Politics & Policy

Why I’m Already Grumpy about 2016

Rick Santorum speaks in Waukee, Ia., in April. (Scott Olson/Getty)

With this cycle’s plethora, at long last, of potentially strong Republican candidates for president, those of us on the right should be hopeful — right?

Sorry, but I’m in grump mode. On multiple fronts, I don’t like what I see. Granted, some of the frustrating developments are mere satellite issues, not central to the campaign’s ultimate result. Still, they rankle.

The Debates

Let’s start with the much-discussed decision by Fox News and the Republican National Committee to limit the first debate to the top ten competitors as ascertained via an average of recent polls. Limiting the participants to ten is not just a mistake; it’s asinine. RNC chairman Reince Priebus should be ashamed for embracing this set-up.

When the margin between candidates at the bottom is likely to be mere tenths of a percentage point, it’s crazy to let those polling averages determine participation. Or hasn’t anybody noticed that polls are increasingly unreliable? (See: victories by Netanyahu and Cameron.) And hasn’t anyone noticed that early poll results in presidential races tend to be evanescent? (See: Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain topped the polls in 2011, while Rick Santorum was an afterthought.)

When the margin between candidates at the bottom is likely to be mere tenths of a percentage point, it’s crazy to let those polling averages determine participation.

It will look not only bad but awful if the RNC is seen as endorsing a debate that excludes any of the following: 1) the man who won as many states, just four years ago, as any non-nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1976, and who was the third-ranking Republican in the whole Senate, and who won two statewide elections in a large leaning-blue state (Rick Santorum); 2) the only woman in the race, a former CEO of one of the nation’s top 20 companies (Carly Fiorina); 3) the son of Indian immigrants with, at age 43, an incredibly lengthy government résumé capped by two terms as a state governor (Bobby Jindal); 4) the three-term governor of the fourth-largest state in the union (George Pataki); 5) the former governor of another large swing state, Virginia, who also served as chairman of the RNC and as chairman of a key commission on terrorism that pretty much warned us that something like 9/11 was imminent (Jim Gilmore); 6) the current, two-term governor of what often is the key swing state in the union, Ohio — a man who, when serving as the Budget Committee chairman, helped craft the only balanced budgets in the past 50 years (John Kasich); and 7) the nearly four-term governor of the nation’s second-largest state (Rick Perry).

This is madness, and it’s a disservice to voters. As Jim Geraghty, Jay Cost, and Stuart Rothenberg also have argued, the field should be broken into two groups, selected randomly or semi-randomly, and they should have back-to-back debates on the same night. Otherwise, the first debate will be wholly illegitimate.

Rick Santorum

The level of pundit scorn for one of the most serious and successful politicians of our day continues to astonish — and to make fools of the pundit class, who refuse to learn the lesson of having hugely underestimated Santorum in 1990, 1992, 1994, 2000, and 2012. The floor manager for the most successful domestic-policy reform of the past 30 years (welfare reform); the legislative father of health savings accounts; the co-leader of the House group that made Democrats pay for ethics scandals in the early 1990s; the legislator who more than any other put partial-birth abortion on the national radar as an issue, one that changed the entire abortion debate in conservatives’ favor; the chief Senate sponsor of successful sanctions against Iran; the GOP-conference chairman who helped push judicial battles to the forefront and played an irreplaceable role in leading the GOP’s successful fights for key conservative jurists such as William Pryor, Janice Rogers Brown, and especially Samuel Alito: Why is Santorum not treated as a heavyweight, regardless of what the polls say?

RELATED: With a Heavy Dose of Economic Populism, Santorum Launches Second White House Bid

On the day of his announcement this week, I watched as every member of Fox’s The Five belittled him. On a Fox show later the same day, the usually thoughtful centrist Charles Lane dismissed Santorum’s nearly successful 2012 effort by saying he merely got “lucky.”

Really? More like terribly unlucky. First, Santorum completely outworked everybody else (hint: Santorum always outworks everybody else) to win Iowa, only to suffer a horribly costly three-week delay in having his win publicly recognized.

