Politics & Policy

2016: Who’s Out, Who’s In?

Rick Perry (Scott Olson/Getty)

Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, and Rick Perry are capable former governors with limited support who will (or should) soon withdraw. (Memo to Rick Perry’s $17 million Super PACs: Deploy the funds on targeted U.S. Senate races next year.) Governor Bobby Jindal is brainy but comes across as an esoteric policy wonk. Staying for the endgame will not help him win the vice-presidential nomination. Persistent Lindsey Graham is a colorful senator who has no chance. The media might even stop covering his attacks on Trump. Repeat candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are effective speakers and appealing personalities; both are born-again populists who appeal to working-class constituencies, but it’s still mostly religious conservatives who favor them, and many evangelicals are now leaning toward Ben Carson. The over-the-top jailing of clerk Kim Davis for not issuing a same-sex marriage license is appalling and will enhance Huckabee’s appeal — for a while. But even an Iowa win for Huckabee is uncertain, and if he did win there, it might not provide needed momentum.

Rand Paul showed early promise with new ideas and impressive outreach to the young and to non-whites, but he peaked at his announcement. His foreign-policy views often seem incoherent. Besides, his father Ron Paul has been sabotaging Rand’s campaign, blaming the Paris terrorist attack on French policy in Algeria six decades ago and urging the Iran nuclear deal. Look for Rand to continue attacking Trump as an unreconstructed crony capitalist. Eventually, Rand will run for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Other candidates could take lessons from Rand Paul on reaching way beyond the base.

Governor Scott Walker’s opening blunder — comparing union goons in Wisconsin to ISIS terrorists — has defined his campaign of rhetorical inelegance. He seems like a lightweight, with his frequent “big, bold agenda” sound bites and his repetitious “won three elections in four years in a blue state” political-action-committee jargon. Conservative stalwarts wanted an accomplished governor this time, but Walker, with an outstanding record, comes across as anemic and politically off. When the Supreme Court narrowly ruled against traditional marriage, he should have pivoted to the issue of religious freedom for bakers and florists under siege. Instead, he called for a nonsensical constitutional amendment to overturn the court’s decision. In this first debate, he departed from many of his pro-life colleagues and said he would prohibit abortion without an exemption for the life of the mother. He could be unelectable in a general election.

Jeb Bush announced as his own man but quickly called to his side the 84-year-old Jim Baker and other cronies from the administrations of his father and brother. He keeps reminding audiences of his love for them, as if he is in therapy. His campaign maintains that he is perennially misinterpreted, misconstrued, or taken out of context. He is decent, thoughtful, and intelligent, but the “Jeb!” logo suggests a personality cult that does not exist. Trump’s surgical attack on him as “no energy” was dispositive. Jeb needs a plausible makeover. Otherwise, his $100 million campaign war chest won’t matter. Ask California governor Meg Whitman.

#share#Now: Who’s in?

Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Mario Rubio, and Donald Trump remain more likely contenders.

We always wanted a brain surgeon as president, and Ben Carson is an outsider with character and class and intense support. But can he show mastery of policy? In the upcoming CNN debate, look for Carson to be more commanding on issues. Carson is in take-off mode. Will he seize the moment? Don’t be surprised by a defining Trump–Carson exchange.

A reformed bully who once chastised a little girl on climate change, Christie — in the Trump context — now is acceptable. He is a gifted polemicist. But as long as Bush and Kasich are in the race, can he define a base?

Intelligent, focused and anti-establishment, Cruz has staying power and money. After Trump, it’s harder to criticize him as confrontational. But can he soften his style and go beyond ideology?

The only woman and an underdog, Fiorina is relentless and eloquent. If Biden were the nominee, could she be more than the anti-Hillary? But Biden looks tired and dispirited. If damaged-goods Hillary is indeed headed for the nomination, Fiorina looks better for either spot on the ticket.

The politically incorrect Trump’s ceiling keeps rising. He adroitly uses props such as Jorge Ramos and more recently Hugh Hewitt. He milks every news cycle. Instead of paid ads, he uses Twitter videos. Eight years ago, Rudy Giuliani, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain each led the Republican field before disintegrating. Unlike them, Trump is not hurt by mistakes but viewed as more authentic. Further, he has superior political instincts and takes risks: His tax hike for unpopular, super-rich hedge-fund managers, for instance, will not alienate Republican voters but will reinforce his independence and populism. Early-leader Trump wants all candidates to stay as long as possible. He thrives on a big debate stage.

Conservatives are uncomfortable with Trump’s past and his temperament. He seems the least grounded of the candidates, and there is no way to predict with confidence what he would do as president. Now that Trump has pledged not to run as a third-party candidate, the RNC might maneuver quickly to change the delegate rules for various primary states from winner-take-all to proportional. Of course, if the RNC changed the rules, Trump might accuse them of being unfair — and then renege on his pledge. Who can predict what rules scenario will help which candidate? Obviously, if all the primaries were now, Trump would relish winner-take-all rules. In any case, a multi-ballot convention could produce a nominee who did not have a plurality of delegates or even a nominee who is not in the race: elder statesman Mitt Romney, Congressman Paul Ryan, or former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. Yet, in the Internet age, a brokered convention might not play well.

After George W. Bush’s performance in office, conservatives remain weary: Ohio’s Kasich must be more than another “compassionate conservative.” Kasich also must reassure alienated and skeptical movement conservatives who are uncomfortable with his supposedly irascible temperament and some of his policies. Without some big changes soon enough to be credible and durable, Kasich would not emerge from the Cleveland convention able to energize the base for the general election. He’s in it to win the nomination, as evidenced by his patient courtship of New Hampshire voters. Compared with Trump as a personality, Kasich seems bland and boring. But they all do by that yardstick. Compared with Trump’s long record of financially bedding down Democrats and favoring their policies, Kasich’s background is right-wing extremist. Fairly or not, conservatives will hold Kasich to a higher (if double) standard. Kasich can claim to be an accomplished budget hawk, a national-security expert of sorts, and an effective governor. But he needs to be more than politics-as-usual and take a few lessons from Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the outsiders.

#related#Florida’s Rubio shows the most promise and unrealized potential: He is a Spanish-speaking post-Millennial who is articulate and charismatic, but he often seems programmed, and he needs gravitas. Despite his tea-party roots, there is daylight between Rubio and movement conservatives. Against the has-been antiquarian Hillary, the energetic Rubio (age 44) would offer youthful contrast, in general; and on specifics, such as Uber, she allies with unions, while he sides with consumers. (Isn’t it ironic that the “shared economy” of Uber and Airbnb is not favored by Bernie Sanders, but by Rand Paul? So why are the Koch brothers preoccupied with the arcane Export-Import Bank?)

Rubio could pick an older vice-presidential nominee, perhaps a Cheney-Biden type. If stability ever returns to this electoral season, Republicans will consider the electoral votes of Florida and Ohio and probably fantasize about a Rubio-Kasich ticket or the more likely Kasich-Rubio ticket.

— Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst. He has written two classic graduate textbooks on campaigns and media.

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