more Democratic state than Wisconsin, a close Walker win could be interpreted as weakness.

But even though both Democrats and rival Republicans would like to bury him, Walker’s future is still in his own hands. Though it can be argued that the 2014 campaign showed that he is mortal, if he manages to win decisively—and a 7-point win equaling the runoff margin would qualify—the speculation about his presidential ambitions will begin immediately. Surviving yet another Democratic deluge of campaign money and attack ads even if by only a few points will bolster his credentials for the White House. And it will also allow him to spend the next year preaching his gospel of reform and fiscal sanity from the bully pulpit that reelection will give him. If so, he will be a formidable candidate if he runs in 2016. But before that can happen he’s got to win next Tuesday.

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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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Bridgegate, the Media, and Lessons for 2016

The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

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The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

That means that if Christie really is exonerated–which he has been insisting he would be for months–conservatives should expect the leftist press to choose a new target. Although the coverage of this scandal leaves the mainstream press looking utterly humiliated, they won’t be humbled. A good precedent is when the New York Times concocted false accusations against John McCain in 2008 intended to destroy not just his campaign but his family; after the story was called out for the unethical hit job it was, especially on the right, then-Times editor Bill Keller responded: “My first tendency when they do that is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.”

Getting called out for bias only makes the media more likely to give in to its vindictive instincts. This is the press version of an in-kind contribution, and those contributions don’t go to Republican campaigns.

In January conservative media watchers were passing around the statistics that showed the lopsided coverage the media was giving “Bridgegate” vs. the IRS scandal. One of the charts, which showed dedicated coverage over a fixed period of time, bothered reporters. In one of the unconvincing “defenses” of his fellow journalists, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza objected:

The comparison made in this chart in terms of coverage is not an apples to apples one.  The IRS story broke on May 10. That’s a full 52 days before the Media Research Center began counting the minutes of news coverage devoted to it. The Christie story, on the other hand, broke in the Bergen Record on Jan. 8, the same day that MRC began tracking its mentions in the media.

What Cillizza actually demonstrated, unintentionally, was a far worse aspect of the coverage that was tougher to quantify but jumps off the screen from Cillizza’s post. And that is the general lack of interest on the part of reporters in digging into the government’s shocking misconduct–you know, practicing journalism. The lack of curiosity has been astounding.

As our Pete Wehner wrote the other day, forget basic reporting: the press ignored a genuine piece of Benghazi-related news when it fell in their laps. That’s how the IRS developments happened too. The initial story was announced in the IRS’s attempt to get out in front of a report that had discovered the abuse of power and was going to detail its findings. The IRS decided to try to spin the news in advance to take control of the story.

And the recent revelations of the IRS’s ongoing strategy of destroying evidence during the investigation were brought to the public’s attention by the group Judicial Watch, which has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents. The latest piece of news, that Attorney General Eric Holder’s office tried to coordinate a strategy with House Democrats to blunt the impact of future revelations about the IRS’s illegal targeting scheme, came to light because Holder’s office accidentally called Darrell Issa’s office instead of Democrat Elijah Cummings.

The difference in media coverage was only part of the story, then. The more serious part was that the media is just not doing their jobs when the target of the investigation is the Obama administration. That doesn’t mean all reporters, of course, or that they’re ignoring all stories. But the pattern is pretty clear: when we learn something about Obama administration misbehavior, it’s generally not from reporters, many of whom eventually get hired by the Obama administration.

The other aspect of the coverage gap is the type of story. Surely Cillizza thinks a staffer closing lanes on a bridge, however indefensible, is a different caliber of story than the IRS, at the encouragement of high-ranking Democrats, undertaking a targeting scheme to silence Obama’s critics in the lead-up to his reelection. Cillizza was right, in other words: conservatives weren’t comparing apples to apples. But he was wrong in thinking that stacked the deck in favor of conservatives’ conclusion; the opposite was the case.

We’ve already seen this with other prospective GOP 2016 candidates. When Wisconsin prosecutors initiated a wide-ranging “John Doe” investigation intended to silence conservative groups and voters in Wisconsin and level false allegations against Scott Walker, the media ran with the story. It turned out that the investigation was so unethical that those prosecutors now stand accused broad civil-rights violations. But the point of the coverage is to echo the false allegations against Walker, not to get the story right. So the media moved on.

