It is a painful truism that there are no perfect candidates. Looking ahead to 2016 the Republicans may field one of the strongest crop of presidential contenders since 1980 (when Ronald Reagan beat out Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, former CIA and Republican National Committee chief George H.W. Bush, Sen. Bob Dole and Texas Gov. John Connolly, to name a few). That said, they all have strengths and weaknesses. Let’s start with the governors, whom I list in order of likeliness to win the nomination:
Gov. Chris Christie: He has a dynamic presence and a record with wide appeal. His fighting spirit and unwillingness to tolerate fools appeal to frustrated voters. However, the far right party base, for reasons not altogether clear, has decided he isn’t conservative or isn’t conservative enough. More important, he tends to favor rhetoric about process (bipartisanship), which can feed the far right’s nervousness about his conservative bona fides. He will also have to show his softer, post-Hurricane Sandy persona to dispel the “bully” tag opponents have affixed to him.
Gov. Scott Walker: He may be one of the few candidates (along with a fellow Wisconsinite) who appeals to all segments of the party. His speaking skills and interview performances have been impressive. And he has a record of reform and victories over Big Labor. That said, he lacks the super-charged personality of many contenders, a presidential-level staff and a national fundraising network.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry: He has military experience and has shown toughness and knowledge about foreign policy, unlike the other governors. He has an enviable record in Texas and a first-class finance base. The downside, of course, is the memory of his 2012 run and the sense the party must expand its appeal outside of red states. He is also pro-immigration reform, which I consider a plus, but many conservatives do not.
Former governor Jeb Bush: He has an impressive record from a critical swing state and can articulate conservative policies in appealing, understandable ways. On the other hand, being out of political combat for years may have left him less enthusiastic about running and less nimble in responding to the Twitter universe. As with Perry, he is also pro-immigration reform, which many conservatives consider a disqualifier.
The governors all will be able to tout executive experience following a period of egregious incompetence under President Obama, and none need explain votes on the shutdown, budget deals and the rest. They can run as outsiders, an enviable place to be in an era of deep skepticism about Washington, D.C.
Then there are the lawmakers, who will have to overcome their lack of executive experience and voting records that inevitably will have rubbed segments of the party the wrong way. Again, the list goes from most to least viable in the nominating contest:
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.): He’s got the policy wonkery, the agenda, the media chops and the fundraising network, plus the respect of most of his party. His experience running on a presidential ticket should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, he wasn’t able to win his own state in 2012 and was, at times, stiff on the stump and a bit too cerebral. He may be the best qualified candidate not to run, if he opts for a congressional career track.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): He’s a dynamic young Hispanic from a swing state with a compelling vision of America. Still, 2013 was a horrid year for him as he antagonized the far right on immigration reform and annoyed moderates with grandstanding on the shutdown and the recent budget deal. His rhetoric may be too internationalist for the libertarian wing, while his voting record on Syria and the budget (which gives the Pentagon sequester relief) has raised the ire of hawks. In 2013 he did not show gravitas or maturity.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): He has won the heart of the far right and has not caught the worst of the isolationist fever. However, his appeal to the far right may turn off everyone else in the party (as well as those he would need to win in the general election) and raise questions about his ability to get anything done. For now he lacks an affirmative agenda and evidence he can work with others. Most crippling may be his leadership of the party’s worst misstep in 2013, the shutdown.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): Like Cruz, many in the base swoon for him, but unlike Cruz, he has not become a “doesn’t work well with others” senator. His positions on drug legalization and gay marriage are more in tune with young and independent voters. He has at least attempted to reach out to minority voters. Then there are the drawbacks: No accomplishments, testiness with the media and critics, episodes of poor judgment (e.g. hiring the Southern Avenger, plagiarizing speeches) and an extreme view of government and embrace of isolationism that sit poorly with large segments of the party.
The remaining candidates are long-shots to be sure, but their presence in the race may cause problems for one or more of the other candidates:
Former governor Mike Huckabee: His wit, jovial personality and populist appeal make him the happiest of warriors among the 2016 aspirants. Nevertheless, in 2008 he was never able to get a foothold outside the evangelical community. He lacks a fundraising network.
Former senator Rick Santorum: He has experience from 2012 and a mature view of national security as well as a working-class message that combines economic growth with social values. He won plaudits from evangelicals and could win Iowa again. On the other hand, his radical social views and insistence on talking about them doomed his candidacy last time. His persona runs against the party’s efforts to focus on bread-and-butter issues and expand the party’s appeal.