Among conservatives there are two competing theories for the 2016 presidential race. Both assume Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

The first envisions Clinton as a political colossus. She has 100 percent name recognition and star quality. She will have a glide path to the Democratic nomination. The press will be rooting for her and another “historic” nominee. The media are uninterested in exploring her failures at the State Department and, in any case, she is expert in fending off queries. Bill Clinton has become a somewhat beloved figure and will be there to campaign and fundraise. So that theory goes.

In the other, Clinton is the perfect opponent for the GOP. She is the past; the GOP nominee will be the future. She will carry the burden of the Obama administration’s failures, both domestic and foreign. The idea of Clinton as a presidential candidate has always been much more than the reality. She’ll be 69 in 2016, a shopworn politician who will have been on the political stage for  a quarter century. Throw in the fact that the left has never loved her and she may turn out to be a weaker than average Democratic nominee.

Putting aside which version is correct, the “strong Clinton” and “weak Clinton” scenarios affect how many Republicans assess their own presidential contenders. If she is the political superstar, many Republicans figure they will need their own big personality. (To a degree Democrats have bought into this as well; hence their determination to knock out New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.) However, if she is a stale candidate with considerable problems of her own, then the GOP needs a good candidate, a solid figure and a likable nominee — but better to let Clinton be the subject of attention/scrutiny and make the race about President Obama’s “third term,” which sends shivers down the spine of many Americans. For them, even a less than scintillating governor can be a winner; just don’t screw it up by choosing an extremist or someone with significant flaws of his or her own.

This is a version of the Jewish joke — a rabbi hears two conflicting arguments and tells them they are both right. “But we can’t both be right,” says one. The rabbi: “You’re right!”

In the case of the 2016 portrait, Democrats and Republicans alike over-estimate Clinton’s appeal and the desire for continuity in the White House. The last five years have been rocky and may get worse; there will be a palpable desire for something new (regardless of ideology). That said, Republicans made the mistake in 2012 of assuming that simply running against Obama’s economy would be enough. It wasn’t. Voters needed a more compelling alternative and a messenger with whom they could relate.

That alternative GOP vision can’t be too far to the right (e.g. Barry Goldwater) or too vague (George H.W. Bush in 1992). Given the lingering impression that the GOP is the party of old white guys who don’t care about average folk, they will — to the chagrin of the far right — need to present, if not a “compassionate conservative,” at least one with an agenda aimed squarely at working- and middle-class Americans. If you eliminate the high-risk candidates, the extremists, the unqualified and the obnoxious, that leaves a half a dozen or so viable Republicans who can win the nomination and beat Clinton. That means there is no “must-have” nominee (e.g. Christie), but neither is there a nominee with a lot of baggage or obvious faults who will be able to get to the White House  (e.g. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)). That leaves Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush and a bunch of successful current GOP governors. And as Christie is finding out the hard way, those who aren’t yet on the MSM radar screen may have the luxury of quiet preparation and the ability to introduce themselves to the voters (rather than let the vast left-wing conspiracy do it). They should make good use of their time.

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