by Yuval Levin
I was amused today to find myself quoted in a Politico story about how “elite” conservatives seem to be depressed about the Republican presidential field now that it looks like no policy intellectuals will be among the candidates. It was all the more amusing because I was quoted in support of a point that was basically the opposite of the one I made to the Politico writer I spoke with. I imagine that’s my fault, not his, but for what it’s worth I actually think Republicans have a pretty strong field this year, and a top tier very well suited to this particular election.
It looks likely that the Republican nominee will be either the current governor of the nation’s second largest state (a job he has held for a decade, during which his state was among the most prosperous in the nation) or the former governor of a blue state who also has a great deal of private executive experience (much of it turning around failing ventures thanks to good management instincts and a strong command of economics). Both of them seem to be reasonably solid social, fiscal, and national-security conservatives (which is actually very unusual for Republican nominees), even if they have not always been so. Both have more relevant experience than most presidential candidates tend to have, and each in his way has a great story to tell in the kind of election we’re likely to see. There is no better preparation for the presidency than a governorship (except perhaps a vice presidency), and voters clearly like electing governors to the White House.
Obviously, each also has some very significant weaknesses and problems. Every candidate always does. Winners look in retrospect like they were always winners-to-be, but they never look that way in advance. Remember the first-term senator with no executive experience, a very liberal voting record, disturbing radical ties, and little ability to connect with the working-class voters who are essential to winning elections? He was met with some favorable winds, and there we are.
This year’s field, and its top tier, are certainly stronger than the field Republicans had in 2008, when there was really only one reasonably plausible president in the field (and he didn’t win the nomination). I think it’s also somewhat better than the field Republicans had in 2000 or 1996. That doesn’t simply spell a Republican victory, of course. Incumbent presidents have some enormous advantages, and whoever the Republican candidate is he will surely bring with him some serious disadvantages. But going into what so far looks like an eminently winnable election in a time when electing a conservative president is more crucial than it has been in at least a generation, Republicans should feel reasonably good. Yes, the field could certainly be better. Yes, there are impressive people in the wings who are not running. Yes, the Midwestern wonk slot is (as always) empty. But the people with the greatest chance of being nominated also have a very good chance of being elected. It could be much worse, in other words, and it has been—even in some years in which Republicans have won.