I wrote my first analysis of the 2016 Republican Primary race back in early August, when most Americans were still getting to know the candidates in the respective fields. In the roughly ten weeks since then, we’ve seen three debates: two Republican and one Democrat. Two Republican candidates have dropped out of the race, including an old favorite (Rick Perry) and an early leader (Scott Walker). Now there are reports that Jim Webb is bowing out of the contest for the Democratic nomination.
Yet for all the ups and downs of the campaign, there has been remarkably little movement in the polls. Hillary Clinton continues to tower over the rest of the Democratic pack, despite her many scandals and complete lack of authenticity on the campaign trail. In the recent CNN debate, she made her competitors seem small. None would challenge Her Highness, save the embarrassing and ineffective Lincoln Chafee. On the Republican side, Donald Trump continues to lead the still-overcrowded Republican field, to the bewilderment of the pundits and the dismay of the Republican establishment. Party insiders who scoffed at a Trump candidacy weeks ago are now beginning to entertain the possibility that he just might win. In fact, he will win unless Republicans can rally around a compelling alternative.
With that being said, I’d like to offer my thoughts on the best course of action for Republicans, as well as some general observations on the current state of American politics.
First, the political landscape has changed over the past decade. We used to have a center-left Democratic Party and a center-right Republican Party. The Democrats’ embrace of socialist Bernie Sanders and rejection of centrist Jim Webb is proof that the center-left element of the Democratic Party is gone. In 2008, Barack Obama became the most liberal politician to ever occupy the White House. In 2015, Democrats are debating whether to run slightly to his left (the Hillary approach) or way to his left (the Sanders approach). Keep in mind that Clinton ran to Obama’s right in 2008, just seven years ago.
Three factors help explain this change. First, Obama’s failed policies have been disastrous for centrist Democrats, now an endangered species. After disastrous midterms in 2010 and 2014, most of them are gone. In fact, Joe Manchin of West Virginia may be the last one standing. Second, the only remaining Democrats represent reliably liberal districts or states where they have more to fear from a primary challenge than a candidate from the other party (the same being true for most Republicans). Politicians can now take what would have once been considered extreme positions without fear of voter reprisal. In fact, they have more to fear from appearing too eager to compromise with the opposition. Remember when politicians used to brag about “reaching across the aisle?” Yeah…
Third, Democrats have stopped even competing for working class whites without college degrees, the party’s former bread and butter. They have surrendered the political center in favor of a demographic strategy that relies on rising numbers of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, and young people, cobbled together with urban-dwelling, over-educated white liberals, to carry them at the national level.
But while the Democrats’ identity as a hard-Left party is settled, the Republican future is less certain. Moderates like John Boehner and Jeb Bush would like to see the Republican Party remain center-Right or center-center-Right: rejecting the Democrats’ identity politics and European-style socialism, but not the premise of big government intervention in areas like the economy and education. On the other hand, conservative insurgents would like to do to the Republican Party what the Democrats have done to theirs, eschewing centrist compromise in favor of ideological purity. Conservative frustration with the Republican establishment is certainly warranted, and this intra-Republican rivalry is in many ways a sign of health, but it carries its share of risks. If Republicans can find a way to bridge the right wing of their party with what remains of the political center, while making modest inroads with Millennials and minorities, they beat the Democrats in a landslide. If not, the Republican Party may be headed for a messy divorce.
This brings me to my second point – the state of the Republican race. In August, I wrote favorably about the inclusion of “outsiders” Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Since then, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart that I think is (or will soon become) fairly typical of Republican primary voters. I now believe that in order to beat Hillary Clinton—who, barring the late entry of Joe Biden, will be the Democratic nominee—Republicans need to nominate someone with political experience. I was never a fan of Donald Trump, and that much has not changed. But if I can rationally conclude that Ben Carson, a man I personally respect and admire, is not qualified to be president, can Trump supporters not do the same?
Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea of a non-lawyer, non-politician running for office. If a successful businesswoman, doctor, teacher, or actor wants to run for senator or governor or delegate, more power to them. This is government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as envisioned by our founders. From there, they can move up to the national stage, like Ronald Reagan did in 1980.