And they moved on to Rick Perry, who was the target of an indictment so demented that only the most extreme liberals defended it. The point of the case, though, was to get headlines announcing Perry’s indictment. This one may have backfired because it was so insane that, aside from former Obama advisor Jim Messina, Rachel Maddow, and a couple writers for liberal magazines, the left tried to distance themselves from it. But the fact remains: Rick Perry is under indictment.

The criminalization of politics is part of the left’s broader lawfare strategy. This is the sort of thing repellent to democratic values and certainly should draw critical attention from the press. Instead, they’ve chosen to enable it.

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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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The Walker Smear and the Rule of Law

Back in June, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Democratic and union opponents took a flyer on an attempt to smear the 2016 presidential hopeful as a lawbreaker. The story quickly collapsed once it became clear that Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe regarding his state’s arcane campaign-finance laws. But now the same media outlets that trumpeted the original misleading story and then buried the subsequent news that discredited it are back at it again trying to revive the non-scandal with new articles. But the problem with this round of accusations is the same as with the first one. Walker doesn’t appear to have violated any laws.

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Back in June, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Democratic and union opponents took a flyer on an attempt to smear the 2016 presidential hopeful as a lawbreaker. The story quickly collapsed once it became clear that Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe regarding his state’s arcane campaign-finance laws. But now the same media outlets that trumpeted the original misleading story and then buried the subsequent news that discredited it are back at it again trying to revive the non-scandal with new articles. But the problem with this round of accusations is the same as with the first one. Walker doesn’t appear to have violated any laws.

The original accusation that Walker had illegally coordinated independent campaign contributions during the 2012 attempt to recall him from office was big news back in June. Publications such as the New York Times and Politico treated the release of some documents from a convoluted litigation stemming from campaign-finance law investigations as damning evidence of Walker crossing the line between legal and illegal activity. The allegations were big political news for a day or two, but were just as quickly forgotten when a closer reading of the facts made it clear that a judge had already halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition before the stories were even published. The embarrassment of those who had treated this as a sign that Walker was doomed was compounded a week later when the lawyer for the prosecutors that had tried to pursue the investigation admitted that even if it were allowed to complete its work, Governor Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe despite claims to the contrary from the press.

So what prompted the news stories that appeared in the New York Times and Politico on Friday? The headlines of the pieces make it seem as if newly released emails prove that Walker is in trouble. But again, once you take the trouble to read the stories, the notion that this is a scandal that has, as the Times helpfully insinuates, “clouded the White House prospects of Mr. Walker” falls flat again.

The emails that were released by the prosecutors talk a lot about efforts to raise money to help Walker, but there is no actual evidence that he broke any laws. Just tidbits from his staff to the governor discussing the efforts to raise money to combat the massive influx of union and liberal money into the state that was aimed at reversing the verdict of the voters in 2010 when Walker and a Republican majority in the state legislature were elected on a platform to reform the state’s finances. The only thing the documents prove is that Walker might have encouraged support for those seeking to oppose the efforts of his opponents. That this might have been so is neither shocking nor evidence of criminal behavior. It is exactly what every other politician in the country does in order to navigate the forest of campaign finance laws that have done nothing to make the system more transparent but have provided plenty of work for lawyers. It is little wonder that a federal judge shut down the investigation as an unconstitutional attempt to suppress the free speech rights of some of the groups involved, such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

But what is going on here is bigger than the political nastiness inspired by the 2011 effort by union thugs and their Democratic supporters to stop Walker and the Wisconsin legislature from changing laws that allowed state workers to hold the taxpayers hostage. What those behind this effort, ably assisted by the liberal media, are trying to do is no different from what happened earlier this month in Texas when Democrats managed to indict Governor Rick Perry for using his veto power to force the resignation of a prosecutor who had disgraced herself by being caught driving while drunk. In both Wisconsin and Texas, liberals have decided that the only way to derail politicians they can’t beat at the polls is to try and trump up legal cases against them. While no one expects Perry to ever serve a day in jail on such absurd charges and Walker isn’t even in personal legal peril, the point here is not so much to imprison these Republicans but to discredit them. The assumption is that legal trouble of any kind—even when they are the result of investigations with obvious political motives—will be enough to damage them for 2016. In Walker’s case, those behind these cases as well as their media collaborators are also hoping that their smears will make it easier to beat him in what shapes up to be a tough reelection race this fall in a battleground state.

