In what is sure to set off a flurry of speculation and tea-leaf reading, Mitt Romney is inviting “some of his biggest donors — and two potential White House hopefuls — in June in Park City while also helping boost a venture capital fund founded by his son, ” the Salt Lake Tribune reports. Those two prospective 2016 candidates are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). What to make of this?
As a preliminary matter, Republicans generally voiced great respect for the Romney campaign fundraising machine. One GOP insider cracked to me during the race that Romney’s effort was a great fundraising operation, with a campaign attached. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Romney team on policy or message, his fundraisers were impressive. Getting a chance to impress them is no small thing.
However, before this gets blown up into “Romney picking his successor,” let’s remember a few things. Christie is running a gubernatorial race, and though ahead by 30 or more points, he can always use some helpful money men to raise cash for ads in a very expensive state (which necessitates ad buys in both the New York and Philadelphia markets). In addition, there is, as we saw in 2012, tons of cash sloshing around on the right, so these particular fundraisers don’t make or break a campaign, nor is it clear they will all move in tandem. And finally, neither of these candidates or any other one wants to be seen as “Romney’s pick” or the “insider candidate.” Both labels will come with a ton of baggage.
Prospective candidates for 2016 won’t be announcing any run for a couple years or more, almost certainly not until the 2014 midterms are over. So now is merely the time for building relations and making sure both donors and grassroots groups don’t forget you. But I would suggest there is something more important for the 2016 field to be doing: coming up with a compelling vision and a complete agenda.
A campaign is no time for deep thinking and measured analysis. The best ideas get picked apart by cautious political hacks and don’t get a full airing with the media. To solve this, candidates would be well advised to do some policy work in advance that will be impressive to donors later on and, more important, provide a fully developed rationale for their candidacy.
In particular, they would be well advised to come up with a foreign policy that they think is responsible but differentiates them either from President Obama’s lead-from-behind or from the caricature President George Bush (i.e. hyper-interventionist). They will need to appear credible as a potential commander in chief. That requires getting mature expert advice (if they don’t already have some) and doing some travel. It is noteworthy that conservative foreign policy wonk Jamie Fly went onto Sen. Marco Rubio’s staff this year, while national security pundit Dan Senor remains close to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)
In addition, it will be critical to come up with a specific alternative to Obamacare. By 2016 Obamacare’s implementation will either be stalled or have created a slew of consequences that greatly differ from the basis on which it was sold to the public. (The cost spiral that will price out many middle-class families is one of these.) I do not think any Republican presidential candidate can be taken seriously in calling for Obamacare’s repeal without a compelling alternative. Candidates thinking about 2016 (and those who aren’t but are in key positions in the House and Senate) should begin now with a plan that deals with preexisting conditions, affordability and portability and avoids the noxious parts of Obamacare (e.g. the expansion of fraud-ridden Medicaid, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, the medical device tax).
In sum, candidates can certainly do some dog-and-pony shows with well-known investors. But more important than that is to establish an identity separate from the last couple of GOP nominees and common-sense positions on foreign and domestic policy. The smartest candidates won’t be spending all their time in the next year or so buttering up donors; instead they’ll be putting together teams of advisers and getting help putting together a presidential-level agenda.