Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ted Cruz

Don’t Call It a Comeback (Because It Isn’t)

The most commonly recalled lesson of the 2008 presidential campaign is the danger in declaring a candidate “inevitable.” But that overshadows the other lesson from that same year, and it has to do not with Hillary Clinton but with John McCain: it can be just as risky to declare a candidacy all but dead in the water. So while Clinton is aiming to avoid a repeat of that year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, mostly written off by political observers (including this one), might just be hoping history at least rhymes this time around on the Republican side.

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The most commonly recalled lesson of the 2008 presidential campaign is the danger in declaring a candidate “inevitable.” But that overshadows the other lesson from that same year, and it has to do not with Hillary Clinton but with John McCain: it can be just as risky to declare a candidacy all but dead in the water. So while Clinton is aiming to avoid a repeat of that year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, mostly written off by political observers (including this one), might just be hoping history at least rhymes this time around on the Republican side.

Hillary was not inevitable, as it turned out, which is why she’s back running again this year. But she seems inevitable again, and this time more so. Are pundits who may be repeating their mistake with Hillary repeating the same mistake by dismissing Chris Christie’s chances to win the GOP nomination?

In a word, no.

The New Jersey governor has launched what is being termed a “comeback” tour, and the plan appears to have both a geographic center and a policy one. As the Washington Post reports:

Chris Christie kicked off a two day swing to New Hampshire with a sober prescription for tackling escalating entitlement spending.

The New Jersey governor and potential Republican presidential candidate proposed raising the retirement age for Social security to 69, means testing for Social Security, and gradually raising the eligibility age for Medicare.

Christie outlined his proposals on entitlement reform at a speech Tuesday morning at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

“In the short term, it is growing the deficit and slowly but surely taking over all of government. In the long term, it will steal our children’s future and bankrupt our nation. Meanwhile, our leaders in Washington are not telling people the truth. Washington is still not dealing with the problem,” Christie said.

“Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country. I am not,” the governor added.

As Hail Marys go, there is logic to this plan. Geographically, it makes sense. The crowded field of social conservatives and candidates with Midwest ties/appeal makes Iowa a stretch for Christie. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is much closer to home for a northeastern Republican, and ideologically probably a better fit than Iowa for someone like Christie.

Additionally, the idea that candidates might waste resources trying to win Iowa at the expense of New Hampshire isn’t crazy at all. In fact, since 1980, for every presidential-election year in which there was no Republican presidential incumbent, Iowa and New Hampshire chose different winners. This streak almost ended in 2012 when it appeared Mitt Romney won Iowa and then went on to win New Hampshire, but once all the votes were counted it turned out Rick Santorum had actually won Iowa. The smart money, then, in New Hampshire is never on the winner of the Iowa caucuses (at least not when it’s an open seat). Christie probably knows this.

However, with such a crowded field, even assuming the Iowa winner doesn’t also win New Hampshire (and he will still likely compete there for votes anyway) Christie will have a steep hill to climb. Jeb Bush is his most significant rival for establishment votes, and Bush will have lots of money to blanket the northeast in ads while Christie’s campaign is just getting out of the gate. Rand Paul will likely be competitive in New Hampshire, with its libertarian streak (his father did reasonably well in New Hampshire). And then there will still be Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and others.

On the policy side, I don’t think I even need to point out the risk involved in making entitlement reform the centerpiece of your agenda. It is bold, and Christie does need to stand out from the pack. He needs conservative votes, not just establishment support, and conservatives might be more amenable to such cuts (in theory at least, and it’ll vary depending on which piece of the safety net we’re talking about).

Christie is very good in person, so the town hall format should help him. He’s also got the “straight-talker” bona fides to at least portray himself as the guy who’s telling you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. But that can go south in a hurry, considering Christie’s temper.

And further, as Harry Enten points out today, “The Politics Of Christie’s ‘Bold’ Social Security Plan Are Atrocious.” Enten writes:

According to a January 2013 Reason-Rupe survey, Republicans are more likely than Democrats, independents and the general public to say that income should not be a determining factor in receiving Social Security benefits. Only 26 percent of Republicans believe that Social Security should go to only those below a certain income level. Seventy percent of Republicans are opposed to such a proposal. …

In a September 2013 Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center poll, 58 percent of Republicans over the age of 50 were opposed to raising the age of eligibility on Social Security. Just 33 percent of Republicans over the age of 50 support such a proposal. According to an April 2013 Fox News survey, Republicans overall are more split. Still, does Christie really want to try to push the idea of raising the retirement age in New Hampshire, where 56 percent of primary voters are over the age of 50? For a moderate Republican like Christie, New Hampshire is a crucial state. His plan doesn’t seem like smart politics.

No, it doesn’t. But Christie can’t really afford to play it safe. Or can he? Is he learning the wrong lesson himself from 2008? McCain’s comeback was not due to bold conservative reform plans. If anything, he was the “safe” candidate in the field: the war hero with clean hands and decades of service. As other, more hyped candidates flamed out early, McCain simply remained standing.

He also benefited from the electoral math, specifically in having others in the race like Mike Huckabee who could siphon votes from Romney without posing a serious threat to McCain.

Then again, considering the strength of the field this year, Christie can’t plausibly expect every other serious candidate to implode. So he’s going for broke. It’s an interesting idea that may be making headlines today but will ultimately be a footnote in the story of 2016.

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Rubio, Immigration, and the Long Road to the Nomination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rubio’s Path Is Steep But Doable

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, the obstacles in his way are formidable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Rand Paul Change the Way National Politicians Talk About Abortion?

Yesterday Rand Paul earned plaudits from conservatives for turning a question on abortion back on Democrats and putting them on the defensive. It’s long been the case that Democratic Party leaders hold fringe opinions on abortion, yet are rarely if ever asked about it by a compliant media. Not only did Paul not slip up on the question (the way candidates have in the past). He even forced an admission by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz that leading Democrats believe there should be no limits on abortion. But even more important are two other, significant ways Paul’s accomplishment could change the 2016 race.

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Yesterday Rand Paul earned plaudits from conservatives for turning a question on abortion back on Democrats and putting them on the defensive. It’s long been the case that Democratic Party leaders hold fringe opinions on abortion, yet are rarely if ever asked about it by a compliant media. Not only did Paul not slip up on the question (the way candidates have in the past). He even forced an admission by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz that leading Democrats believe there should be no limits on abortion. But even more important are two other, significant ways Paul’s accomplishment could change the 2016 race.

To recap, here’s the exchange yesterday, from Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel:

“Should there be any exemptions or not?” asked NH1 reporter Paul Steinhauser, citing the DNC attack.

“What’s the DNC say?” asked Paul. That landed like a joke—the room holding the press conference also contained some Paul supporters waiting for photos—but he was serious.

“Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts,” said Paul, waving his hands to the left. “Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.”

“Here’s an answer,” said Schultz. “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.”

Schultz’s response highlights the two key aspects of this as it relates to the presidential election.

The first is that Paul put Schultz on the defensive because Republicans with national aspirations on the campaign trail almost never talk about abortion like this. The honesty was bracing, but Schultz was also unprepared for it. Yet this isn’t, first and foremost, an issue for the Democrats, because we’re so far from the general election. Instead, it’s a challenge to Paul’s fellow Republicans.

