In the last few months we have seen a new notion of presidential politics arise in some quarters on the right. It stands in stark contrast to the way Republicans have treated presidential contenders.
In the last few decades it was thought that serious foreign policy experience (Dwight D. Eisenhower), mastery of policy (Richard Nixon) and executive expertise (George H.W. Bush) — especially gubernatorial credentials (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) — were ways of establishing what the press calls gravitas. It was the left that gravitated to and selected intellectuals (Adlai Stevens), anti-defense advocates (George McGovern) and novices who specialized in rhetoric (Barack Obama).
Republicans have generally thought of themselves, even in defeat, as the grown-up party. Whatever their political failings, both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney were serious and experienced men.
In 2016, it will be Democrats looking at the tried (if not always truthful) Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden (with decades in the Senate) and a couple of governors (New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley).
However, on the right, ironically from those who deplored Obama as a celebrity candidate and bemoaned that voters weren’t capable of sound political judgment, attention is given to a couple of terribly unserious candidates. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — who likens Edward Snowden to Martin Luther King Jr. and talks about containing a nuclear-armed Iran — is the McGovern of the right who will be hard-pressed to explain why we should trust him as commander in chief. Then there is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who, like Obama, has barely moved into his freshman office and so far is interested only in rhetoric, not in legislative accomplishment. One would have to believe that GOP voters are like Democratic voters to imagine they would entrust the nomination to such figures. But many pundits and activists take these two seriously.
If we learned anything from 2012, it was that Republicans may glance at oddballs but, unlike right-wing pundits, don’t think characters like Herman Cain can be president. They might date Newt Gingrich, but they don’t settle down with him.
It isn’t hard to separate the dates from the spouses in presidential primaries. There are 10 signs that tell voters this one is not the one:
1. The candidate votes no on everything.
2. The candidate becomes the victim of mainstream media.
3. The candidate is responsible for nothing and is not obliged to offer alternatives.
4. The candidate confuses talk with accomplishment and derides accomplishment as “selling out.”
5. The candidate considers legislative compromise and executive deal-making as sins.
6. The candidate can dish it out and make up some weird stuff but takes great offense when his own words are used against him.
7. The candidate denounces “business as usual” — but claiming to be the outsider and denouncing any compromise has been pretty much business as usual recently.
8. The candidate feigns intellectual sophistication but isn’t very adept at policy and misreads most of what the candidate cites as authority on a given subject.
9. The candidate considers actual people to be an afterthought; they take a back seat to abstract principles.
10. The candidate name calls but doesn’t make arguments on the merits.
Keep an eye out for such candidates. They won’t be hard to spot, but they won’t be the majority of contenders. Republicans have governors (Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and former Florida governor Jeb Bush), policy wonks (Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin), adept deal-makers and serious foreign-policy thinkers (Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire on both counts).
Perhaps the GOP has so lost its bearings that it will reject all the plausible candidates. That is what Democrats did in 1972. I think it’s unlikely, but hardly impossible. We’ll have to find out if Republicans decide to go that route in 2016.