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Presidential Hopes and Hopefuls

by Ramesh Ponnuru

A look at the 2016 Republican field

The next Republican presidential nominee is already planning his campaign. If it is not too early for him to think about 2016, why should it be for the rest of us?

We don’t know, of course, what issues will be uppermost in the public mind that year, or what the economy will be like. Republicans can take comfort, though, in the fact that only twice in the last century has a two-term president been succeeded by someone else from the same party. They should also be encouraged that the leading Democratic contenders for 2016, at the moment, appear to be Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Only four times in American history has the public chosen a president more than five years older than his predecessor (Clinton is 14 years older than Obama, Biden 19). Since the Cold War ended, the younger candidate has won all four races that featured a contrast in age.

Conservatives who disdain the Republican establishment and want an ideological hero to topple it in the primaries should be less encouraged. Since 1984, the party nomination has always gone to someone in the center of the party or even to the left of its center, and never to someone on its right.

There are always several candidates vying to be the conservative insurgent, and they split the available vote. Sometimes that split pits social conservatives against economic conservatives, as in 1988, 1996, to a small extent 2000, and 2008. Sometimes the division is also religious, as in 1988 and 2008, when evangelical candidates tried to base their campaigns on their appeal to their coreligionists. The party establishment, meanwhile, typically picks its man early.

Some of the insurgent candidates, especially in recent seasons, have been novice politicians whom primary voters in the middle of the party — open in principle to either insurgents or the party establishment — cannot see as plausible presidents. The establishment-oriented candidates always pass that test. Those candidates are also willing to do whatever it takes to co-opt enough conservative activists to win. The establishment candidates thus win the party’s presidential nominations while the activists set its direction.

Many conservatives would be excited to see Rand Paul, Ted Cruz (an old friend of mine), Rick Santorum, or Rick Perry run next time, and other conservative favorites such as former congressman Allen West have expressed interest in running. It is easier to see several such candidates getting in one another’s way than it is to see any of them unifying the right end of the party and carrying the nomination. Even if they lose, however, these campaigns could have an impact on the nominee’s platform and message. Rand Paul might move the party further in his anti-interventionist direction in foreign policy; Santorum might affect how it handles same-sex marriage now that public opinion has turned in its favor.

Paul Ryan might in theory have appeal throughout the party. Conservative scribblers, including this one, hold him in high regard. Yet it seems implausible that Republicans will nominate someone who has never held executive office nor won a statewide election. Nor has he shown as much visible interest in running as other potential candidates. It may be that he is looking forward to passing a conservative tax reform as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee rather than being the person to sign that reform into law.

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, is another candidate who could have wide appeal. He has been a successful reformer in a state that badly needed one. His competence and intelligence are unquestioned, as is his conservatism. His Indian ancestry should be a plus in a party that wants to shake off a whites-only image. But a Republican legislature forced Jindal to abandon his tax-reform plan earlier this year, and his poll numbers inside his state are quite weak. He will have to recover fast to make a credible run.

If Marco Rubio is planning to seek the presidency in 2016, he is doing it in an unusual way. In office he has allied with the most conservative elements of the party on almost every issue — but has split with the base on one important issue, immigration. His boosters say that this issue will not doom his campaign, noting that John McCain won the nomination in 2008 even though conservative activists had vocally opposed him on immigration in 2006 and 2007. The difference is that McCain’s overall record was well to the left of Rubio’s, giving him a base of support among moderate Republicans. Rubio could — repeat: could — end up in a no-man’s-land, too far right to win those voters who identify as “moderately conservative” but too heterodox to win those who consider themselves “very conservative.”

Another interesting question a possible Rubio candidacy raises is whether there is enough room in the primaries for both him and Jeb Bush. The answer, given their overlapping bases of support and positions, is probably no. My guess is that Rubio is the more likely to run, but Bush — given his built-in advantages in the race to become the establishment candidate — might be the more formidable contender.

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is being mentioned as a dark horse so frequently that he is rapidly ceasing to be one. The case for Walker bears some resemblance to the case for Tim Pawlenty, then the governor of Minnesota, four years ago. Like Pawlenty, Walker is a northern evangelical and a successful governor of a blue state in a region of the country Republicans lust after. He has a great advantage over Pawlenty, though, in that the political battles in his state attracted national attention.

Opinions differ on why Pawlenty fizzled out early, with a popular explanation being the catch-all of “lack of charisma.” It may also be, though, that there was no room in the primaries for a candidate just one notch to the front-runner’s right. Pawlenty couldn’t compete with Mitt Romney for establishment support and couldn’t compete with Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the rest for the hearts of conservatives. Walker may suffer a similar problem. Support for taxing Internet sales is not the type of position that would sink a front-runner, but it is the type of position that could make it harder for a would-be challenger to the front-runner.

If Walker were to become a leading contender, the man he would presumably be trying to beat is Chris Christie. By 2016, Republicans might be as desperate to win the White House as Republicans were in 2000 or Democrats in 1992, and thus be willing to put up with ideological deviations. Christie’s deviations have been numerous enough to win him a reputation as a moderate. Yet neither individually nor in aggregate do they seem likely to be as troublesome in the primaries as those of the last two nominees were. McCain had tangled with conservatives on taxes, global warming, immigration, and many other issues. Romney was out of step with the party on health care, the top domestic-policy issue of the Obama years, and also had a moderate history on abortion, guns, and other issues. Nothing Christie has done seems comparable, and he has a draw those two men lacked, namely his rhetorical combativeness toward liberals. (This is also something that sets him apart from other would-be establishment candidates, such as Ohio governor John Kasich.)

He may also look like a winner. Unlike Romney, he did not just get elected in a deep-blue state; he is running for reelection, and appears very likely to win. If he racks up a convincing margin in one of the two big races of 2013 — and even more if Republicans lose the other race, that for governor of Virginia — he will seem like the answer to many Republicans’ prayers. And he will end the year in a stronger position than McCain ended 2005 or Romney ended 2009.

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