Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ted Cruz

Terrorism and the Latest Iran Deal Distraction

Though the polls show increasing opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama seems to be winning in the court of public opinion on the issue this week. The reason is that a series of inflammatory comments about the agreement from Republican presidential candidates have made it appear as if its critics are nothing but a pack of cynical partisans seeking to gain ground on Donald Trump by trying to outdo each other with outrageous insults of the president. Like Mike Huckabee’s crack about President Obama marching Israel “to the door of the ovens,” Senator Ted Cruz’s line about the pact making “the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of Islamic terrorism” has been widely panned. The president termed it “outrageous” and even Mitt Romney tweeted that it “was way over the line” and “hurts the cause” of those trying to stop it in Congress. Romney’s right in the sense that this kerfuffle is helping the president to pose as the adult in the conversation and being used by the administration to help portray its critics as crackpots or warmongers. But though it would be foolish to deny that these candidates to help their campaigns are using Iran, there’s more substance here than is being acknowledged by most of those commenting on it. The terror angle to the Iran agreement has been largely swept under the rug by the administration. Though Cruz’s effort probably won’t lead to much serious thought about it, that has more to do with the media’s antipathy for him and willingness to follow Obama’s lead than it does with the facts of the case.

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Though the polls show increasing opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama seems to be winning in the court of public opinion on the issue this week. The reason is that a series of inflammatory comments about the agreement from Republican presidential candidates have made it appear as if its critics are nothing but a pack of cynical partisans seeking to gain ground on Donald Trump by trying to outdo each other with outrageous insults of the president. Like Mike Huckabee’s crack about President Obama marching Israel “to the door of the ovens,” Senator Ted Cruz’s line about the pact making “the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of Islamic terrorism” has been widely panned. The president termed it “outrageous” and even Mitt Romney tweeted that it “was way over the line” and “hurts the cause” of those trying to stop it in Congress. Romney’s right in the sense that this kerfuffle is helping the president to pose as the adult in the conversation and being used by the administration to help portray its critics as crackpots or warmongers. But though it would be foolish to deny that these candidates to help their campaigns are using Iran, there’s more substance here than is being acknowledged by most of those commenting on it. The terror angle to the Iran agreement has been largely swept under the rug by the administration. Though Cruz’s effort probably won’t lead to much serious thought about it, that has more to do with the media’s antipathy for him and willingness to follow Obama’s lead than it does with the facts of the case.

Like Huckabee, Cruz is in a difficult position right now in the presidential race. While both were always long shot candidates, the Donald Trump boom has marginalized them, and the rest of the conservative field since the reality star seems to have cornered the market on outrage about Obama and illegal immigration. While Cruz has been waging a scorched earth campaign against Washington and the Republican establishment since he entered the Senate in January 2013, Trump’s outrageous behavior and willingness to say anything about anyone has seemingly rendered the Texan obsolete. Though that may change, there’s no doubt that there seems even less room for a Cruz or a Huckabee in the presidential sweepstakes than there was before.

But no matter what his motivations — and Cruz has been a consistent critic of administration policy on Iran throughout his brief career — may be, merely dismissing the terror angle to the deal isn’t sufficient.

It is true that the remarks are being interpreted as an accusation that President Obama actually wants to aid international terrorism rather than this result being an unfortunate result of a misguided policy. The same was true of Huckabee’s “oven” comment that was seen as an accusation that the president actually wanted Israel to be incinerated by an Iranian bomb rather than the deal being the fruit of Obama’s illusions about the Islamist regime’s willingness to change.

Obama dismissed Cruz by saying, “We’ve had a sitting senator, who also happens to be running for president, suggest that I’m the leading state sponsor of terrorism.”

It’s true that it would be inaccurate to say that Obama is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. That title belongs to his Iranian negotiating partners, as the State Department recently acknowledged.

But, as Cruz was pointing out, one of the key items in the nuclear deal that the president is championing, is the release of $100 billion to the regime that had been denied them due to economic sanctions. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Iran won’t be able to use those funds to support its Hezbollah auxiliaries in Lebanon, its Hamas allies in Gaza, or the Houthi rebels in Yemen. But as even National Security Advisor Susan Rice admitted, once it is their hands, they will be free to do with the money, as they like. Kerry may have lectured members of Congress this week that it is already illegal for Iran to aid these groups. Yet those strictures haven’t hampered them in the past, and there’s no reason to believe that they will in a future in which the world is rushing to do business with Iran. Like it or not, the released funds are fungible, and some of it will, one way or another, wind up in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas.

This is not a small point or a semantic argument. By choosing to strike a deal with Iran that deliberately ignored its role as a state sponsor of terror, its quest for regional autonomy, its tyrannical abuses at home or its oft-stated goal of destroying Israel, the president essentially gave all these elements of the regime Western sanction. The administration may say that it disapproves of all of it and will seek to curb Iranian excesses in the future. But the goal here is not merely a shaky nuclear deal that in the best-case scenario will only put off an Iranian bomb for a decade. The president’s objective has been something far more ambitious: a détente with Iran that will allow it “to get right with the world.” We may well scoff at such naïveté but, in order to buy into the Iran deal, you have to actually think that Iran will stop aiding terror or fomenting conflict throughout the Middle East. Once you discard this absurd hope, you have to accept the fact that the funds the U.S. is agreeing to release to Iran will soon be paying for a Hezbollah or Hamas rocket aimed at Israel or a murder squad roving Europe in search of some enemy of the Islamist regime.