The majority of voters are too smart to be fooled by these smears, and it’s likely that the efforts to take them down by such underhanded means will actually boost the popularity of both Perry and Walker among Republicans. But even if neither man is actually hurt by these cases, both liberals and conservatives should be worried about this political trend.

One of the hallmarks of dictatorships is the use of law to punish political opponents. The thing that has always separated the United States from banana republics and vicious authoritarian regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the inability of either political leaders or parties to imprison their rivals. But what we are witnessing in Texas and Wisconsin is the breakdown of the rule of law that should protect us against the kind of savage reprisals against those who would challenge Putin that we see in contemporary Russia.

As the trial of Bob MacDonnell, the former Republican governor of Virginia and the ongoing ethics probe of New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo shows, there are enough real scandals involving abuses of power or corruption to occupy the press and the public. But what is so awful about the attempts to take down Perry and Walker is the willingness of the political left to prioritize their naked lust for power over the rule of law. That a partisan press should seek to aid these efforts to play politics by other means rather than expose them is a disgrace. This is a trend that Americans should deplore no matter what they think about those governors or their ideology.

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The Walker Smear Collapses

Last week I wrote about the way the liberal mainstream media was trumpeting the rather slender evidence that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in trouble over campaign fundraising. But yesterday, the story collapsed when the prosecutor cited in the original story denied the governor was in any legal peril. Predictably, the same outlets that promoted the first story are now burying the sequel.

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Last week I wrote about the way the liberal mainstream media was trumpeting the rather slender evidence that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in trouble over campaign fundraising. But yesterday, the story collapsed when the prosecutor cited in the original story denied the governor was in any legal peril. Predictably, the same outlets that promoted the first story are now burying the sequel.

The original accusations that Walker was at the center of an investigation of a criminal probe of violations of Wisconsin’s arcane campaign finance laws was treated as a very big deal by liberal outlets hungry for material to use to discredit the governor. The words “criminal scheme” to describe his actions echoed around the Internet and liberal shows on MSNBC and CNN. As I noted then, the New York Times had the story at the top of its home page when it broke and then plastered it on the front page of their print edition the next day. In the original version of the piece, the paper discussed the allegations in detail but only mentioned the fact that two separate judges—one state and one federal—had already dismissed the charges and halted the investigation in the case.

But the flimsy nature of the story didn’t stop most liberal print and broadcast outlets from treating this as proof that Walker had been discredited as a national political figure. The actions that were alleged to be illegal are, in fact, legal just about everywhere but Wisconsin. Moreover, a Walker email discussing one of his campaign consultants that had been made public was widely discussed as somehow an admission of guilt on the governor’s part even though it was nothing of the kind. While most of those who wrote about the case admitted that it was doubtful that Walker would ever be charged with anything, they gleefully noted that, as TIME’s Michael Scherer wrote, “from a distance” it would look bad.

Walker’s Democratic opponent in his reelection race this year certainly thought so. Mary Burke has already been airing commercials highlighting the accusations in the hope that the charge would turn the tide in what was already a close contest.

But yesterday those counting on this so-called scandal putting an end to Walker’s career got some disappointing news. The lawyer representing the special prosecutors that had been running the now curtailed investigation announced that, despite the misleading headlines, the governor was not the object of any criminal probe. Despite the broad conclusions drawn from the documents uncovered last week, the lawyer said that “no conclusions” had been reached in the effort that has already been dismissed by judges as a politicized fishing expedition.

But don’t expect any apologies from the liberals who were burying Walker and speaking of him as a criminal. Needless to say, the same outlets that were screaming bloody murder about Walker’s guilt last week haven’t much to say about this development. The Times buried a story about it inside the paper in contrast to the front-page treatment it accorded the original allegation.