The Todd Akin affair has spooked Republicans even more than they’d normally be about defending the right to life. But if Paul is going to talk like this–as well he should–and get conservative applause for it–again, as well he should–then it’s going to put pressure on his fellow candidates too. Paul does not want to avoid the debate over abortion. On the contrary, he wants to have a full and honest debate about it. Over the long term, that’s won’t be good for Democrats like Schultz, whose position on abortion is horrifying–unless, of course, the Republicans trip over their words and faceplant on the question at some point, the way Akin and others have.

But for the near future, other Republican candidates are not going to be able to ignore the question either, not from Paul and not from the media who know they can get the candidates talking about it now. It will come up in debates, and it will come up on the campaign trail. And Paul has raised the stakes by offering an honest and full-throated defense of the unborn. Will others follow suit? How will Ted Cruz, who is openly aiming for the evangelical vote, handle the question?

The other reason it has implications for the race is that this is part and parcel of Paul’s response to the “war on women” lie. Remember, Paul last caused a stir on this when he expressed his confusion at being accused of waging a war on women by the same people who still want the Clintons to lead their party. He even called Bill Clinton–accurately–a sexual predator.

The abortion debate is central to the Democrats’ war on women narrative. And they’re already trying to paint Paul as hostile to women. As the Blaze points out:

Democrats on Wednesday indicated that their emerging strategy for fighting Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination is to say he has a problem with women.

Paul on Wednesday got into a tense back and forth with a female anchor from NBC in which he accused her of editorializing about his views instead of simply asking about his views. “Why don’t we let me explain instead of you talking over me, okay?” he said.

Paul’s habit of getting defensive in interviews may hurt him on the campaign trail, since he’s going up against happy warriors like Scott Walker and the seemingly unflappable Ted Cruz. It’s a long campaign, and Paul’s going to have to have the patience for it.

But he’s not anti-woman. And in fact, it’s a bit condescending of Democrats toward women to treat them as too fragile for the heat of the political debate. But that won’t stop Democrats from trying.

Paul’s answer on abortion is of a piece with his strategy to combat the war on women nonsense. He pushes back every time, and has become adept at turning the accusations back on Democrats. Considering how important the war on women lie is to Democrats’ campaign strategy, it will be interesting to see how Paul’s approach will play on a national level over time, and whether it will encourage other Republicans to turn the questions back on Democrats as well.

The best-case scenario for how this turns out for Paul is that he finally ends the bogus war on women while forcing voters to contemplate the appalling implications of Democrats’ extreme stance on abortion. The worst-case scenario is that his quick temper gets him into trouble and he burns out. A middle ground is that he backs off his current strategy in order to prevent the second scenario, but this would mean also retreating somewhat rhetorically.

The result may well determine how both parties talk about abortion going forward. Some will cheer Paul and some won’t, but all will likely be paying close attention.

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MSNBC’s Favorite Republican Can’t Win

Yesterday was Rand Paul’s big day as the Kentucky senator announcement his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Like any baseball team on opening day, in theory his chances are as good as any other candidate, and given the expected crowded field competing for the nod, that’s still true. But though his Louisville announcement bash went smoothly, what followed hasn’t gone quite as well. Some of that is due to Paul’s personality turning media appearances sour. But just as important is the way the basic contradiction in his campaign strategy is undermining his chances almost from the start. Though Paul has money, an ardent cadre of supporters, and a rationale for his quest, it’s hard to imagine a path to victory for him. While his rival Ted Cruz’s launch seems to have validated the notion that he is being underestimated by pundits, Paul’s start may be proof that those who see him as a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate next winter and spring are the ones who are making a mistake.

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Yesterday was Rand Paul’s big day as the Kentucky senator announcement his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Like any baseball team on opening day, in theory his chances are as good as any other candidate, and given the expected crowded field competing for the nod, that’s still true. But though his Louisville announcement bash went smoothly, what followed hasn’t gone quite as well. Some of that is due to Paul’s personality turning media appearances sour. But just as important is the way the basic contradiction in his campaign strategy is undermining his chances almost from the start. Though Paul has money, an ardent cadre of supporters, and a rationale for his quest, it’s hard to imagine a path to victory for him. While his rival Ted Cruz’s launch seems to have validated the notion that he is being underestimated by pundits, Paul’s start may be proof that those who see him as a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate next winter and spring are the ones who are making a mistake.

What’s fascinating about these two launches is the way both candidates have gone against the stereotype about their personalities and styles. Cruz is viewed as a bomb-throwing, extremist agitator, yet he came off in the usual round of interviews on the news and broadcast channels as being thoughtful and soft-spoken even as he remained unyielding about his conservative views. By contrast Paul, whose reputation is of being a low-key intellectual, showed a brittle nature as he responded to questions about flip-flopping with anger and condescension toward media figures. Granted, nobody on the right will blame Paul for tearing into Today’s Savannah Guthrie, but it struck a contrast to the supposedly off-balance Cruz’s patience when subjected to similar sorts of questions.

Though GOP voters tend to sympathize with their leaders when they are under attack from the media, voters tend not to like presidential candidates who can’t keep their cool. For Paul to unravel so quickly with the glow of his announcement still on him doesn’t bode well for how he will hold up in the long haul through primary season.

But the problem with the flip-flopping charge goes deeper than Paul’s thin skin.

The reason he’s upset about being questioned about the way he has gradually drifted a bit to the center on foreign policy and security issues is that he knows that his formerly rigid libertarian views are out of step with his party and the general public. Paul’s instinctive antagonism toward security measures and a robust U.S. defense seemed to reflect the post-Iraq/Afghanistan wars mood of the country in early 2013 when he gained attention with a well executed Senate filibuster about the use of drone attacks. But with ISIS on the march and the key issue of the day being President Obama’s appeasement of Iran, his attempt to square the circle on these points falls flat.

The contradictions were evident even in his announcement speech, as at one point he pledged to “do whatever it takes” to defeat terrorism but then returned to more familiar rhetoric a few moments later as he lambasted some of the security measures that give law enforcement the ability to stop the terrorists.

Just as important, the looming problem for Paul is that his basic foreign-policy approach still has its roots in the extremism of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul. It is true that, as the candidate says, he shouldn’t be held accountable for his father’s views (a good thing since it is hard to imagine the elder Paul staying silent during the campaign) and that he disagrees with him on some issues. But try as he might to demonstrate distance from the White House on all issues, it’s still obvious that he is running for a Republican nomination while espousing views that are actually largely to the left of those of President Obama on foreign policy.

That was always true of Ron Paul, but a vignette on MSNBC yesterday demonstrated just how comfortable the denizens of that left-wing cul de sac are with the Kentucky senator’s approach to foreign policy. Paul’s announcement and the attacks that are being launched against him by conservative opponents of his foreign-policy views prompted the channel’s Chris Matthews to launch into an impressive rant about how the candidate is more reflective of the views of most of the country than his GOP opponents. But instead of leaving it at that, Matthews insisted that the attempt by “neocons and piggish money” that want to fight more wars for Israel to oppose Paul speaks well for the candidate. Matthews stopped just short of overt anti-Semitism, though his line about “cloth coat Republicans” (a nod to Richard Nixon’s “checkers speech”?) that send their kids to war while the neocons don’t seemed an obvious and inaccurate shot at supporters of Israel.

Rand Paul isn’t responsible for what crackpots on the ultra-left MSNBC say about him, but what is significant is that a candidate that can draw sympathy from that sector is poorly placed to win mainstream support among Republicans. Considering that some of his father’s hard-core backers are becoming disillusioned with Rand’s apostasies about foreign aid and defense spending, there just aren’t enough libertarians to help Paul win. Tea Partiers have other choices with Cruz and Scott Walker. Nor is he well placed to compete for conservative Christian voters.