So while Cruz’s comments were, like Huckabee’s (which alluded to the fact that Iran is threatening Israel with another Holocaust even if this time, the Jews are in a position to defend themselves rather than being marched to the slaughter as an indifferent West looks on) easy to distort or dismiss as an Iran deal distraction, they point to something all too real, not political hyperbole. If the administration wishes to make its case for the deal, it must do better than merely dismissing the likelihood that what it is doing is aiding terror, since that is very much what will happen.

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The Chaotic, Backbiting GOP Does Not Look Like a Governing Party

For the moment, try to put yourself in the position of a swing voter who will determine the course of the 2016 presidential election and the nation. You are frustrated with the direction in which the country is headed. You may not resent the gains social progressivism has made over the years, but you are concerned that they have come at the expense of the liberty of others. Those gains have come at a cost acutely felt by your friends and neighbors. Though you do not harbor any ill will towards them, those who benefit most from the advance of the liberal agenda are people who you may never meet and who, for you, are entirely hypothetical. The pace of the economic recovery has been engagingly unenergetic. The threat of a new contraction looms forever just over the horizon, even as you struggle to meet today’s financial burdens. Abroad, America has never looked more threatened and less respected by adversary and ally alike. It’s time for a change in direction, but toward what? Republicans have gone to great lengths to reestablish the trust of voters after George W. Bush’s second term and the 2007-2008 financial collapse sapped the public’s faith in the GOP’s governing program. Gradually, painstakingly, Republicans have won back the voters’ support and hold more elected offices today than they have for close to a century. But all that improvement threatens to be undone by the not inaccurate impression among voters that the GOP is in crisis — at war with itself — and that it may be unable to serve as a responsible governing party. Read More

For the moment, try to put yourself in the position of a swing voter who will determine the course of the 2016 presidential election and the nation. You are frustrated with the direction in which the country is headed. You may not resent the gains social progressivism has made over the years, but you are concerned that they have come at the expense of the liberty of others. Those gains have come at a cost acutely felt by your friends and neighbors. Though you do not harbor any ill will towards them, those who benefit most from the advance of the liberal agenda are people who you may never meet and who, for you, are entirely hypothetical. The pace of the economic recovery has been engagingly unenergetic. The threat of a new contraction looms forever just over the horizon, even as you struggle to meet today’s financial burdens. Abroad, America has never looked more threatened and less respected by adversary and ally alike. It’s time for a change in direction, but toward what? Republicans have gone to great lengths to reestablish the trust of voters after George W. Bush’s second term and the 2007-2008 financial collapse sapped the public’s faith in the GOP’s governing program. Gradually, painstakingly, Republicans have won back the voters’ support and hold more elected offices today than they have for close to a century. But all that improvement threatens to be undone by the not inaccurate impression among voters that the GOP is in crisis — at war with itself — and that it may be unable to serve as a responsible governing party.

Contrary to pervasive but shallow consensus opinion among a prominent cast of political analysts, Barack Obama is not a popular president. While the Oval Office occupant is not as unpopular today as he has been in the recent past, that’s damnation by faint praise. “To date, Obama has been unpopular for more than two-thirds of his tenure,” The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost observed. “If he stays under 50 percent for the remainder of his term, he will have been unpopular for longer than any postwar leader.” His anointed Democratic successor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is also struggling. A recent Quinnipiac University survey of the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire revealed that Clinton’s favorability ratings had collapsed. Those findings were confirmed by NBC News/Marist University, which revealed that Clinton’s favorability among registered voters had sunk to -19 and -20% in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively. Nationally, according to Gallup, Clinton favorability rating is now underwater at 43 to 46 percent, “tilting her image negative and producing her worst net favorable score since December 2007.”

Clinton’s favorability ratings are no doubt a reflection of her personal shortcomings and distaste for the fact that she has such a limited regard for voters’ intelligence that she would repeatedly – compulsively — mislead them. But they are also a reflection of the country’s natural desire to move on from the Obama era after his two terms in the White House. Polls show that twice as many Americans believe the country is headed down the wrong track, and that has been the case consistently since the middle of 2010. From the expansion of same-sex marriage rights nationally to extended access to federally subsidized health insurance to the furling of the Confederate flag over public grounds; progressives have enjoyed a variety of social issues victories, and voters are not thrilled about it. “The poll finds all three issues are fairly divisive among the public at-large, with large shares seeing policy shift in a direction at odds with their views,” read a Washington Post report on a recent survey that found voters are uncomfortable with the direction “progress” has taken in recent years.

