If you are a Republican 2016 presidential aspirant, it is not a good idea to be in the House or Senate. In 2013 and the years to follow, there will be a series of distasteful votes on a series of fiscal showdowns (e.g., the “fiscal cliff,” the debt ceiling). These take a familiar pattern for conservatives: The hard right stakes out an all-or-nothing position, views any compromise as betrayal and refuses to support any final deal, no matter what the merits or the alternative.
In the case of House budget bills, the Republicans at least are masters of their own proposals, thanks to House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). As we saw in 2012, staking out a conservative, defensible position on taxes, the debt and entitlement is not a political death sentence. Nevertheless, it can set one up for attacks from the right and in the general election from Democrats.
In the Senate, matters are even worse. The temptation to talk tough and take no responsibility for anything is great. The opportunities to shine and succeed in furthering the conservative agenda are slight. You wind up being a speechifier like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or toiling on foreign policy like Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) or being a professional crank like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Otherwise, you blend into the background, however affable and capable you may be. (e.g., Sen. John Thune) [R-S.D.]).
Until President Obama, who barely touched down in the Senate long enough to mount his presidential campaign, it was a truism that senators (not to mention representatives) were unlikely to make it to the White House. That is even more true in an era of gridlock and constant confrontation.
This is not lost on the 2016 potential candidates outside Washington. For governors (e.g., New Jersey’s Chris Christie), ex-governors (e.g., Jeb Bush) and soon to be ex-governors (e.g., Virginia’s Bob McDonnell), there is no burden to cast necessary but disagreeable votes on the lesser evil of several bills. Not only do they enjoy the visibility of a state’s chief executive or a record of past achievement, but they can separate themselves from the dismal GOP brand. Christie is his own brand. So is Bush.
The challenge for those outside-the-Beltway 2016 contenders is to lead by example, refraining from becoming pundits who spend time bashing their fellow Republicans (not to mention the president and Democratic lawmakers). It requires a measure of self-discipline and a willingness to avoid the national media spotlight (that will burn contenders before they get close to declaring their candidacy). To govern well and quietly, biding one’s time for a year or so, is not always easy. It will, however, be the best avenue for those eyeing a presidential run in 2016. We’ll see who can pull it off.