A conservative journalist whom I respect commented in all seriousness that in another three months New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) would be toast with the GOP base and out of the running for president in 2016. Oh my.
Let’s try to come up with some common-sense guidelines for conservatives in evaluating Republican officeholders and in staying politically sober for the next three years or so before 2016’s election cycle really gets underway. Here are five:
1. Virtually nothing that happens in the next year or so will affect anyone’s prospects for 2016. What Washington insiders consider non-starters for a potential GOP contender (e.g. Romneycare) often isn’t. Moreover, no one outside the political junkie class is focused on 2016. When they do, 2013 will seem like ancient history.
2. None of these guys is perfect. Christie hugged President Obama and chewed out the speaker of the House unfairly? Well, Jeb Bush is a Bush. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is too wonkish for some. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn’t have a commanding presence. In other words, there are no perfect candidates. Some will improve, but in any event politics is graded on a curve.
3. Let them do their jobs and grade them on it. Too often, conservatives jump to the conclusion that criticizing a prominent senator, governor or congressman is akin to writing him or her off in 2016 while praising them is a virtual endorsement. Nonsense. Smart conservative policy, effective rhetoric and impressive strategy should be cheered because they are smart conservative policy, effective rhetoric and impressive strategy — and hence examples to be followed.
4. Leadership involves changing the dynamic and pulling others away from the pack. When Ryan voted for the “fiscal cliff” deal, he exhibited some practical common sense. When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed raising the sales tax in exchange for zeroing out the gas tax, he exhibited some flexible policymaking. When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spoke out in favor of immigration reform, he grabbed the political class (at least for the moment) by the scruff of the neck. In short, being safe and conforming to conservative orthodoxy on every issue every time is not a formula for success. Excessive caution has been the death knell of many a presidential aspirant.
5. Not every vote is the end all and be all; some are more important than others. Certainly there are big moments that will help define a political career (e.g. how a governor handles a natural disaster, a lawmaker’s decision on war authorization, a vote on Obamacare). But the problem of the plethora of outside groups “scoring” so many votes is that it gives the impression that a vote on, say, a Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation is the same as a vote, for example, on the first installment of Hurricane Sandy relief. The ability to distinguish between the truly important and the transitory issue of the moment is critical for pols and voters alike.
All of these, I suppose, can be boiled down to a single word of advice: Chill. It’s a long time until the next presidential election and there are more important things to focus on (e.g. what is the strategy for the debt ceiling) in the near term.