All this suggests that the 2016 political landscape should be fertile ground in which Republicans can sow the seeds of electoral victory. But the coming election will not merely be a referendum on the last eight years – it will also be an up or down vote on whether Republicans are ready to retake hold of the reins of government. At present, they don’t look like they are.

Over the weekend, an internecine squabble among Senate Republicans exploded into an outright row. A long-term highway funding bill, which has become an unattractive vehicle through which America’s political class rewards a variety of valued constituencies, became a proxy battlefield on which Republican officeholders waged a variety of fights. From renewing the expired Export-Import Bank, to defunding Planned Parenthood, to repealing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans went to war with one another over what the party’s various factions in Congress see as pressing priorities. In an effort to block debate over the legitimacy of federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adopted a favored tactic of his Democratic predecessor, Harry Reid, and used a procedural maneuver to prevent further amendments to and subsequent debate on that piece of legislation.

“What we saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over again was a simple lie,” presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz said of the majority leader last week on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment that he is willing to say things that he knows are false. That has consequences for how this body operates.”

“We’re not here on some frolic or to pursue personal ambitions,” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch shot back. “We must ensure that the pernicious trend of turning the Senate floor into a forum for advancing personal ambitions, for promoting political campaigns, or for enhancing fundraising activities comes to a stop.” Hatch added that Cruz’s conduct had been a “misuse of the Senate floor.”

In 2014, Republicans won a majority in the upper chamber of Congress just large enough to yield the party committee chairmanships and to block Democratic legislation from reaching the president’s desk, but not large enough to advance legislation of their own. But the Republican pitch to conservatives that increasingly rests on decisively winning the next election, always the next election, is starting to ring hollow. “Being a negative force is not nothing, and blocking bad policy is worthwhile,” The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wrote. “But when given the opportunity to put good policy into place, or to take steps to make such policy more feasible in the future, where is the Republican Party to be found?”

Nowhere, he argues. It’s an argument that resonates to an ever larger number of Republican base voters. “Republicans, in particular, are now more critical of their own party than they were a few months ago,” the Pew Research Center revealed this week. Only two-thirds of self-identified Republicans view their party favorably, down from 86 percent in 2014. The GOP is viewed positively today by just 32 percent of the public compared to the Democratic Party’s 48 percent.

To some extent, this internal tension is healthy. Only a minority coalition is small enough to ensure that most of its members agree on specific policy proposals. But a Republican Party at war with itself does not look to the persuadable voter like a party that is capable of governing in the executive. The truly independent voters who determine the outcome of national elections don’t care about the Export-Import Bank or the parliamentary machinations that have so roiled conservatives. They care about whether or not they’re handing the levers of power to an undisciplined group of loose cannons and ideologues, and, to a marginally tuned in swing voter, that’s what the GOP looks like today. In concert with the spectacle that has become of the admittedly nascent Republican presidential primary race, it is only natural that voters would be asking themselves if the GOP should again be trusted with the White House.

Voters are ready to make a change. If history is any guide, they will swing in a more conservative direction. As was the case in 2013 when the GOP forced a showdown over ObamaCare that shut down the government, a saving grace for Republicans can be found in the happy fact that it remains an off year. Voters have time to make up their minds, and today’s fights will be forgotten well before the first votes are cast in 2016. If, however, the disunity that characterizes Republican intraparty politics today remains the party’s defining feature by next autumn, the public will be disinclined to reward the GOP with the presidency.

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Huckabee Is the Trump Surge’s Latest Victim

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has shown his hand. Perhaps no Republican presidential candidate has made it more apparent that their strategic approach to winning over a critical mass of GOP primary voters was upended by the arrival of the brash and alluring populist Donald Trump. The reality television star’s primary appeal to Republican voters is, somewhat paradoxically, his undiluted antipathy toward the Republican Party. That was previously a niche occupied by Cruz. Where the Texas senator cautiously exploited factionalism within the GOP, Trump has done so recklessly and without regard for the long-term consequences for intraparty comity. But Cruz is not the only Republican candidate who has found his position usurped by the upstart celebrity candidate. Once the most prominent social conservative and protectionist candidate in the race, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has also revealed how threatened his position is by the Trump ascendency.  Read More

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has shown his hand. Perhaps no Republican presidential candidate has made it more apparent that their strategic approach to winning over a critical mass of GOP primary voters was upended by the arrival of the brash and alluring populist Donald Trump. The reality television star’s primary appeal to Republican voters is, somewhat paradoxically, his undiluted antipathy toward the Republican Party. That was previously a niche occupied by Cruz. Where the Texas senator cautiously exploited factionalism within the GOP, Trump has done so recklessly and without regard for the long-term consequences for intraparty comity. But Cruz is not the only Republican candidate who has found his position usurped by the upstart celebrity candidate. Once the most prominent social conservative and protectionist candidate in the race, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has also revealed how threatened his position is by the Trump ascendency. 

