The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 45


To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

This Week: Jeb Jumps In — A Look At 2016

  • Next issue in February
  • Jeb jumps in
  • Early look at the GOP presidential field

A note to our readers: Merry Christmas to all of you.

With the presidential election 23 months away, The Briefing will take a brief hiatus for the month of January. We’ll see you again after Groundhog Day to discuss the state of the union and the state of the races, including the big presidential contest, the fight by Republicans to keep Congress, and the November 2015 state contests.

President 2016

GOP field: With a huge victory under their belt, Republican campaigners are now looking toward 2016 with a lot less dread than before. Sure, presidential electorates are slightly different, and in some ways they tend to favor Democrats a bit more, at least under certain circumstances. But that’s not the point — the point is that the Democrats put their pants on one leg at a time. And sometimes, as in 2014, they put both legs into the same pant-leg.

Republicans are finally catching up in the race on fundamentals. They have developed a better turnout operation and a better messaging plan, and after two successful midterms in a row they have a strong bench full of qualified candidates for president. All of these things are different from 2012, and any sign that things are different from 2012 is a good sign for the GOP.

Jeb Bush: If you were wondering about his ambitions, you have your answer. He gave 2016 an early start last week by announcing his exploratory committee. His move sets off a race to lock down the best staffers and the big money in places like Texas, Florida and New York — a race that will primarily be between Bush and two other East Coast establishment candidates — Mitt Romney and Chris Christie.

For all of the grousing by conservatives, Bush is actually pretty conservative and governed that way — certainly more conservative than Romney or Christie. He was also always more of a conservative than his brother George, and he comes off as more intelligent and thoughtful as well. Had he only won the 1994 election against Gov. Lawton Chiles, D, he might have been president instead. Were he to win this time, he would be the nation’s second Catholic president, and his wife would be the first Hispanic first lady.

Jeb’s big assets include his residual popularity in the crucial state of Florida and his ability to make inroads with Hispanic voters. He comes across as knowledgeable — he would probably mop the floor with Hillary Clinton in a debate, although he would have more of a challenge with some of the other supposedly less electable Democrats who might run.  

Conservatives’ biggest beefs with Bush seem to be his support of the Common Core program and immigration reform. These differences are what they are, and they guarantee that Jeb will occupy a space within the “establishment” contingent of the 2016 hopefuls, albeit at its rightmost edge. Still, it is important to note that neither immigration nor national education policy derailed his brother when they came up in 2000. And immigration was no more than a speed bump for John McCain in 2008 — he got around it with a bit of lip service about border security and won the GOP nomination.

One could argue that immigration hurt Rick Perry, R, in 2012, but he really had bigger problems than that — it would be more accurate to say that his comments cost him a lot of conservative support. Even so, the Perry incident, in which Mitt Romney hit him hard over immigration in a primary debate, only demonstrated that the chief effect of immigration as a campaign issue is to allow the more liberal candidate to pose as more conservative than he is.

Marco Rubio: Before looking at the other two establishment favorites, what does this mean for Marco Rubio? He has specifically said that Bush’s decision on 2016 won’t affect his own, but it probably will.

Bush and Rubio have long been allies, a fact that came to the fore during the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Florida. Although Jeb’s formal endorsement of Rubio came only after Charlie Crist bailed out of the GOP, his tacit, wink-wink support had already provided the young conservative access to money and stature he could not have easily come by otherwise.

The biggest problem Bush poses for Rubio is that he will eat into his home base in terms of fundraising and support. This doesn’t make it impossible for Rubio to run, but it could discourage him. If he decides to seek re-election in 2016 instead, it would surely cause a sigh of relief for Republicans in the Senate, so you can count on them making the case and putting subtle pressure on him to stay out. After all, they’ll say, Rubio is young and has a long career ahead of him — many Florida political insiders believe he might run for governor in 2018 before putting his eyes on the big prize.

Mitt Romney: Oh, no, you say? Oh yes. This is a real possibility, and in fact it seems as likely as it ever was. Even so, Jeb’s early entry puts pressure on Mitt to start begging for money, and it might be calculated in part to knock him out specifically, as described above. Bush will be fishing from the same big-donor pond as Mitt, and neither can afford to let the other lock down the important donors, bundlers and fundraisers.

It is unusual for a presidential loser to get the nod immediately in the next go-round — you’d have to go back to Adlai Stevenson in 1956 for an example of that happening, and Stevenson lost his second time around too. But Richard Nixon came back eight years after his loss and got the nomination in 1968, so it isn’t that far-fetched.

Romney does have some good qualities and would have certain advantages as the nominee. He surely learned a lot from his last run and would do better next time. His most important lessons probably had to do with candidate discipline, an area where he didn’t get his act together until very late in the game. And it cost ‘Mr. 47 percent” dearly.

But Romney has some built-in defects as a candidate that go deeper than his propensity for avoidable gaffes, and these will surely be brought to voters’ attention during the nomination process. 

First, remember that white turnout sunk in 2012 faster than mere demographic change can account for. The best working theory for this is that working-class white voters — the ones who helped power Republicans to victory in 2014 — may have felt alienated by a candidate who looks too much like the guy who laid them off from their last job. Democrats often flail with arguments about “outsourcing,” but they can succeed when running against candidates with business backgrounds who were somehow personally involved in outsourcing.

