Politics & Policy

The Increasingly Set Stage of 2016

We don’t know who the GOP candidate will be, but we know what he needs to be.

This week, Gallup found Americans are losing faith in their government: “Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30 percent) and Congress (7 percent), and a six-year low for the presidency (29 percent).”

Gallup also finds Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with their freedom to choose what they can do with their lives:

Gallup also finds Americans increasingly believe corruption is widespread throughout the government. Note that this question does not specify federal, state, or local:

This is about as ripe an electorate as you can hope for if you’re a candidate of limited government.

This is not to say electing a Republican candidate, pledging to limit and reduce the size, scope, cost, and reach of government is going to be easy, of course. For starters, no matter who the 2016 Republican candidate is, that person is going to face some variation of this:

All of the celebrities of Hollywood and the music industry will come out to rally and endorse the Democratic candidate — Ms. Perry and her latex dresses, Bruce Springsteen, Eva Longoria, the Black Eyed Peas, Ben Affleck, and all the other usual suspects. This reflects their reflexive insistence that the Democratic president candidate is the “cool” one. Most of these figures insisted John Kerry was the cool one in 2004 and that Al Gore was the cool choice in 2000. Ahem.

The 2004 experience ought to reassure us that Democrat-friendly celebrities cannot, by themselves, convince the public that the Democratic nominee is cooler and thus a better choice for president.

The 2016 Republican nominee is also certain to face some variation of this:

In some senses relating to the campaign, it does not matter whether Republicans nominate Jeb Bush, or Rand Paul, or Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio, or Bobby Jindal, or Chris Christie, or Scott Walker, or Rick Perry, or any other GOP rising star. The 2016 Republican nominee will be attacked for being insufficiently “cool” and attacked for being “not one of us.”

The Democrats are so conditioned by their success with these themes that they’re confident — probably way too confident — that they can convince the electorate that a 68-year-old former senator and secretary of state with a net worth of $200 million who has lived under Secret Service protection in Washington, D.C., for the past 25 years and who ranks as strikingly scripted, even by the standards of Washington politicians, whose recent book is either “a testament to caution and calculation” (Maureen Dowd) or “mush” (Mark Halperin) . . . is the “cool” one who is simultaneously “one of us.”

Thinking back to those Gallup poll numbers, the next Republican nominee will need to be someone who can restore an appropriate amount of public faith in American government. Thus, some tangible success in making government work the way it’s supposed to, perhaps at the state level, will be a major advantage. An ability to keep promises is a must; the spectacular failure of Barack Obama to live up to the astronomical hype of 2007–2008 means the public will probably be more wary of pledges to heal the sick and stop the oceans from rising.

The next Republican nominee needs to be not merely free from the whiffs of corruption all too commonly associated with rising in the hardball world of politics but ideally will have been someone who has actively fought against it. In this area, it is okay to be a “maverick” or to have made enemies within the party. What many politicians see as the routine compromises of the reality of governing — helping out a donor here, a back-slapping off-the-record meeting with bigwigs there — strikes a lot of Americans as organized systematic corruption.

Ideally, the Republican nominee will offer self-evident contradictions to the “uncool” and “not one of us” criticisms. “Cool” is always an intangible factor hard to measure and quantify, but in politicians, it helps to have a life outside of politics. Has this person been obsessed with his personal ambitions since adolescence? Did he ever do anything before entering politics? Does he play a musical instrument? Play a sport? Have the corny-embarrassing photos of himself in his younger years? Can the candidate laugh at himself? That’s a leading indicator of genuine confidence. Does the candidate laugh at all? Does his humor come naturally, or is it forced? When he talks, does he speak English or is it some version of bureaucrat-ese or candidate-ese that inevitably reverts to the prepared talking points?

As for being “one of us,” it is hard to overstate how vulnerable Americans feel right now. Any serious presidential candidate has probably spent at least the past decade living a materially comfortable life, with a nice home, secure income, many opportunities, considerable savings, and a standard of living exponentially better than that of the average American. (The lone candidate on a major-party ticket who lived anything resembling a middle-class lifestyle in recent years was Sarah Palin. She was savaged for the hastily purchased Neiman Marcus wardrobe, but that was perhaps the clearest indicator that Palin was like most other Americans.)

Odds are that the 2016 Republican presidential candidate hasn’t lain awake, too worried about paying the rent or the mortgage to sleep, in a long time. But has this person always lived with wealth? Has this potential president struggled earlier in life, and how? How did he overcome those tough times? How long did they last? How many years has he spent in the bubble that comes with being a major political figure, moving from a nice house to a staff-driven car with tinted windows to an air-conditioned office with staff awaiting him and wealthy people wanting favors, the weeks a blur of rapidly accumulating frequent-flyer miles, sitting in business class or private jets, shuttling to fundraisers with more wealthy donors?

We don’t know who this candidate is quite yet. But the qualities he or she will need to win are increasingly clear.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO and is the author of The Weed Agency.


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