Over the weekend, Huckabee found himself in a position he has been unable to achieve for weeks: he was back in the news. The press he was receiving was not, however, the favorable kind. In an interview with Breitbart, Huckabee excoriated President Barack Obama and his administration for securing a nuclear deal with Iran that he determined substantially undermines Israel’s security. “By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven,” Huckabee averred crassly.

The substance of Huckabee’s comments might be debatable. Those with an appreciation for the Israeli – indeed, the Jewish – experience might agree with the former Fox News Channel host’s intentionally theatrical posturing. In an American political context, however, his assertion was entirely unhelpful for those who are opposed to the terms of the nuclear deal and have undertaken the Sisyphean task of convincing congressional Democrats to reject it. What’s more, Huckabee’s comments exposed a level of insecurity the public has rarely seen in the outwardly confident Natural State governor.

After entering the race, Huckabee immediately rocketed to the top-tier of the national polls. By February, the Real Clear Politics average of polls of Republican primary voters pegged his support just slightly lower than that of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Huckabee had even surpassed the tea party favorite Ben Carson in his average level of support among GOP voters. Today, however, Huckabee’s support has crumbled. The story is the same in Iowa, the caucus state Huckabee won outright in 2008 and where he must finish strong if he is to remain competitive when the nominating contest migrates into more establishmentarian battlegrounds. According to the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls, Huckabee now trails Walker, Bush, Trump, Carson and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

In retrospect, it makes sense that Trump’s insurgent candidacy would rob Huckabee of his backing from the fraction of Republicans he was targeting. In a brilliant analysis for the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti exposed the extent to which those members of the Republican coalition that were attracted to Huckabee would also be drawn to Trump.

That Trump is not a conservative, nor by any means a mainstream Republican, is not a minus but a plus to the radical middle. These voters are culturally right but economically left; they depend on the New Deal and parts of the Great Society, are estranged from the fiscal and monetary agendas of The Economist and Wall Street Journal. What they lack in free market bona fides they make up for in their romantic fantasy of the patriotic tycoon or general, the fixer, the Can Do Man who will cut the baloney and Get Things Done.

Huckabee has run as a protectionist, and not merely in matters related to trade. The former Arkansas governor presented himself as a preserver all that was cherished in the 20th Century – from the assistance programs of the Great Society to its social norms and proscriptions. “If it’s not fair trade, it’s not free trade,” Huckabee said of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. “We have a lot of globalists and frankly corporatists instead of having nationalists who put forward the best interests of the United States and working families.” Only the most committed populist would openly associate himself with outright nationalism.

In June, the former governor cast himself as the candidate that would preserve without substantial reforms overburdened social welfare programs like Medicare and Social Security. “Unlike some in Washington who want to cut benefits for seniors, I will protect Social Security and Medicare,” Huckabee insisted. “Period.” To the extent that Trump can be held to his word, the billionaire real estate developer has also rejected substantial reforms to entitlement programs.

Of course, Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican heap is largely due to the fact that the field lacked a hardline anti-illegal immigration candidate. That was once Ted Cruz, but the goalposts have shifted so that what now constitutes hardline is embracing fanciful notions of mass deportation and walls that alone manage to stem the flow of aliens over the southern border while eschewing political correctness in the process. No one, including Huckabee, has been willing to emulate Trump’s alienation of persuadable Hispanic voters. “I would never besmirch all the people who come here because I think, sometimes, we get wrapped up in how many people are coming. The real question is why are they coming?” Huckabee noted when asked for his thoughts on Trump’s claim that Mexico was directing its criminals to cross the U.S. border. “They come to help their families, some of the hardest-working people… and I think this is often lost — some of the most conservative, family-oriented and faith-based people I have ever witnessed.”

Huckabee is learning the hard way that you cannot out-Trump Donald Trump. He has deftly managed to ingratiate himself to the elements within the GOP coalition that hunger for pugnacity from their 2016 nominee, but also for one who fights not on behalf of reform but preservation. Cruz and Huckabee presented a responsible and, thus, watered down version of the forcefulness a substantial portion of the GOP primary voting base wanted to see from their nominee. Only those Republicans who present a competing governing vision will manage to avoid being inundated by Trump’s expanding wake.

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The GOP’s Snake Oil Salesmen

Amid a truly devastating period for conservative culture warriors, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed last week that those who consider themselves allies of the social conservative movement so often do it a disservice. “Politicians who stand with them on policy mislead them on politics,” he observed. The events that occurred following this remark proved Douthat prescient.  Read More

Amid a truly devastating period for conservative culture warriors, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed last week that those who consider themselves allies of the social conservative movement so often do it a disservice. “Politicians who stand with them on policy mislead them on politics,” he observed. The events that occurred following this remark proved Douthat prescient. 

Prisoners as they are of the news cycle, Republicans in the political consulting class have taken to rending garments over the reality television star Donald Trump’s alleged entry into the presidential race (a complete financial disclosure must be filed in 10 days in order to participate in the first debate) and the negative impact he will have on the GOP brand. I have written that I believe they are overestimating the impact Trump will have on the electorate and his fellow candidates. But what these consultants fear most, and what they say freely and honestly, is that Trump will tap into a strain of ascendant populism within conservatism that will infect the party’s grassroots. They fear that a sizable minority of aggressive, xenophobic self-described Republicans will rise up and happily express their impolitic attitudes for the media’s cameras.