That adds up to a steep hill for him to climb. Though no one with this much name recognition and the ability to raise money can be written off on day one of his candidacy, the limitations to his appeal are actually greater than those of the supposedly more extreme Cruz. MSNBC’s favorite Republican may not be as much of a lock to be a first-tier primary candidate as some pundits think.

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Hillary Clinton and the Language Police

With each Hillary Clinton presidential campaign comes the requisite language policing from her supporters. Before the 2008 election, some argued it was sexist to call her “Hillary,” a claim that lost most of its force when it became clear that Clinton herself wanted to use her first name. And now we have the latest attempts to rule out certain words or phrases: Hillary’s poor social skills apparently must not be named, especially with words like “polarizing.” But her supporters are doing her no favors.

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With each Hillary Clinton presidential campaign comes the requisite language policing from her supporters. Before the 2008 election, some argued it was sexist to call her “Hillary,” a claim that lost most of its force when it became clear that Clinton herself wanted to use her first name. And now we have the latest attempts to rule out certain words or phrases: Hillary’s poor social skills apparently must not be named, especially with words like “polarizing.” But her supporters are doing her no favors.

In late March, a group calling itself Clinton’s “Super Volunteers” decided to let the media know they’d be watching coverage of Clinton and would push back on the use of any of the words they’ve decided are unfair:

So these words are now off the table: “polarizing,” “calculating,” “disingenuous,” “insincere,” “ambitious,” “inevitable,” “entitled,” “over-confident,” “secretive,” “will do anything to win,” “represents the past,” and “out of touch.”

The thinking here, of course, is that these kinds of words are attached to Clinton in a way that they wouldn’t be attached to male candidates — that people wouldn’t call Clinton “ambitious” if she weren’t a woman, that there is a double-standard for such traits.

Some are pretty funny: you can’t say “inevitable”? This is self-parody. What the members of the Clinton campaign’s Sea Org are actually proving is that accurately describing Clinton is itself a negative act because she has built a career on negativity and the ever-present air of corruption.

The Clintons are experienced practitioners of the politics of personal destruction. That nastiness can easily translate to being “polarizing.” But maybe, say some defenders, “polarizing” is unfair because everyone’s polarizing. That’s the case made in a New York Times Magazine piece. Here’s Mark Leibovich:

Initially, reporters said Clinton was “polarizing” because she was a transitional figure in the culture wars as they existed a quarter-century ago. She was a working woman and full political partner with (gasp) feminist tendencies. Among would-be first ladies in the early 1990s, these were exotic qualities. Today Hillary Clinton is a cautious and exceedingly diplomatic politician, perhaps to her detriment. (She is often criticized for being “calculating” and “robotic.”) If anything, her willingness to be deliberate, speak carefully and appeal to the political center was a big part of what sank her with liberal Democrats who opted for Barack Obama in 2008. If Clinton really were polarizing, wouldn’t the left be more excited about her? Wouldn’t people be roused from their “Clinton fatigue”?

Well, no. That’s not what it means to be polarizing in this context. Clinton isn’t polarizing because she’s liberal; she’s polarizing because she’s Nixonian. Richard Nixon was a political centrist, even liberal on some issues. According to Leibovich’s logic, that should make him less polarizing. I doubt many would agree.

With Hillary, a very common question surrounding each new revelation of her political activity is: How many laws did she break? This results in her having to rely on her most fanatical supporters, since defending rampant rule-breaking from someone who aspires to be put in charge of the American government is hard to do on the merits. It requires personally attacking critics and the press, which in turn only increases the polarization–again, with it originating from Hillary’s camp.

Leibovich adds:

When people say Clinton is polarizing, they are largely indicting her by association. She has been a fixture of our political climate for so long that the climate defines her. But the political climate has not been made, or polarized, by mysterious outside forces. It is us. You could argue that the act of showing up at CPAC and cheering a red-meat speech from the likes of Ted Cruz is an act of self-polarization, or at least an indication that common cause with Clinton probably was not much of a possibility to begin with.

And what does a red-meat speech from Ted Cruz include? Does it advocate for destroying evidence wanted by Congress? Breaking government rules to hide your taxpayer-funded activities from the people? Putting serious and sensitive government intelligence at risk by making it easier for the Chinese and the Russians to see our files than the relevant congressional committees? Running facets of a parallel government, with an entirely private server and a private spy shop feeding you intel? Using your family’s private philanthropic foundation as a super-PAC for foreign governments and then using the internal grant process to bleach the fingerprints off those checks?

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Hillary lives by one standard, one set of rules, one book of laws, and wants everyone else to have to live by another. This aspect of her political personality is, at its core, aggressively contemptuous of the American people. And that’s pretty polarizing.

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Could Indiana RFRA Debate Influence 2016? Not in the Way Moderates Think.

To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

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To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

After Pence’s confused statements and Hutchinson’s pulling the plug on the Arkansas RFRA, liberals may be forgiven for thinking they won last week’s news cycle. The effort to stigmatize even a theoretical faith-based dissent on gay marriage succeeded in a manner that made the issue toxic. And that will continue to be the case as long as the discussion centers on the notion that refusing to take part in a gay wedding is a form of illegal discrimination rather than on the desire of an intolerant, albeit newly-minted majority to bully a religious minority into compliance or silence.

But evangelicals, or other conservatives who think the media groupthink about Indiana reflected inaccurate and biased reporting, may have a difference response from that of Hutchinson. To the contrary, and to the consternation of mainstream Republicans who believe that it is madness for the GOP to contest culture-war issues where they have already been routed, the religious right may use Indiana as an incentive to use the 2016 race to make their voices heard.

The importance of this demographic in Republican primaries is nothing new. The last two Iowa caucuses have gone to the candidate who appealed most effectively to religious conservatives—Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. But that influence may be even greater in 2016, especially if southern states coordinate what is being widely called an SEC regional primary (after college football’s Southeastern Conference) where these voters will play a major role in determining the outcome.

And that is where Ted Cruz’s gamble on mobilizing the religious right comes in. Cruz got reviews for his effort in being the first GOP candidate to formally declare for the presidency. But the consensus among most talking heads is that he is still out of touch with mainstream voters and has little chance of winning the nomination, let alone a general election. They may well be right about the latter, but in a contest where Christian conservatives largely dominate most of the early states, Cruz’s strategy seemed smart. After the Indiana kerfuffle, it may turn out to be even smarter than he thought.

It may be that the avalanche of opprobrium that rained down on the state of Indiana would serve as a deterrent to religious conservatives speaking up. Certainly those responsible for promoting the state’s economy may think so after the way a liberal lynch mob was able to intimidate corporations into joining their anti-RFRA protests, even causing some to boycott the Final Four weekend in Indianapolis.

But the spectacle of the chattering classes chanting in unison may only help convince conservatives that piping down about their beliefs are the worst mistake they can make. And candidates who seek to appeal to those who are most outraged about the way their beliefs are being anathematized could stand to benefit.

Cruz will have a lot of competition for religious conservative votes. Former Iowa winners Huckabee and Santorum are back for another try. Rick Perry will also seek to win their affection. Like Cruz, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the son of a preacher and an evangelical who has often spoken of his faith. So will Senator Marco Rubio. Even a libertarian like Rand Paul will make a pass at the religious right even if his heart isn’t in it. But Jeb Bush, who has spoken of running against the party base on issues like immigration and Common Core, is in a bad position to do so.