This case was just the latest example of liberal attempts to take out a man whom they fear. Walker was the most successful of all the Republican governors elected in 2010. He achieved groundbreaking reforms that freed his state of the tyranny of state worker unions and their contracts that were burying Wisconsin (and many other states) in debt. That put him in the cross hairs of Democrats and their thuggish union allies that employed intimidation tactics to thwart the state legislature’s ability to function. When that failed they attempted to use a recall vote to throw Walker out of office that was no more successful than earlier efforts.

Liberal hate transformed Walker from a little known county executive four years ago into a conservative folk hero with a legitimate shot at a 2016 presidential run. Thus it was hardly surprising that many of the same people who have been denouncing his reformist policies were quick to seize on anything that would besmirch his reputation. But while liberals had high hopes for this story a week ago, it seems now they can only console themselves with the thought that the endless repetition of the word “criminal” in the same sentence with Walker’s name will have done enough damage to even the odds in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race. It remains to be seen whether the debunking of this “scandal” will undo the harm that the initial reports caused.

Like previous efforts to knock off Walker, this story flopped. Though he’s in for a tough fight to win reelection, liberals have been writing his political obituary almost continuously since he first took office in 2011. It may be that by overreaching in this manner, the left has once again handed Walker a stick with which to beat them. Just as the recall effort drew more attention to the dictatorial hold on the state treasury that unions were seeking to defend than any of Walker’s shortcomings, it may be that this “scandal” may have just served as a reminder to voters of media bias rather than any fault on the part of the governor.

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Liberals Are Afraid of Scott Walker

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made no secret of the fact that he’s thinking about running for president in 2016. But before that happens, he’s got to win a reelection fight in a polarized state where his opponents have been gunning for him since he took office. He’ll also have to navigate a crowded Republican field including several candidates who will have a head start on him, higher national name recognition, and higher numbers in early poll. But there’s something about the Wisconsin governor that drives liberals bonkers.

That’s the only explanation for the New Republic‘s atrocious hit piece on him this week that sought to label him as a racist. The problem with the piece wasn’t just the false premise. As even many of the magazine’s liberal faithful soon realized as they plowed through the 7,000-plus word effort, that the inflammatory headline—”The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star”—there was absolutely nothing there to prove that Walker was a racist. The best takedown of the article comes—as is only fitting—from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose Christian Schneider rightly dismisses Alec MacGillis’s work as the kind of a baloney that smacked of a Google-aided tourist rather than knowledge of the state’s politics.

But the liberal campaign to discredit Walker isn’t limited to TNR’s inflammatory trash. As the New York Times reported this afternoon, there was an attempt by some Wisconsin prosecutors to tie Walker’s recall campaign to illegal contributions. But you have to click on the piece that was trumpeted on the paper’s home page to learn that the case was unproven and, in fact, dismissed by a federal judge and that the story is based on a federal suit that sought to reveal the unsubstantiated allegations in the records of this cold case. In fact, you have to read down to the end of the sixth paragraph of the piece to read, in a quote from Walker’s camp, that “two judges have rejected the characterizations [of the Walker campaign’s alleged illegal activity] contained in these documents.” The Times only mentions the pertinent fact that a federal judge halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition in the last sentence of the article.

In other words, there may be as little to this “scandal” as there was to previous efforts to nail Walker via Wisconsin’s draconian campaign finance laws or hit pieces like that published in TNR. All of which must cause political observers to wonder why it is that liberals are expending so much effort to knock off Walker. Could it be that they sense he is exactly the sort of candidate that could give Democrats a run for their money in 2016?

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made no secret of the fact that he’s thinking about running for president in 2016. But before that happens, he’s got to win a reelection fight in a polarized state where his opponents have been gunning for him since he took office. He’ll also have to navigate a crowded Republican field including several candidates who will have a head start on him, higher national name recognition, and higher numbers in early poll. But there’s something about the Wisconsin governor that drives liberals bonkers.