Trump’s supposed popularity within the GOP presidential field is wildly overstated. It is no great feat for a figure with near universal name recognition to secure the support of roughly 10 percent of barely tuned-in voters. That performance is only estimable relative to the rest of the crowded presidential field, and Trump’s star is likely to fade as the race’s frontrunners break away from the pack. Still, Republican Party officials are consumed with fear over what Trump represents, and the damage he can do in the interim between his announcement and the inevitable suspension of his campaign.

When conservatives are asked why they think Trump’s candidacy is resonating with the right, they most commonly reply, “He is saying things that people want to hear.” This says less about the electorate than it does about the candidate capturing so many disaffected imaginations. When voters are faced with unpleasant realities, there will always be a market for comforting fictions; just ask the Greeks. A legitimate problem for the GOP is, however, that too many believe that Trump is disseminating hard truths when the opposite is the case.

Republican voters love to hear Trump contend that a new Great Wall across the Mexican border, inexplicably paid for by the Mexican government, will permanently curtail illegal immigration. They love to hear the claim that America is getting a raw deal when it engages in exchanges with its second-largest trading partner, the People’s Republic of China. They love the notion that a more steely-eyed negotiator would pacify Russia without the commitment of substantial treasure and the requirement of sacrifice on the part of the West. Everyone loves a salesman when he’s pitching the deal of the century.

What’s more, those on the right who fairly resent illegal immigration and who oppose the incentives this administration has created for border crossers appreciate hearing Trump express the most acerbic condemnations of illegal immigrants. “If you look at the statistics on rape, on crime, on everything, coming in illegally to the country, they’re mind-boggling,” Trump recently insisted. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Conservatives who instinctually nodded their heads along should have the intellectual consistency to resent the fact that the only person misleading them in this case was Trump.

“Foreign-born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course,” observed University of Massachusetts Sociology Professor Bianca Bersani in a study published in Justice Quarterly. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted, the Pew Research Center helped quantify Bersani’s work and discovered that native-born Americans are most likely to have committed one crime in the last 12 months followed closely by second generation Americans. “Since undocumented immigrants are more than a quarter of the immigrant population, it’s nearly impossible that the overall-immigrant crime rate could be so much lower if the undocumented-immigrant crime rate were significantly higher,” Bump observed.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a subset of bright, honest, demoralized conservatives to reject this data in favor of the bias-confirming fiction weaved by Trump; particularly because he has attracted at least one prominent enabler: Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

While the rest of the field of GOP presidential candidates was condemning Trump and the rhetoric he used to mislead his supporters, Cruz saluted him. This is not a surprising move for the former Texas attorney who is cursed with being acutely aware of his own considerable intellectual faculties. Too often, the junior Texas senator succumbs to the instinct to manipulate his supporters in a transparent manner that is, at times, too clever by half.

Take, for example, Cruz’s decision to stoke the flames of revanchism among aggrieved cultural conservatives in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the country. “Those who are not parties to the suit are not bound by it,” said the former Texas Solicitor General in an interview in which he advised states to, likely illegally, ignore the Court’s mandate which compels states to recognize gay unions in order to comport with the Fourteenth Amendment. Ted Cruz knows that course of action is ill advised, but he apparently finds this manner of misinformation useful in his quest to cast himself as a Washington outsider nobly confronting establishment Republicans who have sold out their enervated base.

Cruz’s contention that he would support a constitutional amendment that would subject Supreme Court justices to retention elections also exemplifies his apparent intention to deceive his way to the top of the GOP heap. In the modern era, calls for a constitutional amendment is simple buck-passing; the modern equivalent of a defeated army sending its remaining partisans into the hills to ignite a quixotic guerilla rebellion. If a GOP-dominated congress couldn’t pass a marriage amendment supported by a Republican president in 2004, it’s not happening today. Similarly, the fact that a Democrat-led Senate could barely secure the votes required to debate an amendment that would limit the First Amendment freedoms loathed by the likes of Bernie Sanders was a concession that their cause was an obscure one. For true believers, however, the amendment process remains a viable option, and those who oppose it simply lack the passion. Again, Cruz misled his supporters for temporary personal gain.

Even if such an amendment could pass, its effects on the constitutional order would be disastrous – a reality of which Cruz is likely aware. As the columnist George Will observed, Cruz’s retributive amendment is as “progressive” as anything Hillary Clinton has proposed. “[Teddy Roosevelt] embraced the core progressive belief that the ideal of limited government, and hence the reality of the separation of powers, are anachronisms,” he wrote. “Imagine campaigns conducted by justices. What would remain of the court’s prestige and hence its power to stand athwart rampant executives and overbearing congressional majorities?”