But the point here is that someone who gets out early and establishes himself as the voice of conservatives will be in a far stronger position than most of those seeking to put Christian bakers and florists in the stocks think. Cruz may not sustain his effort and someone else, perhaps Walker or Rubio, who can appeal to other sectors of the party will prevail. But far from shutting up the evangelicals, the Indiana dustup may give them an added incentive not to lose control of the Republican Party to someone they perceive as a moderate like Bush. And that is very bad news for those in the GOP who think Indiana is an object lesson in how not to win a presidential election.

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Why Rand Paul Doesn’t Need to Tell Us Why He’s Running (But Hillary Does)

Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

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Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to officially launch his presidential campaign. A week later, Marco Rubio will likely do the same. And on the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton may formally announce her candidacy as early as the day after Rubio’s campaign launch. The campaign will be underway in earnest, though this will start a less interesting chapter in the 2016 story.

Although Jeb Bush has not officially launched his campaign, he was the first to make an announcement that made plain the fact that his campaign was functionally underway and also opened the gates to the 2016 primary race. This made a great deal of sense: it was unclear if Jeb really was going to run, and he wanted to assuage all doubt and signal to donors and staffers he was in.

Jeb is also vying for the affections of the party establishment, and he had a chance to deliver a knockout blow to his chief establishment rival, Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor is limited in what steps he can take toward a candidacy right now and is bound by his day job. Jeb isn’t, and so he knew if he could jump in and crowd out the donor/staffer field on the establishment side of the race, he could make it impossible for Christie to have a path to the nomination, and maybe even convince him not to run at all.

The next candidate to remove all doubt, and the first to officially announce his campaign, was Ted Cruz. The Texas senator seemed more likely than Jeb to run, but that perception might have had something to do with the fact that Cruz is currently in office and Jeb isn’t, and Cruz’s actions in the Senate always seemed to be aiming at something larger than the individual votes around which they were taken.

But Cruz is also a young, freshman senator in a (prospective) field with other young, freshman senators. It made sense that one of the freshmen toying with the idea of running for president would sit this one out and wait for a future election, especially if they felt generally confident in their reelection prospects. Cruz fit the bill of the member of the club who might have been most likely to wait. Jumping into the race officially, then, was the smart play: like Jeb, there was a genuine will-he-or-won’t-he aspect to his compelling freshman term, even if he did always seem to lean toward running.

Cruz also might have an in-state rival for conservative affection in Rick Perry. Cruz will benefit greatly from a head start on Perry, a three-term governor with national connections and some (rather bumpy) presidential campaign experience.

In other words, those who needed a head start entered the race early enough to get one. The natural reaction of the others, then, would be to enter the race as well and limit that head start. And so that’s what they’re doing.

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to announce his candidacy, and he’s released a campaign trailer to preview it. We’re told he’s a “new kind of Republican,” and the message on screen at the close of the video says: “On April 7 one leader will stand up to defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream.” It’s a message clearly directed at Cruz, Rubio, and any other members of Congress considering running (Lindsey Graham, Peter King). This, too, makes sense: Paul actually benefits from Jeb winning establishment backing and older candidates reinforce his past-vs.-future message. Cruz, however, is a real impediment to his chances of winning the nomination, though it’s unclear how he’ll present himself as more of an outsider than Cruz.

But the key is that he doesn’t have to–at least not yet. The announcement doesn’t have to break any new ground or present anything more than a general message. Politicians with relatively strong name identification build their own reputations over time. Paul doesn’t need to say anything more than “I’m running.”

And it puts into stark relief the difference between such politicians and those who actually need to say who they are and what they stand for on every re-introduction. Hillary Clinton’s nascent campaign is a perfect example. She has nothing interesting to say about anything. The news stories on her campaign take on a distinctly dopey quality because of this.

Commentators had some fun with an Associated Press dispatch on Clinton in late February. As the Free Beacon notes, the AP’s initial headline was “Clinton says she would push problem-solving if she runs.” It was later changed to “Clinton says she would push for inclusive problem-solving.”

Clinton is running for president because she believes it’s owed to her. Her new campaign focus is no better. Here’s the AP from this morning: “Clinton to start 2016 bid with focus on voter interaction.” Hillary Clinton is now willing to do anything to become president, even if it means talking to the unwashed masses.

This problem keeps cropping up because Clinton stands for nothing and believes nothing, and is at constant pains to justify her candidacy. Rand Paul doesn’t have to justify anything, which is why his announcement tomorrow won’t actually be very dramatic. And that’s a good thing.

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Stale Hillary Won’t Benefit From Start of GOP Race

After a steady stream of bad news for Hillary Clinton over the past year, Democrats are taking heart. Senator Ted Cruz’s formal announcement for the presidency officially began the competition for the Republican presidential nomination and that means Hillary’s fans are hoping the public’s focus will no longer be on Clinton’s emails, her gaffes, or the embarrassing sense of entitlement that she seems to have about both her party’s nomination and the presidency itself. Instead, they’re hoping that the internecine warfare between Cruz and the large field of fellow Republicans who will soon be following in his footsteps and announcing their candidacies will be all we’ll be hearing about, leaving Clinton free to fade out of the public consciousness until sometime in 2016 when she can begin her campaign in a manner of her own choosing. That’s the conceit of a Politico piece that claims Cruz will be a “wrecking ball” whose scorched earth attacks on other Republicans will be helping Hillary more than the cause of the Texas senator. But while there’s some truth to this idea, Democrats are wrong to believe Clinton will benefit from the start of the GOP race. That’s because the Republicans will be attacking her as much as each other and the increased attention paid to the race will keep the pressure on the former first lady in a way that she has already shown she doesn’t handle well.

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After a steady stream of bad news for Hillary Clinton over the past year, Democrats are taking heart. Senator Ted Cruz’s formal announcement for the presidency officially began the competition for the Republican presidential nomination and that means Hillary’s fans are hoping the public’s focus will no longer be on Clinton’s emails, her gaffes, or the embarrassing sense of entitlement that she seems to have about both her party’s nomination and the presidency itself. Instead, they’re hoping that the internecine warfare between Cruz and the large field of fellow Republicans who will soon be following in his footsteps and announcing their candidacies will be all we’ll be hearing about, leaving Clinton free to fade out of the public consciousness until sometime in 2016 when she can begin her campaign in a manner of her own choosing. That’s the conceit of a Politico piece that claims Cruz will be a “wrecking ball” whose scorched earth attacks on other Republicans will be helping Hillary more than the cause of the Texas senator. But while there’s some truth to this idea, Democrats are wrong to believe Clinton will benefit from the start of the GOP race. That’s because the Republicans will be attacking her as much as each other and the increased attention paid to the race will keep the pressure on the former first lady in a way that she has already shown she doesn’t handle well.

Democrats are relishing the prospect of Cruz tearing into his Republican rivals and they’re not wrong about the fact that he may leave scorched earth behind him. In turn, other GOP candidates will respond and attack each other and the resulting donnybrook may not always be an edifying spectacle. Conservatives will lambast Jeb Bush for his alleged moderation as well as for his stands on immigration and Common Core while each of the possible non-Bushes hoping to be the standard bearer for the right will attack each other. Meanwhile, someone like Scott Walker may fire in both directions as he seeks the sweet spot in between the Tea Party and the establishment constituencies to which he simultaneously appeals.