That’s the only explanation for the New Republic‘s atrocious hit piece on him this week that sought to label him as a racist. The problem with the piece wasn’t just the false premise. As even many of the magazine’s liberal faithful soon realized as they plowed through the 7,000-plus word effort, that the inflammatory headline—”The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star”—there was absolutely nothing there to prove that Walker was a racist. The best takedown of the article comes—as is only fitting—from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose Christian Schneider rightly dismisses Alec MacGillis’s work as the kind of a baloney that smacked of a Google-aided tourist rather than knowledge of the state’s politics.

But the liberal campaign to discredit Walker isn’t limited to TNR’s inflammatory trash. As the New York Times reported this afternoon, there was an attempt by some Wisconsin prosecutors to tie Walker’s recall campaign to illegal contributions. But you have to click on the piece that was trumpeted on the paper’s home page to learn that the case was unproven and, in fact, dismissed by a federal judge and that the story is based on a federal suit that sought to reveal the unsubstantiated allegations in the records of this cold case. In fact, you have to read down to the end of the sixth paragraph of the piece to read, in a quote from Walker’s camp, that “two judges have rejected the characterizations [of the Walker campaign’s alleged illegal activity] contained in these documents.” The Times only mentions the pertinent fact that a federal judge halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition in the last sentence of the article.

In other words, there may be as little to this “scandal” as there was to previous efforts to nail Walker via Wisconsin’s draconian campaign finance laws or hit pieces like that published in TNR. All of which must cause political observers to wonder why it is that liberals are expending so much effort to knock off Walker. Could it be that they sense he is exactly the sort of candidate that could give Democrats a run for their money in 2016?

To be fair, no Republican governor in the country challenged liberal orthodoxy and Democrat interest groups the way Walker did after he took office in 2011. By seeking to reform the state’s finances and prevent state worker unions from continuing to blackmail the taxpayers, Walker stepped on what has always been the third rail of American politics. Yet he won that political battle despite thuggish efforts by Democrats and unions to intimidate Walker and other Republicans as well as an attempt to shut down the Wisconsin legislature (not surprisingly liberals who were outraged at last year’s federal government shutdown had no problem with what Democrats did in that instance). Not satisfied with that fiasco, the unions and Democrats wasted a year of effort and millions of dollars in precious campaign funds on a futile recall election the following year that only served to solidify his status as a GOP star.

While past efforts failed, the coverage in liberal publications of today’s allegations read as if the left thinks they’ve found gold here. The substance of the story is that a senior official of Walker’s recall defense campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups. The laws that this activity allegedly violates are so complicated that not even several paragraphs of prose and Venn diagrams serve to provide a clear explanation of just why this was so terrible. Some, like TIME’s Michael Scherer, are also claiming that Walker “tacitly admitted” guilt in the case in an email in which he boasted that campaign consultant R.J. Johnson was successfully running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state.” But only a rabid anti-Walker partisan can read that statement as anything but applause for an effort in which the local GOP campaigns in the state’s congressional districts were acting in concert. Not even Wisconsin’s absurd maze of campaign finance laws makes that illegal. Nor does another email that refers to Johnson’s work in coordinating spending from various groups prove that he broke any law. It’s little wonder that courts have halted this politicized charade. Scherer admits the law is unclear and that every judge who has ruled on the case has tossed it out. But his point is that “from a distance” the charges will still look bad and besmirch Walker’s reputation.

Though Walker has maintained a steady lead in polls against a Democratic challenger, he has his hands full in a close race in what remains a rare example of a true swing state. But Democrats seem to sense that, despite his lack of experience on the national stage, Walker is exactly the sort of candidate who could give them trouble. He not only is well liked by the entire spectrum of Republican constituencies including Tea Partiers, business groups, and the so-called establishment. His lack of a Washington resume positions him perfectly against a member of the permanent government in Hillary Clinton. His middle class origins also will enable him to appeal to working and middle class Americans who have, as Rick Santorum has rightly pointed out, felt left out by recent GOP campaigns.

But neither Hillary nor any other Democrat will have to worry further about Walker if scurrilous charges of racism or more stray allegations about law breaking help beat him in 2014. As far as Democrats are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether these stories are based on substance or innuendo. All that counts is if they can put a dent in Walker’s well-earned image as a hard-working reform-minded governor. But they should be wary of overreaching as they did in the 2012 recall. So far, Walker has proved that the more liberals try to destroy him, the stronger he gets. It also strengthens Walker’s popularity among Republicans, which is the last thing that liberals want, since they hope the GOP nominates a candidate who, unlike Walker, will be easily branded as a right-wing extremist.