Cruz has calculated that, like Trump, the fleeting value gained by embracing these maximalist positions is worth the damage his reputation will endure. For some on the activist right, however, Cruz and Trump will suffer no consequences advancing a series of comforting fictions. There is no reward for honesty when that forthrightness dashes cherished hope. The conservative movement would, however, do well to ask itself whether it is best served by the charlatans in their midst who are more concerned with selling their product than preserving the integrity of their party or addressing the problems facing the republic.

 

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Did Ted Cruz Just Pull a John Kerry on Trade?

Senator Ted Cruz started off his presidential campaign with a bang but, in recent weeks, he’s been falling back in the polls as other candidates have gotten most of the publicity. Part of that stemmed from the ability of his competitors to steal the spotlight with their own announcements as well as the ability of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio to inch ahead of the pack and form what looks like a top tier in a race that may eventually include up to 20 candidates. With only four percent of Republicans supporting him in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Cruz seems to be lagging in the competition for his natural constituency: Tea Party voters. So in order to recapture their affection, Cruz needs to do something to illustrate once again that he is the true rebel against the GOP party establishment. His answer: come out against the fast-track trade bill currently working its way through Congress. A stand geared toward exploiting conservative animus toward President Obama and illegal immigration may give him a boost. But the only problem with this decision is that Cruz already voted for the Trade Protection Authority (TPA) bill back in May. He’s claiming that nefarious secret deals between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democrats are motivating his switch. But a Ted Cruz flip on trade could undermine the key element to his political identity as the one man in Washington who will never compromise on his principles. Read More

Senator Ted Cruz started off his presidential campaign with a bang but, in recent weeks, he’s been falling back in the polls as other candidates have gotten most of the publicity. Part of that stemmed from the ability of his competitors to steal the spotlight with their own announcements as well as the ability of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio to inch ahead of the pack and form what looks like a top tier in a race that may eventually include up to 20 candidates. With only four percent of Republicans supporting him in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Cruz seems to be lagging in the competition for his natural constituency: Tea Party voters. So in order to recapture their affection, Cruz needs to do something to illustrate once again that he is the true rebel against the GOP party establishment. His answer: come out against the fast-track trade bill currently working its way through Congress. A stand geared toward exploiting conservative animus toward President Obama and illegal immigration may give him a boost. But the only problem with this decision is that Cruz already voted for the Trade Protection Authority (TPA) bill back in May. He’s claiming that nefarious secret deals between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democrats are motivating his switch. But a Ted Cruz flip on trade could undermine the key element to his political identity as the one man in Washington who will never compromise on his principles.

As Cruz notes in his Breitbart.com op-ed explaining his change of heart, he is an ideological supporter of free trade. But he took a lot of criticism from some Tea Partiers for his vote in favor of TPA who seem to think anything that President Obama favors should be opposed. In the piece, Cruz exploits fears about trade leading to efforts toward amnesty for illegal immigration and sounds a populist note about opposition to reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank whose fate has become tied to that of TPA. Sounding more like the Ted Cruz who took the GOP down the rabbit hole of the government shutdown than the more reasonable senator who voted for a trade bill that most of his party has always supported, Cruz now says the whole thing must be stopped.

Trade appeared to be the one issue on which common ground could be found between the administration and the Republican leadership in Congress. Though the left wing of the Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has so far prevented passage of TPA, the vote today to end debate on the measure in the Senate (on which Cruz was on the losing side) seems to ensure that it will ultimately be passed and signed into law.

Cruz’s enlistment to the ranks of those trying to stop the trade bill does not appear to have derailed the legislation. But that does not appear to be his main objective. Instead, Cruz is making a cold hard calculation that he can rally a critical mass of his party’s base to his candidacy by positioning himself in opposition to the party establishment. The Ex-Im bank issue doesn’t have a lot of resonance with the grassroots, but merely mentioning immigration in connection with the name Obama may be enough to convince a lot of Republicans that Cruz is once again leading the charge against a party establishment they despise. Running against “backroom deal-making” is always popular, and most Tea Partiers already like Cruz and think any cooperation with the Obama White House is wrong in principle.

But there’s something of an air of desperation to this move that makes me think that Cruz’s normally deft touch with the party base may be slightly out of order here.

It’s all well and good to accuse Mitch McConnell of being a slippery customer or criticizing House Speaker John Boehner of acting the tyrant in punishing House Republicans who rebelled on this issue. But it is just as easy to accuse Cruz of putting himself into a tacit alliance with Pelosi and the labor unions in an effort to halt much needed international trade as it is to label supporters of TPA as being closet Obama-lovers. As much as many Tea Partiers have opposed the bill because of the Obama connections, standing up against free trade is still a better tactic to win the Democratic nomination than that of the Republicans.

Moreover, Cruz is also setting himself up for a classic putdown in the presidential debates. Every one of his competitors will hope for a chance to call out Cruz for pulling a John Kerry on trade by saying he opposed it after he voted for it. That’s not a winning formula for Cruz, who hopes to parlay a brilliant speaking style (and champion debating skills) into a shot at the Republican nomination. Up until now, the one thing you could never accuse Ted Cruz of doing is flip-flopping on the issues. With his turnabout on trade, that record is broken.