In theory, that ought to make things easier on Hillary, but she and her Democratic supporters are forgetting a couple of important details.

One is that while Republicans will certainly be regularly violating Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment about not attacking fellow Republicans, they will also be concentrating their fire on the former first lady. It’s a given that all those running for the GOP will be lambasting President Obama and all his works, particularly ObamaCare. But they won’t ignore the person that each of them hopes to be opposing in November 2016.

Part of the problem for Hillary is that the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy with Russian aggression, the rise of ISIS, and appeasement of Iran serves as a reminder that Clinton spent four years as the 44th president’s secretary of state. Clinton and her admirers like to think that her tenure at Foggy Bottom is a great asset to her candidacy as it lends her both experience and gravitas. It’s also true that compared to her disastrous successor John Kerry, Clinton comes across as the second coming of Henry Kissinger or John Foster Dulles. But the Benghazi attack wasn’t the only disaster on her watch. The tragicomically Russian “reset” was her idea and it looks worse every month as Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine continues. Clinton will also have to ask questions about what she was doing when ISIS was filling the vacuum left by her boss’s bug out from Iraq and failure to act on the crisis in Syria. In what is shaping up to be the first foreign-policy election since 2004, Clinton’s experience at State is looking increasingly like a liability.

Just as important, the lack of credible Democratic challengers to Clinton ensures that she, along with President Obama, will be a staple of GOP presidential stump speeches. And the House Committee investigating Benghazi will keep probing for possible scandals. It was their efforts that turned up the shocking story about her private email server. Clinton should also expect to be hit hard about foreign donations to her family foundation as nations sought to curry favor with a sitting secretary of state and a possible president.

All this means that while a Republican civil war will take up a lot of airtime, there will still be plenty of interest in Clinton’s problems and shortcomings. Ted Cruz may attack other Republicans, but if Clinton is expecting the next several months to be a vacation from criticism and coverage of her foibles, she’s dreaming.

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Ted Cruz is a Right-Wing Barack Obama

Barack Obama was spectacularly unprepared to be president and, except for the true believers, his presidency has been a disaster because of it. He had no executive experience whatever but was supposed to be the chief executive officer of the largest organization on earth, the federal government. He had no political leadership experience, having been a backbencher in both the Illinois Senate and the United States Senate, with no legislative accomplishments to his credit. He had no foreign affairs experience. He has proved to be a terrible negotiator, ideologically rigid and contemptuous of any opinion but his own, although negotiating—getting to yes—is the very essence of politics. Today Senator Ted Cruz is announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. Is he qualified?

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Barack Obama was spectacularly unprepared to be president and, except for the true believers, his presidency has been a disaster because of it. He had no executive experience whatever but was supposed to be the chief executive officer of the largest organization on earth, the federal government. He had no political leadership experience, having been a backbencher in both the Illinois Senate and the United States Senate, with no legislative accomplishments to his credit. He had no foreign affairs experience. He has proved to be a terrible negotiator, ideologically rigid and contemptuous of any opinion but his own, although negotiating—getting to yes—is the very essence of politics. Today Senator Ted Cruz is announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. Is he qualified?

1) Executive experience. He has very little. He was director of the office of policy planning at the Federal Trade Commission and associate deputy attorney general in the early  years of the George W. Bush administration. He served as solicitor general of Texas for five years (2003 to 2008) and thus has more experience than President Obama. But that’s not saying much. He was only a cog in the administrative machine. I imagine that the solicitor general of Texas presides over an office small enough for him to know everyone in it. Going from there to the presidency is a bit like going from executive officer of a destroyer to Chief of Naval Operations in one leap.

2) Legislative experience. Again, Cruz’s experience is very thin. He’s been a senator from Texas for a little over two years. He has not been in a leadership position. Indeed he has often defied the leadership of his party.

3) Foreign affairs experience. Like Obama, Cruz has none.

4) Education. Here Cruz has it all over Obama. They both had Ivy League educations, but Cruz graduated cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. Obama’s grades are state secrets, a pretty good indication that they are not impressive, as he is not exactly the type to hide his light under a bushel. We do know he received no honors upon graduation. While Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, he published nothing in it. Cruz was primary editor there and was executive editor at the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, and a founding editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review. After graduation, Cruz clerked for Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Luttig, and then for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a very high honor in the legal profession.

5) Negotiating skills. Like Obama, Cruz doesn’t seem to have any and no desire to use them if he did. He’s a bomb-thrower and an ideologue, insisting on touchdowns or nothing rather than moving the ball down the field.

In short, Ted Cruz is not, except for his highly distinguished academic career and legal clerkships, dissimilar to the present incumbent of the White House.  It seems to me that the last thing this country needs come January 20th, 2017, is a right-wing Barack Obama.

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Is There a Realistic Ted Cruz Scenario?

A broad cross-section of Republican officeholders, major donors and conservative pundits are agreed on one thing: Ted Cruz has no chance to be elected president. The junior senator from Texas marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of ObamaCare by announcing his candidacy for the presidency today at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and no one in the chattering classes thinks he has a prayer of being sworn into office as commander-in-chief in January 2017. Just about everyone thinks his positions on the issues are too extreme and that his advocacy of the 2013 government shutdown and the complete antipathy of the rest of the Senate and the party establishment make it impossible for him to win. Even those who sympathize with his politics tend to agree that he just isn’t likeable enough to gain his party’s nomination, let alone win a general election against a Democrat. But his detractors need to understand something. As his announcement this morning showed us, he is a fabulous speaker and a dynamic personality with a unique appeal. The scenario that Cruz is hoping will make him the GOP nominee may be a very shot indeed but it is not crazy.

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A broad cross-section of Republican officeholders, major donors and conservative pundits are agreed on one thing: Ted Cruz has no chance to be elected president. The junior senator from Texas marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of ObamaCare by announcing his candidacy for the presidency today at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and no one in the chattering classes thinks he has a prayer of being sworn into office as commander-in-chief in January 2017. Just about everyone thinks his positions on the issues are too extreme and that his advocacy of the 2013 government shutdown and the complete antipathy of the rest of the Senate and the party establishment make it impossible for him to win. Even those who sympathize with his politics tend to agree that he just isn’t likeable enough to gain his party’s nomination, let alone win a general election against a Democrat. But his detractors need to understand something. As his announcement this morning showed us, he is a fabulous speaker and a dynamic personality with a unique appeal. The scenario that Cruz is hoping will make him the GOP nominee may be a very shot indeed but it is not crazy.

When stacked against those of his Republican competitors, it’s easy to see why few think the Texan has much of a chance. The party elites that are, as Nate Cohn rightly points out in his New York Times Upshot column about Cruz today, still important to winning nominations, are united in their opposition to him. He will raise money but nowhere near as much as Jeb Bush or even other conservatives like Scott Walker. Nor can he claim to be the sole candidate seeking to appeal to Tea Party conservatives, who tend to adore him, or even the evangelicals that he is courting by announcing at the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Cruz is also widely hated by most of his Senate colleagues and tends not to come across as a guy most people would want to have a beer with. Last week’s viral story about Cruz supposedly scaring a little girl at a New Hampshire event was inaccurate and unfair. If anything, a look at the tape of the encounter showed him to be sensitive and actually quite caring about the child’s reaction to his rhetoric about President Obama setting the world on fire. But it resonated because that is how most adults, Republicans and Democrats alike, tend to think about him. Indeed, I think the likeability factor is a much more important obstacle for Cruz to overcome than his ideology. As a recent Wall Street Journal poll illustrated, the number of those who can envision supporting him barely outnumber those who say they can never back him.