Second, that three-week delay may well have prevented his victory in South Carolina. It’s possible that Newt Gingrich’s win there, combined with a massive streak of Gingrichian stubbornness, kept Gingrich in the race long enough to have cost Santorum what otherwise would have been nomination-clinching victories in Michigan, Alaska, and especially Ohio. These three came even after Santorum had gone into Gingrich’s home territory in the South and defeated both the Georgian and Mitt Romney in all-out battles for Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Had Gingrich acknowledged defeat after failing to win in the South, Santorum surely would have been the nominee.

#related#Lucky? Santorum was absolutely blitzed, in a year when “winnability” was a key determinant of Republican voter attitudes, by a punditocracy that mindlessly repeated the fiction that stiff-Mitt Romney was the only “winnable” candidate. This, from the same pundits too clueless to see that Santorum had a chance to win a series of primaries and caucuses in the first place.

No matter how many times they are wrong, the pundits don’t get it: Santorum wins because he appeals to working-class and middle-class Americans, especially to those who identify with the underdog against “the man.” And he wins because, unlike most politicians, he is so palpably sincere, so without pretense, that his likability grows on voters over time.

Clearly, Santorum’s road this time will be a tough one. He’s been slandered so deeply and misrepresented so often that he now has a public-perception problem that he didn’t face when he was first introducing himself to primary voters four years ago.

Nonetheless, the pundits who discount him should instead discount their own judgment, based on their own sorry track record of analyzing his candidacy and those of other serious contenders in the past.

Bobby Jindal

The man who might end up being by far the best debater in the Republican field (if he is even allowed in the debates) also is the one making the most headway on what is emerging as the first truly new major issue a GOP campaign has seen in a long time: religious liberty. Sure, all the candidates are mouthing the right words on religious liberty. But nobody is doing it as well or as consistently, with as much focus, as Jindal. Polls, schmolls: Jindal remains a man to watch. He is a candidate with much to offer, but only if Priebus and Fox don’t shut him out.

Rand Paul

Why is this jackanapes even a Republican? Not content with prior accusations that Dick Cheney sent Americans to their deaths in Iraq just so his Halliburton buddies could profit from the war, or with saying that a “war caucus” in the Reagan years (uhh, that would include Reagan himself) was responsible for al-Qaeda because it “armed Bin Laden” (no it didn’t), along with a cornucopia of other nasty and hare-brained things, the Kentucky senator now says Republican hawks were responsible for “creating” ISIS.

Memo to Senator Paul: Just go away. Please. Now.

Senator, that’s another piece of calumny, and it’s 100 percent factually wrong. Republicans didn’t create ISIS. Fanatical Islamists created ISIS. It is also a fact that a Republican administration left Iraq in such a stable state (it was not perfectly stable, but stable enough) that Joe Biden tried to take credit for the stability as a great Obama success story. Obama’s policies ruined that stability, creating a vacuum in both Syria and Iraq that ISIS could fill. Which they did. But Paul wants to blame his fellow Republicans.

Memo to Senator Paul: Just go away. Please. Now.

The Arithmetic

Here’s the concern: With so many candidates in the race, candidates will probably “win” each primary and caucus with fairly small pluralities of the vote. On foreign and defense policy, Rand Paul is a crackpot, but there may be enough uninformed voters who fall for his crackpottery to give him, say, 18 percent of the vote in a series of key states. Well, 18 percent could be enough to come in first in a 16-way primary. Yikes.

#related#The same arithmetic helps Jeb Bush even though clear majorities of Republican voters say they don’t want him as the nominee. By virtue of his name recognition and his money, Bush will probably attract at least 15 percent of the vote everywhere he runs. If he adds just another 5 percent to that baseline, he’ll be close to first in every contest.

So, as an anti-Paulite and, for purposes of this race, an anti-Jebite, I obviously dislike the arithmetic that seems to favor Paul and Jeb.

Hence my full-on-grump mode. The only silver lining is that predictions this early in a presidential campaign are notoriously untrustworthy. So many unforeseen developments always occur — what former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld would call “unknown unknowns” — that even my worries are probably baseless.

So stay tuned. And find a candidate you like, and work for him. It’s the American way, even for grumps.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.

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