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The GOP Field and Liberal Identity Politics

How far can you go in pushing a public figure on his or her racial, ethnic or gender identity? If you’re a liberal, you know there are lines that the press dare never cross. If you’re a conservative, especially one despised by the liberal establishment, there are no such lines. We got a taste of that late last week when Mark Halperin interviewed Senator Ted Cruz on his BloombergPolitics cable show. After discussing some policy issues, Halperin decided to give Cruz a Hispanic identity test, checking to see if he could name favorite foods, music and then demanding that he speak in Spanish. As Ruben Naverette wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, Haplerin did everything except ask Cruz to “play the conga drums like Desi Arnaz.” Suffice it to say this is not a ploy Halperin would pull on a Hispanic Democrat. But rather than put it down to the usual fun and games of liberal bias and partisanship, this piece of snark is about something much more serious: the notion that Hispanics, blacks or women who are conservatives, aren’t authentic members of those groups. We can expect to see a lot of it in the coming months as the liberal media copes with a breathtakingly diverse Republican presidential field and seeks to brand them as inauthentic.

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How far can you go in pushing a public figure on his or her racial, ethnic or gender identity? If you’re a liberal, you know there are lines that the press dare never cross. If you’re a conservative, especially one despised by the liberal establishment, there are no such lines. We got a taste of that late last week when Mark Halperin interviewed Senator Ted Cruz on his BloombergPolitics cable show. After discussing some policy issues, Halperin decided to give Cruz a Hispanic identity test, checking to see if he could name favorite foods, music and then demanding that he speak in Spanish. As Ruben Naverette wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, Haplerin did everything except ask Cruz to “play the conga drums like Desi Arnaz.” Suffice it to say this is not a ploy Halperin would pull on a Hispanic Democrat. But rather than put it down to the usual fun and games of liberal bias and partisanship, this piece of snark is about something much more serious: the notion that Hispanics, blacks or women who are conservatives, aren’t authentic members of those groups. We can expect to see a lot of it in the coming months as the liberal media copes with a breathtakingly diverse Republican presidential field and seeks to brand them as inauthentic.

What Halperin did to Cruz was merely another example of the identity wars that are being fought in contemporary politics. Just as women who don’t support abortion without any restrictions are portrayed as not really female by the left, so, too are blacks and Hispanics who don’t toe the Democrat party line treated as somehow inauthentic minorities.

But while it’s one thing for political operatives to operate in that fashion, it’s quite another for a reporter who likes to pretend to be playing it down the middle to play this game. Halperin is best known to television audiences as a frequent member of panels on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program where he masquerades as one of the adults in the room. But as Naverette wrote, neither Obama’s Housing Secretary Joaquin Castro, nor his twin brother Rep. Joaquin Castro speaks fluent Spanish. Yet it is as unimaginable that either would be quizzed in the same manner about their background, as it would be to probe anyone of any other ethnicity about whether they were entitled to it. In this instance it would be instructive to recall the way most of the liberal media ignored the kerfuffle about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s somewhat dubious claims to the status of Native American.

As it happens, Cruz has never made his Cuban lineage central to his political career except in the sense that his father’s experience as an immigrant that fled Cuba taught him valuable lessons about American exceptionalism and the need to struggle for opportunity and liberty. But because he’s a vocal opponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants, he’s assumed to be a fake Hispanic. You don’t have to be a fan of Cruz’s politics to understand that this sort of journalism isn’t about finding out more about someone who is running for president. Rather, the purpose was to try and label him as an inauthentic minority. Had Halperin or anyone else done this to the Castros, apologies would have been demanded and suspensions would be discussed.

But this minor controversy does go to the heart of what is wrong about most of the talk about the need for Republicans to appeal to Hispanic voters.

Pundits are right when they say the GOP must do more to reach out to Hispanics. But the discussion about this issue centers almost exclusively on whether Republicans are prepared to embrace a path to citizenship for illegals or stop talking about the need to secure the border against new waves of people crossing the border without permission. There are cogent arguments to be made about the need for resolving the status of those already here by means that don’t include unrealistic expectations about them being deported. But as important as that may be, Hispanic voters, who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and are not monolithic in nature, have other interests beside the fate of illegals. And, contrary to the assumptions of the mainstream media, they can differ about amnesty just as women can differ about abortion.

It’s one thing to denounce conservative Hispanics as wrong on the issues. It’s quite another to treat them as crypto Anglo-Saxons. But with two Republican presidential candidates of Hispanic background (Cruz and fellow Cuban-American Marco Rubio) and one GOP hopeful that is a woman (Carly Fiorina) and another an African America (Ben Carson), the liberal authenticity police will be out in force. But rather than merely ignore them as Cruz, who kept his cool with Halperin did, this insidious bias needs to be shown for what it is: a desire by the media to delegitimize anyone who doesn’t conform to their ideas about identity politics as interpreted through the catechism of liberal ideology.