But even if admit up front that Cruz’s path to victory is as steep as can be imagined, the party establishment and others that loathe him would still be foolish to underestimate him or his power to play a serious role in the GOP race.

If there is anything that we have learned about him in the two and a half years since he began throwing bombs in the Senate and upsetting his colleagues, it is that Cruz is utterly undaunted by criticism or long odds. In the view of more moderate conservatives, that makes him unwilling to listen to common sense. But it also gives him a certain power that more realistic figures lack. You may think Ted Cruz is over-the-top but he does not care.

He brings to the race certain strengths that his rivals lack. As I noted backed in December, “If you’re going to make comparisons to 2012 candidates, imagine someone with the folksiness of Rick Perry (albeit in a Cuban Texan version), the passion of Santorum on populist and social conservative issues, the debating skill of Newt Gingrich, and the wonkish grasp of details of a Mitt Romney and you have a fair idea of what Cruz brings to the table.”

Though debates will not be as ubiquitous this time as they were in 2012, they will still be crucial. Cruz’s ability to eviscerate opponents is something his opponents should fear. Nor is he, despite his embrace of suicidal tactics like the shutdown, someone who will embrace crackpot positions on vaccines or show ignorance about foreign policy.

Jeb Bush is the darling of the establishment. Scott Walker is in a sweet spot that can embrace the party establishment, Tea Partiers and evangelicals. Rand Paul has the libertarians. Marco Rubio is the strongest voice on foreign policy and can also appeal to both wings of the party. Mike Huckabee will compete with him for the populist vote and Rick Santorum for religious conservatives. Others will have their own strengths. But the sheer size and strength of this field (especially compared to 2012) makes is more likely that someone we now consider an outlier may break through. Cruz isn’t likely to be the one who will do so but neither is it insane to think that he might. Others also face long odds, but few have his potent political skills.

The problem for those writing off Cruz’s candidacy as absurd is that the very same factors that make him so unappealing to his Senate colleagues and the party establishment can endear him to grassroots voters. He may be inexperienced in office with only two years in the Senate on his resume but he is also untainted by the compromises that responsible officials must make because he has never compromised on any issue. If Cruz can tap into the Tea Party base and become its standard bearer, he will be a formidable candidate in the early primary states. After that, it will be anyone’s game. Right now, that’s about as realistic a scenario as any of his competitors can claim.

None of that changes the fact that it is hard to see how he could win a general election and Republicans who want to win are not only never going to consider him but will move heaven and earth to stop him if he does get close to the nomination. But they should not assume that this is a possibility they’ll never have to contemplate. The Ted Cruz scenario for Republicans is a very long shot but those chuckling about his early announcement are making assumptions that the party base may not back up.

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Walker, Cruz, Bush and the Iowa Crucible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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End the GOP’s Iowa Ethanol Panderfest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the 2016 Primaries Will Be a Wild Ride for the GOP

Normally, the Republican Party picks its nominee the way the British pick their monarch. The candidate “next in line” gets to run in the general election, no questions asked. Meanwhile, the Democrats are known for rollicking, unpredictable contests that stretch the full length of the primary calendar. But 2016 will probably see a reversal of the trend. The Republican field will be the raucous one, while Hillary Clinton looks to consolidate the Democratic nomination earlier than any non-incumbent in generations.

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Normally, the Republican Party picks its nominee the way the British pick their monarch. The candidate “next in line” gets to run in the general election, no questions asked. Meanwhile, the Democrats are known for rollicking, unpredictable contests that stretch the full length of the primary calendar. But 2016 will probably see a reversal of the trend. The Republican field will be the raucous one, while Hillary Clinton looks to consolidate the Democratic nomination earlier than any non-incumbent in generations.

Why the reversal? To start, the Democrats are not dealing from a position of strength. The fact is that their midterm defeats of 2010 and 2014–not just in the Senate, but state governorships as well–have decimated the party’s bench. There are precious few credible presidential candidates who could run, besides Hillary Clinton. If Joe Biden were not so gaffe-prone, he might be able to challenge her, and he might still. But beyond that their bench is weak. So, it is not so much that Clinton’s stature is much improved compared to 2008, when she faced a broad, formidable field for the nomination; it is, rather, that the quality of her would-be competitors has dropped markedly.

Meanwhile, the Republican triumphs in the Senate and governorships have created a wealth of would-be candidates. Ironically, Obama has been very good for the Republican Party. There are a plethora of prospective candidates–Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Rick Snyder, and Scott Walker–who became a senator or governor during the Obama era, in part by running against him. Further, an unpopular Obama helped Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal cruise to their reelections, in 2010 and 2011, respectively. And the same considerations even apply to Ben Carson. Would he be running strongly in Iowa right now if he had not publicly criticized ObamaCare in front of the president?

Still, there is more to the story. Usually, we think of the Democratic Party as a motley assortment of various, often contradictory interest groups, more or less evenly matched. This is why Jimmy Carter could come from nowhere to win in 1976, why Gary Hart could almost take the nomination from Walter Mondale in 1984, why Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton could win their contests even though a majority of Democrats voted for somebody else, and ultimately why Barack Obama basically tied Hillary Clinton in 2008. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is strikingly uniform–more or less the married, white middle class–and this homogeny has facilitated its coronation process. There are just fewer disagreements among Republicans, so they come together on a nominee in an orderly fashion.

This conception of the GOP is not quite right. As I argue in my new book A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, the Republican Party has long been factional as well, just less so than the Democrats. In the late 19th century, for instance, it was an alliance between the middle class, Yankees of New England, industrialists and financiers, Midwestern factory workers, and Western farmers. More often than not, these groups saw eye to eye, but issues like tariffs, the gold standard, and civil-service reform could split them into factions. These divisions were nothing compared to 19th century Democrats–who somehow combined the Southern plantation gentry with the ethnic vote in the big Northern cities–but they were still there, and still mattered under the right circumstances.

Today, the same remains true. Republicans are still factional, even if they are more united than the Democrats. There is the “establishment,” which resides mostly in Democratic-controlled areas like New York City and Washington D.C., but provides the campaign contributions, experts, and consultants necessary to run campaigns; there are cultural conservatives, particularly strong in Midwest caucus states like Iowa; there are small-government reformers, who turn out to vote in New Hampshire primaries; there are pro-growth Sun Belters in states like Florida and Texas; there are pro-military Republicans, for instance in South Carolina; and there are libertarian-style Republicans, strong in Western caucus states. And so on. These groups are all closer to one another than any are to the Democrats, but there are disagreements among them. In the Obama era, there has been tension within the GOP on how quickly and aggressively the party should challenge the president, as well as what to do about immigration reform.

In fact, the Obama administration–while unifying Republicans in shared opposition to the Democratic party–has created some pretty heated disagreements within it about what to do next. We see this in Congress now, as it struggles to formulate and implement an agenda to counter Obama’s. And we probably are going to see it in the primary battle next year, as a major bone of contention will not be whether the country should depart from the Obama policies, but how dramatically it should do so.

And ironically, the strength of the prospective field is probably exacerbating the internal cleavages as well. Right now, each of those factions can point to a credible candidate who agrees predominantly with its perspective. Sometimes, there may be more than one. The establishment figures like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. The cultural conservatives adore Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Scott Walker is the first choice among reformers. Libertarians like Rand Paul. The field is so strong that no faction within the party is forced to say, “OK–my ideal candidate isn’t running. So, who is my compromise choice?”