It’s hard to say whether this latest charge will stick. But the disproportionate effort the left has invested in destroying Walker illustrates how much they fear him.

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Should Rand Paul Embrace or Downplay the Libertarian Label?

About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

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About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

Frayda Levin, a New Jersey libertarian activist and former small-business owner, is a woman of many passions: promoting liberty, ending marijuana prohibition and opposing her state’s recent minimum-wage increase. But Ms. Levin has added another cause as well. At gala benefits for free-market research institutes and at fund-raisers for antitax groups, she has urged like-minded donors to help send Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, to the White House.

“I consider that one of my main goals,” said Ms. Levin, who has met with Mr. Paul several times and in February introduced him at a private conference in Florida hosted by the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “I tell people he’s the Republican of the future. He’s got both the intellectual heft and the emotional understanding.”

A libertarian’s declaration that Paul is the “Republican of the future” is not just good for Paul, but arguably has benefits for the GOP as well. After all, popular libertarian candidates who want to run for president tend to leave the GOP and run on their own ticket. This is, electorally speaking, frustrating for Republicans and counterproductive for libertarians. As staunch libertarian Randy Barnett wrote in 2012, “The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty.”

But a libertarian(ish) Republican, if effective, does the opposite: he can galvanize support for libertarian policy objectives without splintering the conservative coalition that remains the only hope of standing athwart the statist project yelling stop. But there’s a catch, and here’s where libertarians get justifiably put off by the right: the Republican Party wants someone like Paul to be just popular enough. It’s up to libertarians to convince the party that he should be the GOP’s standard bearer, and it’s not an easy sell.

Which raises the question: is it easier to make that sell if Paul embraces his libertarianism or downplays it? That will be one question the 2016 nomination race seeks to answer. It’s easy to see both sides of it. It’s possible that the GOP just isn’t ready to go full libertarian at the presidential level, and therefore downplaying his libertarian label in favor of a more conservative-Republican tag might settle some nerves. Yet it’s also possible that by avoiding the term “libertarian” Paul is implicitly reinforcing the idea that libertarianism is an idea whose time has yet to arrive, thus justifying the suspicions of the establishment.

But it’s also important to note that whatever Paul chooses to call himself, he has been branded a libertarian and that is how he will be viewed relative to the other candidates. That is, Paul has essentially emerged as the candidate for libertarians, whether or not he calls himself the libertarian candidate.

It is for that reason that the much-feared “establishment” is only a real threat to Paul in the primary if there is no consensus establishment candidate. The conservative grassroots will not, at least in significant numbers, choose Jeb Bush or Chris Christie over Rand Paul. Many non-libertarian conservatives would prefer Paul over a genuinely moderate candidate. So rather than an anyone-but-Paul movement coalescing against him, he would probably benefit from the reverse.

But what if Bush doesn’t run? Well then Paul has a problem, because the “establishment” will support someone, and there are many palatable candidates on offer. The governors, especially Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would probably easily compete with Paul for non-libertarian voters and get establishment backing. Marco Rubio is another candidate who would appeal to establishment figures but also many conservatives–though his support for comprehensive immigration reform presumably makes him less of a threat to Paul’s base of support.

In such a case, Paul’s best hope is to compete for the “constitutional conservative” label, not differentiate himself from it. He has less to lose if he’s up against a 2016 version of Mitt Romney. So is Paul a libertarian? The best guess right now is: It depends.

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The Tea Party Comes Into Its Own

The main takeaway from recent GOP primaries, which saw the victories of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, was a continuation of a lesson conservatives have been learning the past few election cycles: the candidate matters. In the past, conservatives have often learned this by losing–see Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, etc. Now they seem to be proving it by winning.

