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
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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