The last polls from The Post/ABC and Fox News confirm that there really is no leader in the pre-primary jostling for the 2016 presidential nomination. Among Republicans, according to the Fox poll, nearly one-third don’t think five candidates (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz) would make a good president. None gets more than 50 percent. Likewise, when The Post/ABC News poll asked whom they would consider voting for and whom they definitely wouldn’t vote for, Jeb Bush (who may well not run) would be considered by over 61 percent while most other contenders weighed in under 50 percent. Many like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are barely known nationally within his own party.
That suggests that while political junkies have fixed views of the contenders, most Republicans don’t. There’s a great opportunity to introduce or reintroduce candidates to the voters. That process goes on in gatherings like CPAC, in free media and, especially for those on the ballot in 2014, in the retail political settings they will need to master on a much larger scale. But even there, only a small segment of the country is tuned in.
One does, however, get the sense of who has potential and who has a message that will resonate among primary voters. Here at CPAC several of the contenders played to type. Cruz was flawless in his delivery and roamed the stage with no script.
His message was a mix of straw men — those in the party who only want to fiddle with Obamacare and those like him who want to get rid of it, those who stand for “nothing” and those like him that stand for principle — but his list of policy positions was drearily familiar boilerplate (get rid of Obamacare, a flat tax, school choice, term limits, a balanced budget and even audit the Fed –a play for the Paulite voters, no doubt). He vaguely referred to the shutdown, still claiming the high ground because “people said” Obamacare couldn’t be ended. (Umm, they were right, weren’t they?) He did however raise Ukraine and Israel as part of his indictment of the administration’s record. His showmanship was greeted enthusiastically, although the message was anything but new.
At the other end of the rhetorical scale Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered in sober and quiet terms his optimism that the party’s differences are largely tactical, that the left is exhausted and that big government has been discredited. He listed the policy ideas and accomplishments — of other Republicans. “The way I see it, let the other side be the party of personalities. We’ll be the party of ideas, ” he said. “And I’m optimistic about our chances—because the Left? The Left isn’t just out of ideas. It’s out of touch. Take Obamacare. We now know that this law will discourage millions of people from working. And the Left thinks this is a good thing. They say, ‘Hey, this is a new freedom—the freedom not to work.’ But I don’t think the problem is too many people are working—I think the problem is not enough people can find work. And if people leave the workforce, our economy will shrink—there will be less opportunity, not more. So the Left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach—and an empty soul. The American people want more than that.” It was philosophical and policy-centric — and decidedly unlike a presidential stump speech.
And then there are the wildcards. Former United States Ambassador John Bolton delivered a pugnacious speech in defense of American power. “The biggest national security crisis is Barack Obama.” His message — “We must make the world safe for ourselves” – was posed as a contrast to Obama, but implicitly also against the more expansive policy of democracy proposition championed by President He boldly called out isolationists within his own party and called for conservatives not to ignore national security. He showed some rhetorical flare, bringing the crowd to its feet on the indictment of Hillary Clinton. (” We know what difference it makes!”) And perhaps most important he tied her to the president – the “Obama-Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden” foreign policy.
If ever there was a wide-open field with a range of rhetorical styles. However, for all the strains and stresses there are fewer deep policy conflicts than ever before. Even on foreign policy Obama has pulled the GOP together. Bolton’s message was well-received, but might not have been before Putin invaded Ukraine and the Iran threat was magnified by the P5+1 deal. This will put a high premium in 2016 on campaign skill, organization and ground game. But it also may favor freshness — something those who have their stump speech already down pat.”