Another note: Romney’s unusually abysmal showing with Hispanics — worse than anyone since Bob Dole in 1996 — may be partly grounded in this same consideration. And this is also a strong argument against his nomination among establishment Republicans and conservatives who hope to see the GOP improve among Hispanics. It’s worth noting that a substantial number of Hispanic voters pulled the lever for Republicans down-ballot after voting against Romney in 2012.

In the primary, Romney would face an uphill climb against the much more credible field that will be arrayed against him this time. Conservatives had no one strong to back against Romney in 2012, but if it came to that they might even find themselves backing Bush to avoid a Romney repeat.

Chris Christie: He had a great year at the RGA, and he was exonerated over his biggest mini-scandal, but Jeb’s early announcement puts Gov. Christie in a tough spot. For one thing, he now has a very strong and serious competitor for the money that built the Bush dynasty. For another, there is now a “moderate” candidate in the field who is more appealing to conservatives than Christie.

Of course, Christie is clearly still running, but this makes him more of a longshot. The big-money wing of the Republican Party likes to choose its nominees in advance, whether they happen to be moderates or conservatives, and Christie already has a rival trying to nibble at his coalition. 

Scott Walker: On paper, he’s got it all. Establishment ties, conservative street cred, a proven record of winning elections in a swing state and, in 2014, of winning them the right way — by expanding his state party’s electorate rather than simply relying on low turnout by Democrats.

Walker is clearly positioning himself for a run. D.C. insiders complain that he’s not moving quickly enough on reaching out to the right groups and the right donors. Unlike some of the other conservative hopefuls, who will have to rely on grassroots money almost exclusively, Walker has a real chance of locking up some of the big establishment money. Time, therefore, is of the essence for him in a way it may not be for, say, Rand Paul. If Walker wants it, he will have to make his move soon.

Rand Paul: His project since reaching the Senate has been to mainstream libertarian thought, rolling out something considerably less scary to many Republicans than his father’s brand of libertarianism. He has also been active in getting his face in front of as many non-white, non-demographically Republican looking audiences as possible to make his case, taking full advantage of libertarian ideas on drug and sentencing policy and police powers to make his case. He would surely expand the GOP electorate as the nominee, but the current Cuba question serves as a reminder that his ideas on foreign policy might well cost him too much of the GOP base.

Paul is clearly planning a presidential run, but the situation is complicated for him. He has promised to seek re-election to his Senate seat, to the relief of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R. Paul is popular back home and will win re-election, whereas the seat would probably be competitive in an open-seat situation.

But Paul still has two problems within his state. First, were he to win the presidency, a governor would appoint his replacement. There is no way to know at this point who that governor will be, as the election takes place in November 2015. It would be more difficult for him to run for president even in the primary if his hypothetical victory might cost Republicans control of the U.S. Senate.

He can surmount that hurdle if a Republican wins next year, but then there’s the other problem: Kentucky law forbids him from appearing twice on either the general or the primary ballot. If he managed to convince his state party to adopt a caucus system for president, he might be able to avoid the problem in the primary by appearing on the ballot only for Senate and winning delegates in the caucus. But if he became the GOP nominee, the fear is that he might have to win the election without Kentucky’s eight electoral votes, because he wouldn’t be able to appear on the ballot — and that consideration would again weigh on him during the entire nominating process. Can Republicans afford to pick a candidate who is forbidden from running in Kentucky?

There could be a way through even this. Remember — the president is elected not by the voters, but by the electors they choose on election day. There are no laws in Kentucky against faithless electors. Were Paul to win the nomination next year, there might be a way for the GOP to nominate someone else in Kentucky as the Republican candidate — someone whose electors would cast their votes for Paul in December 2014.

Ted Cruz: This seems a bit whimsical perhaps, but think about it a minute. How would Cruz’s behavior in the Senate change if he were running? The answer: Not at all. He may or may not be running for 2016, but he is running — or perhaps more accurate to say he is keeping his options open for a run either now or later.

Cruz has been reaching out to donors in recent gatherings and trying to allay their concerns. He would be able to rally considerable support among conservatives, without question. And the establishment GOP would be rather hostile toward him at this point, it is safe to say. But it is unclear whether its arguments against him would carry any weight with the average GOP primary voter. Legislative process — the area where Cruz has made the biggest splash — matters a lot, but it doesn’t matter even a small bit to voters.

But those who would try to keep Cruz down would do well to remember that arguments based on such considerations will be ineffective. Anything that reminds people of how anti-establishmemt Cruz is can only help him with his current fan base. His problem: how to come out on top in a field that will likely have a lot of well-qualified and well-known conservatives in it.

Rick Perry: Perry’s 2012 campaign was a slapdash mess, and so was he. That doesn’t have to happen again. Perry has an enviable record as governor of Texas, and he’s a lot sharper than he came of in the 2012 primaries. But he needs to get conservatives’ attention in what is sure to be a crowded field. Why Perry and not Cruz? Why Perry and not Walker? There are good answers to these questions, but he has to make the case well, and he has less margin for error than he did in 2012 because a second flop is a second offense and would lead people to write him off. 

Bobby Jindal: Jindal wants it, and in terms of raw IQ, he will probably be the smartest guy in either party’s field if he runs. Despite his relative youth, he will probably also be one of the most politically experinced candidates as well. He’s also governed Louisiana reasonably well, and can demonstrate it by citing economic data and good government reforms.

But his numbers in his home state are terrible anyway and his profile is low to nonexistent elsewhere. Something big has to happen to make Jindal a serious competitor, and it’s not clear what would do it.

Paul Ryan: He now has what he really wanted — the chairmanship of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. That makes a presidential bid a lot less likely.