Update:

On Monday, Mark Halperin apologized to Senator Ted Cruz for his egregious questions. But the apology, which claimed the interview was intended to be “lighthearted” rather than an effort to test Cruz’s authenticity as a Latino, was delivered in standard non-apology style in which he said he was sorry “to those who were offended

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Liberal Thought Police Bully Gay Conservative

Liberals have transformed the debate about gay marriage in recent years from one about the definition of marriage to one about intolerance. That shift seems to have won general acceptance throughout the country and even the courts. But as we saw in the forced resignation of the CEO of Mozilla for his contribution to California’s Proposition 8 campaign and in the reaction to the passage of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, the cutting edge of the issue now is not so much to rally support for a cause that has already won its case in the court of public opinion but to silence opponents. The latest example of the left’s impulse to mob rule comes in an even more ironic form. A gay businessman who hosted an event for Senator Ted Cruz has been so abused by fellow gays and other liberals for the crime of allowing a conservative presidential candidate a hearing at his home that he has now been forced to publicly abase himself and apologize lest the hotels he owns be boycotted by the same gay community to which he caters. Once again, despite their claims that religious conservatives seek to persecute them, the only people being bullied or silenced on this issue lately are the few who dare to either question the newly minted liberal consensus about gay marriage or even offer a platform to those who do.

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Liberals have transformed the debate about gay marriage in recent years from one about the definition of marriage to one about intolerance. That shift seems to have won general acceptance throughout the country and even the courts. But as we saw in the forced resignation of the CEO of Mozilla for his contribution to California’s Proposition 8 campaign and in the reaction to the passage of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, the cutting edge of the issue now is not so much to rally support for a cause that has already won its case in the court of public opinion but to silence opponents. The latest example of the left’s impulse to mob rule comes in an even more ironic form. A gay businessman who hosted an event for Senator Ted Cruz has been so abused by fellow gays and other liberals for the crime of allowing a conservative presidential candidate a hearing at his home that he has now been forced to publicly abase himself and apologize lest the hotels he owns be boycotted by the same gay community to which he caters. Once again, despite their claims that religious conservatives seek to persecute them, the only people being bullied or silenced on this issue lately are the few who dare to either question the newly minted liberal consensus about gay marriage or even offer a platform to those who do.

The statement issued by Ian Reisner in an effort to get the gay community to call of the dogs on their boycott effort reads like something a victim of a Communist regime’s “reeducation” labor camp might be forced to recite. According to the New York Times Reisner issued the following statement:

I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days. I made a terrible mistake.”

I was ignorant, naive and much too quick in accepting a request to co-host a dinner with Cruz at my home without taking the time to completely understand all of his positions on gay rights.

I’ve spent the past 24 hours reviewing videos of Cruz’ statements on gay marriage and I am shocked and angry. I sincerely apologize for hurting the gay community and so many of our friends, family, allies, customers and employees. I will try my best to make up for my poor judgment. Again, I am deeply sorry.

Reisner is apparently a conservative on issues other than gay marriage and seems to have thought Cruz’s economic and foreign-policy stands amenable to his worldview. In particular, the hotelier is a big supporter of Israel, which happens to be one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world. But the Texas senator’s belief that states should be allowed to make up his or her own minds about allowing gay marriage and his evangelical beliefs place him beyond the pale for liberal gays. Thus, to the liberal thought police, anyone who hosts Cruz or presumably anyone who holds opinions or religious convictions that were shared by both President Obama or Hillary Clinton only a couple of years ago must be publicly humiliated and forced to recant lest they be exposed to economic boycotts.

You don’t have to oppose gay marriage to be disgusted by this incident.

Gays have every right to express their views about Cruz or anyone else. But their point is not just to pursue their campaign for gay marriage but to silence opponents. The bullying of Reisner is an attempt to send a message to gays and others than no other issue, not the future of the country’s economy or the security of Israel, can be allowed to interfere with efforts to not just defeat religious conservative efforts to oppose gay marriage but also to make it impossible for anyone to try to defend their own views about the issue.

Whether or not you agree with Cruz, the spectacle of Reisner’s apology for daring to think he could back a candidate in spite of their differences on gay marriage bodes ill for any effort to preserve a tone of civility in our political culture. Indeed, his statement seems to bear a greater resemblance to a victim of the Spanish Inquisition issuing a ritual recantation of heresy in order to avoid being burned at the stake.

The irony of so-called liberals, who routinely denounce conservatives for being both intolerant and debasing the political culture with incivility, orchestrating such an intolerant and undemocratic response to an individual’s behavior is lost on the left. Free speech for me but not for thee is now liberal orthodoxy. So, too, is their effort to shame anyone who doesn’t agree with them on gay marriage or even associates with anyone who dissents. As we saw with Mozilla and Indiana, mob rule is ugly but often effective, especially in the corporate world. That may comfort some gays, but it should cause all of us, whether we are gay or straight, religious or irreligious, who support democracy to tremble.

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

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

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

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

In a word, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rubio, Immigration, and the Long Road to the Nomination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rubio’s Path Is Steep But Doable

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, the obstacles in his way are formidable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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