The bridge scandal involving Gov. Chris Christie raises more than a few questions about the GOP 2016 presidential race.
For starters, it is a unmistakable reminder that polls years before the first primary are absurd. They tell us about the current mood of voters, but they are not predictive in the least of a contest years into the future. Whoever falters or loses interest (or decides there are election cycles in the years ahead that better suit them) will not run or will quickly fade. That will affect who does get in. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are not likely to compete against one another, for example. Christie’s difficulties may boost Walker, former governor Jeb Bush and previously uninterested candidates such as former congressman and now Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. For now, then, forget about handicapping.
The more interesting consideration is whether the GOP will need a charismatic personality (Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, etc.) to beat Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, or whether the GOP can do without a Republican version of Barack Obama. A winning presidential candidate has to be likable, relatable in some fashion, to be sure. Voters have to feel he or she “cares about people like them” (the exit poll question on which Mitt Romney got slaughtered). Voters want to respect their president. There are, however, many personality types and attributes that can succeed — from “1950’s dad” Ronald Reagan to folksy George W. Bush to “historic” Barack Obama. A successful presidential contender must be a character (interesting, engaging) and have character (be honest and/or otherwise admirable).
Some pols never get over the first hurdle (e.g. Tim Pawlenty) and some falter at the second (e.g. Newt Gingrich). Rectitude cannot mean boring or aloof, and only in rare circumstances (Bill Clinton) can a personality so engage or the symbolism of a candidate (Obama) be so great that the public forgoes vetting for defects in experience or ethics.
The GOP, to its detriment, tends to underestimate these personal factors in favor of ideological litmus tests. But in between personality and ideology (how conservative is he?) is the message. Especially with no incumbent president on the ballot, the parties get the chance to define and redefine themselves. And that is where, I’d suggest, Republicans focus for now. The swirl of conservative crosscurrents and debates about good governance, immigration and poverty are therefore critical.
Is the GOP the party of fend-for-yourself libertarianism? Of nativism? Of upward mobility? I’d suggest that the clichés about small government and unconstrained free markets don’t make much policy sense these days and, more important, they have zero selling power beyond a narrow strain of pundits, activists and ideologues. (In the same way opposition to immigration reform is poor economic policy and a political death sentence in a country becoming more ethnically and racially diverse with each election.)
Hard-line conservatives like to drag out the straw man (like Obama) when confronted with a series challenge. Right-wingers will say the choice is between their anti-government conservatism and liberalism. This is factually wrong and self-defeating. It is wrong because a legion of reformers trying to recalibrate conservative values in 21st century America (Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Eric Cantor, Rep. Paul Ryan, AEI President Arthur Brooks) are anything but liberal. They don’t believe in Keynesian economics, equality of results, gun control, racial quotas, an invasive government that picks winners and losers, high tax rates, regulatory burdens designed to make energy costly or abortion on demand. That is not what they are about.
It is also self-defeating because the candidates who are most successful in the statewide races (governors and senators) understand that the center-right, the electoral majority needed to put Republicans in office, is not hostile to government per se. Most voters don’t think about government per se the way pundits do. They think of the ends which good governance can promote — better schools, affordable and accessible health care, an intact safety net, a country safe from terrorists. The Republican who comes along and says, “Freedom! Small government!” doesn’t connect — doesn’t even compute — with these voters. Republicans need to explain why voters will get a better deal with them and how Republicans will approach domestic and international concerns.
Conservative reforms must address the voters’ basic concerns, but not by mimicking the left. The should seek to decentralize and privatize where possible (e.g. flexibility in health care for the poor); reform where necessary (to preserve entitlements, improve public education); and help grease the skids where it can so individuals, families and communities attain the American dream (modest taxes, a safety net for hard times, a flexible labor market.) Why these approaches? Because they work.
In 2014 and then again in 2016 it will matter more what the GOP decides to be and less about finding the one perfect candidate with the magic key to win over the electorate. Charm, passion and conservative purity are, frankly of lesser value and may even be counterproductive if these traits subsume more important considerations. If the GOP House and Senate candidates this year project a serious, constructive tone and advance an attractive center-right agenda, the table will be set for 2016, making the public receptive to a conservative message and giving candidates intellectual ballast to help keep an even keel when navigating choppy political waters. Republicans will not win without a conservative message fit for the times in which we live.