Slate’s John Dickerson is always worth reading, and he has another typically thoughtful piece today, asking “Why Is the GOP’s Civil War So Civil?” He notes, correctly, that the returns in North Carolina and Nebraska mean “the grassroots conservatives of the Tea Party and elites of the GOP establishment can both claim victories.” But I think it’s actually part of a larger trend that includes not just recent nominees but also the successful politicians the Tea Party has already elevated. Dickerson writes:

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The main takeaway from recent GOP primaries, which saw the victories of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, was a continuation of a lesson conservatives have been learning the past few election cycles: the candidate matters. In the past, conservatives have often learned this by losing–see Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, etc. Now they seem to be proving it by winning.

Slate’s John Dickerson is always worth reading, and he has another typically thoughtful piece today, asking “Why Is the GOP’s Civil War So Civil?” He notes, correctly, that the returns in North Carolina and Nebraska mean “the grassroots conservatives of the Tea Party and elites of the GOP establishment can both claim victories.” But I think it’s actually part of a larger trend that includes not just recent nominees but also the successful politicians the Tea Party has already elevated. Dickerson writes:

Nebraska is a safe Republican state. Perhaps the forces of the establishment would have jumped in more heavily if the march to the majority in the Senate were threatened. But that’s not a certainty. Sasse is no Christine O’Donnell or Richard Mourdock, two of the candidates often cited as being substandard. Sasse has political skill, an Ivy League education, and credentials as a Bush administration veteran. He will win the general election in the heavily red state and come to Washington as a Rand Paul or Ron Johnson type of senator—what used to be known as simply a good movement conservative.

The reference to Paul and Johnson (and an earlier one to Marco Rubio) provides a good opportunity to check in with the senators who were part of earlier successful Tea Party grassroots efforts. Johnson is far from a firebrand, and he has settled into the Senate nicely without expressing any interest (at least yet) in using it as a platform for a near-term presidential run. But even the ones considering a run for the presidency have–perhaps for that reason–paid a lot of attention to their tone lately as well.

Rubio’s an obvious one, having pushed for comprehensive immigration reform: “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on healthcare if they think you want to deport their grandmother,” Rubio said after the 2012 election.

More recently, Paul–nobody’s idea of a RINO–did some tapdancing after trying to thread the needle on voter ID. “Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Paul told the New York Times last week. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” After a bit of an uproar on the right, Paul explained himself to Sean Hannity (via Hot Air’s Allahpundit):

Like I say, I think both sides have made mistakes in…this issue. But it’s mainly in presentation and perception, not in reality. In the sense that, if Republicans are going to go around the country and this becomes a central theme and issue, you have to realize, rightly or wrongly, it is being perceived by some — and this is the point I was making and I think it’s still a valid point, that I’m trying to go out and say to African Americans ‘I want your vote and the Republican Party wants your vote’. If they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that showing their ID is an attempt to get them not to vote because they perceive it in the lineage of a time when it truly did happen through poll taxes and questioning to try and prevent people, if they perceive it that way, we have to be aware that the perception is out there and be careful about not so overdoing something that we further alienate a block of people we need to attract.

After posting that quote, Allahpundit remarked: “That’s basically the same rationale amnesty fans have used to justify comprehensive immigration reform.”

Perhaps, and it’s interesting to see Paul join Rubio in the group of Tea Party rising stars worrying aloud about perception as much as policy. But I think it’s more analogous to the disastrous town hall meetings congressional Republicans called to rally the base against the comprehensive immigration reform favored by then-President Bush (and John McCain). There are legitimate concerns about seeming to incentivize illegal immigration, but those town halls were an angry and, in some cases, offensive escalation of the party’s rhetoric toward immigrants.

In addition to Paul and Rubio, there’s Mike Lee’s thoughtful call for a renewed effort to fight poverty, and–though he’s in a slightly different category than the Tea Party senators–Scott Walker’s explanation of his governing philosophy in an interview with the Washington Examiner: “It’s a phrase I use often: Austerity is not the answer, reform is.”

The civility of the GOP’s “civil war” is part of a broader trend of the party’s conservatives adjusting to the fact they’re often addressing a national audience. That’s especially true for those planning a run for the presidency. Contrary to the left’s hopefully declarations that it has run its course, a Tea Party that vets its candidates and embraces governing is a political force that’s just warming up.

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