But when you are seeking the highest office in the land, isn’t it nice to have at least some experience running a government? Isn’t it important to have at least some record that voters can judge against the soaring rhetoric of the campaign trail? Expertise in one area does not necessarily translate into expertise or even competence in another. Michael Phelps might be the best swimmer of all-time, but there’s a reason he’s not pitching in the MLB. Tom Brady might be an elite quarterback, but no one is asking him to run the point in the NBA.
In 2008, America was so disgusted with George W. Bush and “politics as usual” that we elected a man who just a few years before was a back-bencher in the Illinois state senate. But lest we heap all our scorn on Democrats, let’s not forget that Republicans also celebrated the nomination of Sarah Palin, an obscure governor who turned out to not have a clue about anything beyond the narrow range of issues affecting Alaskan politics. Both cases were the equivalent of promoting jayvee quarterbacks straight to the NFL. To use Bill Clinton’s term, we put a complete amateur in the Oval Office, trusting that his inspiring biography and professorial eloquence would compensate for a complete lack of experience or accomplishment.
The results speak for themselves: disaster for the economy, which would be much worse if the Fed hadn’t kept interest rates at near zero for his entire term; disaster on healthcare, as Obamacare enters its predicted “death spiral;” disaster for average Americans who have seen their jobs disappear or their wages drop, and disaster in foreign policy as the Middle East falls apart, threatening to take the rest of the world with it. America appears weak and indecisive on the world stage, complacent and divided at home. Yes, we face significant challenges that would exist with or without President Obama, but it didn’t have to be this way. Not only has our country fallen deeper into the hole, we have lost precious time to right the course.
So, let’s consider the Republican candidates.
Fiorina and Carson, while compelling, are not qualified to lead the free world. This should go without saying, but neither is Donald Trump. Of the three, I would trust Fiorina the most to stand up to Vladimir Putin, but I have no idea how she would actually implement her domestic agenda, as there is no political record available for me to scrutinize.
Pataki, Graham, Santorum, and Gilmore remain irrelevant. Jindal has the vision and experience, but not the gravitas or political savvy. Huckabee was never a great national candidate, and his time has passed.
This leaves John Kasich, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio as the only five serious contenders. But Kasich, Bush, and even Christie are unlikely to inspire the conservative base, while Cruz is unacceptable to the establishment center. I would put any of these four men against Hillary Clinton, but with reservations in each case. Kasich has nothing to offer social conservatives at a time when they are on the ropes. Cruz has alienated his own party, not a recipe for success for any candidate. Christie has Bridge-gate, and Bush carries more baggage than the rest of the field put together on account of his brother. In this anti-establishment climate, America’s appetite for political dynasties is greatly diminished; Republicans should leave this liability to the Democrats.
Now we’re down to one man: Marco Rubio. He is young, but experienced. He has had enough time to make mistakes (immigration reform), and the humility to learn from them. He can excite conservatives without frightening the establishment class, whose support will be needed to take down Clinton. He is not the perfect candidate, but such a man does not exist. The best the Democrats have been able to dig up so far against him is that his wife got some parking tickets and he bought an expensive boat. This, compared to a Democratic frontrunner whose spouse associates with known sexual predators and who would likely be facing jail time for violating federal law if her last name didn’t place her beyond its reach.
Rubio is likeable and competent: a good fundraiser, debater, and campaigner. He might not be your favorite candidate, or occupy the top slot of your “dream ticket,” but is there anyone you would rather pit against Hillary in a one-on-one debate? Would you rather Donald Trump insult her appearance, or Ben Carson put her to sleep?
No other candidate can articulate an optimistic, conservative agenda with Rubio’s combination of nuance, clarity, and passion. If Republicans are going to win in 2016, they need to unite the political right and center against a Democrat who will be running to the Far Left. Trump, Carson, and Cruz supporters can throw up their hands and say “it shouldn’t be this way,” but that doesn’t change the fact that it is this way. Politics is about more than lofty rhetoric and personality; it is the art of the possible. Our Founding Fathers devised a political system in which compromise is necessary to accomplish anything; whatever our personal beliefs, we should have the maturity to accept this. The contrast between the two parties has never been so clear, and the stakes have never been so high.