Will this be a bad thing for the GOP? Possibly. Sean Trende has highlighted the possibility of no clear nominee being found prior to the convention, but that is unprecedented in the modern era. It could still happen, but nobody in the party has an interest in such disunion right before the general election. The most likely outcome is that somebody will emerge to unite a critical mass of the various forces, and become a consensus choice–maybe that candidate will not win a majority of the primary vote, but he or she will have won more than anybody else and be acceptable to all the major factions. And, just like in the free market, political competition can spark innovation and generate upside surprises. The battle will not only improve the ultimate nominee’s campaign skills, but maybe point the way to a better line of attack against Clinton in the general election. If Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” works for capitalism, it can work for Republican politics, too.

So, for now, the more, the merrier!

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In Praise of Ted Cruz

In the past I’ve been critical of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, but in his questioning of President Obama’s choice for attorney general, Loretta Lynch–which occurred during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee–was not just skillful but superb.

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In the past I’ve been critical of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, but in his questioning of President Obama’s choice for attorney general, Loretta Lynch–which occurred during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee–was not just skillful but superb.

Senator Cruz’s tone was respectful but firm. He stayed away from theatrics and polemics. He didn’t personalize the line of inquiry. In doing so, he kept the focus right where it needed to be.

But more than that, Senator Cruz exposed the lawlessness that is at the core of President Obama’s executive amnesty, and he did so in a logical, step-by-step manner. Senator Cruz started with the fact that Ms. Lynch supports what the president did, and then probed her thinking in order to find out what limits there are on the government’s power, if any at all. What he found is that there are none–at least none that are rooted in the Constitution and anything more than arbitrary parameters and presidential whim. If the president wants to provide amnesty to five million illegal immigrants, then why not 12 million? What’s to stop him? Senator Cruz wanted to know. Ms. Lynch had no answer.

What about the Obama administration printing millions of work authorizations in direct conflict with federal law? Is that a problem? Ms. Lynch was unwilling to say. And then Senator Cruz put forward a devastating hypothetical. Assume that in 2017 President John Cornyn instructs his secretary of the treasury not to collect any taxes in excess of 25 percent, based on “prosecutorial discretion.” Or that President Cornyn broadens his ambitions and decides, using the infinitely elastic Obama-era definition of prosecutorial discretion, he won’t enforce federal labor laws and environmental laws? Once again, Ms. Lynch had nothing to say, no defense to offer.

What Senator Cruz did was to reveal Mr. Obama’s utter disdain for the Constitution and what a fundamentally lawless and capricious president he is. He showed that Mr. Obama views himself in possession of kingly powers. And he demonstrated that there are simply no checks on government power, at least according to the legal theory that is guiding the Obama administration.

This is the progressive vision–radical, unmoored, dismissive of the Constitution, and indifferent to the rule of law–and it’s being realized in the Obama presidency. It’s to his credit that Ted Cruz exposed this in his short colloquy with the woman who wants to be America’s next attorney general.

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Marco Rubio Finds His Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cruz Goes Back to the Future on Jerusalem

Once upon a time, American politicians proved their pro-Israel bona fides to voters and donors by regularly proclaiming their support for moving the United States Embassy to the State of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Support for moving the embassy, which is kept out of the country’s capital because of America’s continuing non-recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, was universal among both Democrats and Republicans and both parties regularly included planks to that effect in their platforms when nominating candidates for president. But eventually even the most ardent members of the pro-Israel community figured out that this was a cheap pander and stopped talking so much about it. But Senator Ted Cruz, who is a likely 2016 presidential candidate, hasn’t gotten that memo and he has proposed a new bill with fellow Republican Dean Heller of Nevada that will force the State Department to finally move the embassy. This is a futile exercise, but the text of the bill as well as the collective yawn it has induced from the pro-Israel community tells us a lot about both Cruz and the current state of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Once upon a time, American politicians proved their pro-Israel bona fides to voters and donors by regularly proclaiming their support for moving the United States Embassy to the State of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Support for moving the embassy, which is kept out of the country’s capital because of America’s continuing non-recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, was universal among both Democrats and Republicans and both parties regularly included planks to that effect in their platforms when nominating candidates for president. But eventually even the most ardent members of the pro-Israel community figured out that this was a cheap pander and stopped talking so much about it. But Senator Ted Cruz, who is a likely 2016 presidential candidate, hasn’t gotten that memo and he has proposed a new bill with fellow Republican Dean Heller of Nevada that will force the State Department to finally move the embassy. This is a futile exercise, but the text of the bill as well as the collective yawn it has induced from the pro-Israel community tells us a lot about both Cruz and the current state of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

If you are thinking that such a new bill is unnecessary, you are not entirely wrong. Back in 1995 when then Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was preparing for his quixotic quest for the presidency in 1996, he shepherded a bill to passage that called for moving the embassy. But it also contained a waiver that allowed the president to declare that the move could not be accomplished for fear of harming the peace process or for security reasons. Since then, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have signed such a waiver every six months rendering Dole’s law as futile as his presidential ambitions. Cruz’s bill removes the waiver and would, if enforced (something that would be easier said than done), actually compel the embassy to be moved.

Cruz’s legislation also calls for the State Department to recognize Israel as the place of birth for those Americans born in Jerusalem, which dovetails with a 2002 law that was also passed by Congress but which the government has chosen to evade or ignore. This is a controversy that has landed in the Supreme Court as the justices are currently considering a case in which an American family is claiming the legislation passed by Congress should dictate government decisions while the administration argues that the executive branch must have the final say on foreign policy.

But the legal tangles this legislation attempts to unravel are clearly secondary to Cruz’s intent and the reaction, or lack thereof, it will generate among pro-Israel activists.

It must be acknowledged that the invocation of the embassy issue is no longer a surefire battle cry among the Jewish community. Too many politicians have made promises along these lines that they never had any intention of keeping for anyone to get too worked up about the issue. Indeed, many on the left and even some sober centrists, both here and in Israel, would prefer that Americans shut up about the embassy. Like appeals for equal prayer rights for Jews on the Temple Mount, the likely violent reaction that an embassy move would generate among Palestinians and other Muslims and Arabs would, they argue, not be worth the trouble.

Thus there was little clamor for a new Jerusalem bill and no indication that many pro-Israel Jews, outside of that minority that already support him, will be publicly thanking Cruz for his effort. Indeed, so unpopular is the Tea Party hero among most Jews, the vast majority of whom remain liberals and Democrats, that he is likely to only engender more derision for what will be called ’90s-style politics than a genuine expression of support for Israel. The fact that he could not procure a Democratic co-sponsor for his bill also tells us a lot about how disliked he is by his fellow senators on both sides of the aisle.

But while cynicism about any Jerusalem bill is appropriate, Cruz deserves credit for proposing something that would, in contrast to Dole’s transparent and generally ineffective pander, actually do something about the problem rather than pretend to. Unlike previous efforts, a waiver-free Jerusalem bill is exactly what it says it is. That’s in keeping with Cruz’s brusque take-no-prisoners style that has alienated Republicans and Democrats. But it is also exactly what the situation requires.

