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.
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.