For 2016, the Parties Are Trading Places

Democrats usually fall in love, while Republicans fall in line. So far in this presidential campaign, neither is happening.

National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
April 13, 2015, 4 p.m.

As dis­cour­aging as the par­tis­an­ship, po­lar­iz­a­tion, and dys­func­tion are in Wash­ing­ton these days, I con­fess to be­ing really ex­cited by the un­fold­ing 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Not that there is an­oth­er George Wash­ing­ton, Thomas Jef­fer­son, Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln, Frank­lin Roosevelt, or Ron­ald Re­agan on the im­me­di­ate ho­ri­zon, but this race ap­pears to have some really in­ter­est­ing as­pects to it.

It’s of­ten been said that in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, Demo­crats fall in love, Re­pub­lic­ans fall in line. But at least today, neither party looks like it is be­hav­ing in a nor­mal fash­ion. When fa­cing an open pres­id­en­tial con­test, Demo­crats of­ten be­gin by look­ing for the next Cam­elot era, the next John F. Kennedy or Robert F. Kennedy, but then end up in a ram­bunc­tious free-for-all. The late and great cow­boy comedi­an Will Ro­gers fam­ously said, “I am not a mem­ber of any or­gan­ized polit­ic­al party. I am a Demo­crat.” It was true then and still is now. Usu­ally there is little or­derly about the Demo­crat­ic Party in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, un­less an in­cum­bent Demo­crat is seek­ing reelec­tion—and even then, it can go either way.

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This time, most Demo­crats seem to be lin­ing up be­hind Hil­lary Clin­ton, some with more en­thu­si­asm or love than most. At this mo­ment, it looks more like then-Vice Pres­id­ent Al Gore’s slow walk to the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion in the 2000 cam­paign, with former Sen. Bill Brad­ley barely a factor, than many of the more tu­mul­tu­ous fights that we have come to ex­pect. Clin­ton’s per­form­ance in the com­ing months will de­term­ine wheth­er she will breeze through as eas­ily as she now ap­pears likely to do.

Con­versely, Re­pub­lic­ans usu­ally be­have in a hier­arch­ic­al man­ner, of­ten hav­ing a big fight but then pre­dict­ably nom­in­at­ing who­ever’s turn it seems to be. That may not hap­pen this time. To the ex­tent that it is any­one’s “turn,” it’s former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, but the res­ist­ance to him seems sur­pris­ingly strong. Many con­ser­vat­ives don’t see him as nearly con­ser­vat­ive enough, par­tic­u­larly on im­mig­ra­tion and edu­ca­tion (spe­cific­ally the Com­mon Core stand­ards). Oth­ers want a fresh start, and Bush seems to be en­coun­ter­ing more dyn­asty or leg­acy ob­jec­tions in his party than Clin­ton is in hers. Last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll showed that 42 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans don’t see them­selves sup­port­ing Bush for the nom­in­a­tion, while 49 per­cent could see them­selves back­ing him. This cer­tainly doesn’t sug­gest that Bush can’t win the nom­in­a­tion, but he will have to counter some pretty stiff winds to do so. It seems that Bush has no bet­ter than a one-in-three shot at win­ning the nom­in­a­tion; that’s not worse than any oth­er single can­did­ate, but it’s hard to view him as the “fa­vor­ite.”

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The truth is that a pretty plaus­ible case can be made for any one of five of the 20 or so Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders win­ning the nom­in­a­tion: Bush; Sen. Marco Ru­bio, who entered the race Monday night; Gov. Scott Walk­er of Wis­con­sin; and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, both tea-party fa­vor­ites.

That first tier could also grow to in­clude former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who might well have bet­ter re­tail polit­ic­al skills than any of the oth­ers but has two heavy bur­dens to carry. First, he has to live down an ill-ad­vised and poorly ex­ecuted 2012 cam­paign and prove that all our moth­ers were wrong—that first im­pres­sions are not last­ing im­pres­sions. Second, he has to over­come a pretty du­bi­ous in­dict­ment, al­leging that he ab­used the powers of his of­fice, which non­ethe­less is stand­ing in the way of be­com­ing a top-tier con­tender.

Even with the re­mainder of the Re­pub­lic­an field, there are can­did­ates who will draw strong sup­port from cer­tain quar­ters or make news from time to time. While former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee won the 2008 Iowa Caucus, as did former Sen. Rick San­tor­um of Pennsylvania in 2012, that so­cial/cul­tur­al/evan­gel­ic­al brack­et has his­tor­ic­ally not been an elast­ic one, able to ex­pand sup­port in­to the more sec­u­lar ele­ments of the party. Those can­did­ates have not done well when the fields be­gin to nar­row. For the more mod­er­ate New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, mean­while, every day has been down­hill since Bush’s in­dic­a­tion that he had switched gears and was go­ing to run.

Walk­er—who has nev­er served in Con­gress or worked in Wash­ing­ton, and bears the badge (at least in the Re­pub­lic­an Party) of hav­ing taken on pub­lic-em­ploy­ee uni­ons—has many very at­tract­ive ele­ments in his fa­vor. The ques­tion is wheth­er he has yet de­veloped the skill set and pol­ish ex­pec­ted of a co-front-run­ner. Ru­bio’s smooth­ness and sure-footed­ness com­bined with Walk­er’s polit­ic­al re­sume would be a heck of a com­bin­a­tion. Rand Paul’s fas­cin­at­ing and highly ori­gin­al ideo­logy may click with some voters, but ele­ments of his world­view could serve as reas­ons for vari­ous Re­pub­lic­ans to write him off. Watch­ing Ted Cruz brings to mind the line by the late Wal­lis Simpson, then the Duch­ess of Wind­sor, who fam­ously said, “You can nev­er be too rich or too thin.” With Cruz, we will find out in this cam­paign if you can be too con­ser­vat­ive to win a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion.

This is go­ing to be a fun cam­paign.

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