November 22, 2013

Gov. Scott Walker is certainly raising his profile these days. Whether he intends to run for president, be considered for VP or simply enhance his stature in the Republican Party, his effort reflects the adeptness that brought him victory twice in a purple state. His op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal is revealing both of his potential campaign themes and of the label “conservative, ” which can now be defined any way a candidate pleases.

Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrates his reelection Nov. 5 in Asbury Park, N.J. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)
Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrates his reelection Nov. 5 in Asbury Park, N.J. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

He starts with the premise that “Republicans are being warned once again that they need to compromise their principles to win at the ballot box.” Nonsense, he says. Adhere to principled conservatism. (“The way Republicans can win those in the middle is not by abandoning their principles. To the contrary, the courage to stand on principle is what these voters respect.”)

That conservatism, however, is the same center-right, no-nonsense leadership every governor including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie puts forth. Walker writes:

What I have learned is that if you step forward and offer a reform agenda that is hopeful and optimistic, they may give you a shot. More important, if you deliver, they will stick with you. . . . Republicans focus on improving education, caring for the poor, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, reducing dependency, improving health care, and creating jobs and opportunity for the unemployed.

Republicans need to do more than simply say no to Mr. Obama and his party’s big-government agenda. They can offer Americans positive solutions for the nation’s challenges—to reduce dependency, and create hope, opportunity, and upward mobility for all citizens. They need to make not just the economic case for conservative reforms but the moral case as well—showing how conservative policies and ideas will make America not only a more prosperous society but a more just and fair one as well.

This gets to the crux of the matter: Aside from atmospherics and with the exception of Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) all the potential 2016 contenders — and some who aren’t, such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) — are saying generally the same thing. Other than Paul and Cruz, they stress governance. They want to improve government, not destroy it. They want to focus on conservative solutions to problems which Democrats have claimed as their own (e.g. education, health care). They instinctively lean toward free markets and oppose tax hikes, but do not reject the need for some government regulation. They do not want to destroy the safety net. They are largely pro-immigration and pro-life. They will battle public employee unions. They say same sex marriage is now an issue for the states.

Some caveats are in order. First, none of this is meant as criticism of Walker. To the contrary, labeling what you do successfully as “conservative” is part of necessary GOP “branding” on the national scene. It is perfectly honest in the case of Walker, who clubbed public-employee unions, backed school choice and refused to raise taxes. Second, there are some differences on the issues (e.g. Medicaid) among these center-right candidates, but they are few and not the top issues (e.g. taxes, job creation). Most of these are differences in degree or priority rather than substance — some of which is driven by political differences between states like Texas and New Jersey. Third, what separates governors and lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) from one another will be each man’s record, life experience, personality and campaign finesse.

Meanwhile, Paul and Cruz each claim to be the “real conservative.” That’s telling and disturbing. Their “conservatism” is the conservatism of anger, obstruction, radical shifts in  the role of government and, most clearly with Paul, abandonment of the Reagan foreign-policy vision that has dominated the GOP for several decades.

Conservatism is not — sorry, Sens. Paul and Cruz – measured by who can be the most obnoxious and harsh. Voters, I suspect, will realize that. If so, they are most likely to select from among the solid governors who have actual achievements; they’ll reject the proponents of the GOP’s biggest blunder in years and their antagonism toward government. The good news is that these governors are all center-right in their orientation and relatively practical in their politics. Perhaps, then, instead of trying to pick apart each other’s record for hints of political heresy, they’ll show why their record, character, rhetorical ability and judgment make them the ideal nominee.

This phenomenon also puts a high premium on campaign execution. Preparation for debates, a cohesive staff, a gaffe-free candidate, a sensible pathway to the nomination and a compelling ad campaign will be critical. So gentlemen, plan ahead. It may be the difference between losing and winning in 2016.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.