Though this bill has little chance of surviving a certain Obama veto if it passes, it is nonetheless a productive suggestion that might actually send a message to the Palestinians that their attempts to bypass the peace process by way of the United Nations has consequences. Moving the embassy wouldn’t preclude Jerusalem’s division if both parties agreed to such a measure. But it does tell the Palestinians in a clear way that the United States is not prepared to indulge the fiction that Israel does not control its capital any longer. Moreover, threats of Arab violence on this subject simply lack credibility since it is not clear that an embassy move would motivate Muslims any more than the canards about Israel destroying the Temple Mount mosques.

Yet a pro-Israel community that has largely forgotten about the Jerusalem embassy question isn’t likely to rally to Cruz’s defense against administration critics on the issue. One may dismiss this as an attempt to entice Jewish donors to back his presidential bid. But like his speech last summer in which he lambasted those members of a group who attacked Israel in order to appease those who persecute Middle East Christians, Cruz has taken a correct position that will earn him little applause among those who are most concerned about the issue. This may be a pander, but instead of dismissing him as a bomb thrower or an ambitious office seeker, it would be nice if his more moderate Senate colleagues recognized that, at least in this instance, Cruz has actually offered a practical and principled solution.

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Rivals Should Heed Santorum’s Appeal to Working Class Voters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Huckabee Should Have Stayed on TV

Mike Huckabee’s announcement this past weekend that he was ending his run as host of a show on the Fox News Channel left little doubt that he was seriously considering running for president. The former Arkansas governor made a respectable try for the White House in 2008 earning an upset triumph in the Iowa caucus and had a reasonable argument for his claim that he, rather than Mitt Romney, was the runner-up to eventual winner John McCain. With a popular folksy manner and the loyalty of fellow evangelicals, Huckabee might be said to have as good a chance as any of the long list of potential contenders or at least to the title of leading conservative candidate. But such optimism about his chances fails to take into account the fact that 2016 isn’t 2008.

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Mike Huckabee’s announcement this past weekend that he was ending his run as host of a show on the Fox News Channel left little doubt that he was seriously considering running for president. The former Arkansas governor made a respectable try for the White House in 2008 earning an upset triumph in the Iowa caucus and had a reasonable argument for his claim that he, rather than Mitt Romney, was the runner-up to eventual winner John McCain. With a popular folksy manner and the loyalty of fellow evangelicals, Huckabee might be said to have as good a chance as any of the long list of potential contenders or at least to the title of leading conservative candidate. But such optimism about his chances fails to take into account the fact that 2016 isn’t 2008.

While few in the GOP establishment are taking him seriously, not everyone is dismissing Huckabee. In an interesting piece on Real Clear Politics, Scott Conroy argues that with Iowa coming first in January as it always does and a Super Southern Primary following early on in March 2016, the thinking in some quarters is that Huckabee can, at the very least, duplicate his early 2008 success if not make a serious run at the nomination. According to this argument, Huckabee’s best ally is the calendar that emphasizes states in which evangelicals play a larger role than in other states later in the campaign.

There’s something to be said for this reasoning, in that Huckabee hasn’t disappeared in the nearly seven years since his presidential campaign ended. By hosting a Fox News show for the last few years, he has managed to stay on the radar of conservatives. While not among the higher-rated cable shows, Huckabee has nevertheless burnished his reputation as a genial and intelligent speaker often as interested in human-interest stories as in political controversies. That continued popularity in some parts of the right has enabled him to maintain decent polling numbers that often place him above or even with more talked-about 2016 contenders such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Rand Paul. It’s likely that with that profile he can raise enough money to be at least competitive in the early stages when the terrain is most favorable to his hopes.

But the notion that Huckabee can pick up where he left off in 2008 is still somewhat fanciful.

Let’s start with the fact that the field that Huckabee snuck up on to score an unexpected win in Iowa is nothing like the one he will face a year from now. Chief among those challengers for his particular niche of Republican voters is Rick Santorum who narrowly won Iowa in 2012 with the same formula of beating the bushes in every county of the state. But both of them will also be up against Ted Cruz who will have his own appeal to evangelicals as well as Tea Partiers and other conservatives. And that’s not even counting, among others, the second coming of Rick Perry and the possible candidacy of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who may be able to bridge the gap between the party’s establishment and activist wings.

Just as important is that his opponents will see him coming this time. The fact that the conservative Club For Growth is already starting to attack him for what it claims is his big government pro-tax and spending record in Arkansas is damaging by itself. But it’s also a harbinger of the kind of opposition research that will raise his negatives in ways he never experienced in 2008.

Time has not stood still in the last eight years and Huckabee will find that the room he once had to himself in the party is not only crowded but filled with younger, hungrier candidates who are better prepared to fight for it out. Considering that his chances of actually winning the nomination are slim and those of his being elected in November even slimmer, his decision to abandon his TV perch seems like more a case of hubris than of sound planning. A year from now, as he seeks to get back into the media after what is likely to be an unsuccessful second try for the presidency, he may rue his decision to leave Fox for what seems like a rather unlikely scenario for success.

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Cruz’s Campaign Guided By Goldwater’s Theory

National Review’s Eliana Johnson, in writing about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, begins her article this way:

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National Review’s Eliana Johnson, in writing about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, begins her article this way:

To hell with the independents. That’s not usually the animating principle of a presidential campaign, but for Ted Cruz’s, it just might be.

His strategists aren’t planning to make a big play for so-called independent voters in the general election if Cruz wins the Republican nomination. According to several of the senator’s top advisers, Cruz sees a path to victory that relies instead on increasing conservative turnout; attracting votes from groups — including Jews, Hispanics, and Millennials — that have tended to favor Democrats; and, in the words of one Cruz strategist, “not getting killed with independents.”

Ms. Johnson went on to quote a Cruz adviser saying, “winning independents has meant not winning,” with the argument being that doing what it takes to win over independents has the effect of dampening enthusiasm among the base.

This approach has been tried before. In his masterful book The Making of the President 1964, Theodore White wrote:

One must begin with the political theory that accompanied the cause Goldwater championed. The theory held that for a generation the American people had been offered, in the two great parties, a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee; and that somewhere in the American electorate was hidden a great and frustrated conservative majority. Given a choice, not an echo, ran the theory, the homeless conservatives would come swarming to the polls to overwhelm the “collectivists,” the liberals, the “socialists,” and restore virtue to its rightful place in American leadership. The campaign of 1964 was to be the great testing of this theory.

The result was that Lyndon Johnson won with what at the time was the greatest vote, the greatest margin, and the greatest percentage (61 percent) that any president had ever drawn from the American people. By the time the dust settled, Democrats held 68 out of 100 Senate seats, 295 out of 435 House seats, 33 governorships, and Republicans had lost more than 500 seats in the state legislatures around the country.

The political theory that is accompanying the cause Cruz is championing sounds similar to the one that guided Goldwater’s. To be sure, there are differences between now and then, including the fact that Goldwater was running against a popular sitting president at a time when the economy was growing and LBJ was was running as the successor of a beloved president who had been assassinated only a year earlier. Still, some of us worry the results would be too similar.

A campaign in which strategists openly declare that winning independents is a trap for losers foreshadows what’s to come. It’s hard to see how it would lead to victory in a nation in which the core supporters of the GOP are shrinking with every election (since 1996, the white share of the eligible voting population has dropped about 2 percentage points every four years). Nor is it clear how Cruz would have any special appeal to traditionally non-Republican voters. Someone like Senator Marco Rubio or Governor John Kasich would have a good deal more success, I would think.

I could be wrong, of course, and if Senator Cruz gets his way, the campaign of 2016 will be the great testing of his theory.

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