In large part because of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge issue, there hasn’t been that much attention paid to some of the other 2016 contenders. Let’s take a look at how they are getting along in the process of presenting themselves as viable presidential candidates:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): He recently warned that Texas (among other places) might turn blue unless the GOP becomes more inclusive. But he lacks an agenda to do that and/or to convince regular Republicans he is serious about governing. Attacking the Clintons over 20-year-old philandering? (Karl Rove was right to slam that as cover for no agenda of Paul’s own.) That he’s anti-National Security Agency, anti-Iran sanctions and anti- Senate immigration reform (he was for the Senate bill before he voted against it) will go a long way toward convincing more Republicans he is, to be blunt, a flake. (He compares poorly, for example to the wonkish Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.)
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.): He was spared, it seems, a divisive fight on immigration, although the principles devised by the House are plainly his. There is nothing in there that ultimately would pose a problem with average primary voters. The next few months will be critical for him as he is expected to roll out a health-care plan, continue to talk about upward mobility and, perhaps, become more vocal on foreign policy. He is one of the few potential 2016 candidates who remains equally popular with mainstream and tea party/grass-roots conservatives.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: Jeb Bush has seemed to be the least interested of the potential heavy-weight candidates (he is turning down a Conservative Political Action Conference invite). Christie’s troubles, however, have revived talk, especially among donors and business-oriented conservatives, that he is one of the few potential candidates with executive experience, name recognition and a certain amount of star power (although right-wingers may disagree with that). He has a reform agenda and the ability to raise money. If Christie fades or decides not to run, watch the Bush stock climb.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): Unlike the other 2016 contenders, he has been focused on foreign policy. He has expressed a muscular view of foreign policy akin to the Reagan era and displayed a solid grasp of details. However, unlike Lee, he has yet to do this on the domestic side and retains the image among big donors, middle-of-the-road Republicans and tea party skeptics as a dangerous wild card. He’ll need to find some way to step away from the shutdown, which soured a chunk of the party on him, without turning off his fans.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): To some degree, he has been overshadowed on each front he’s tried to open up. On immigration, Ryan figured a way to get to the right of him but remain pro-reform. Lee has outdone him on domestic policy, and now Cruz is holding court on foreign policy. The sense pervades GOP insiders, elected officials and conservative media outlets that he hasn’t quite decided what sort of conservative he wants to be and where he is going to make his mark. Among GOP establishment figures great hope remains that as a telegenic Hispanic he would give the party a huge advantage in 2016. He will, however, need to first get his act together so as to project sufficient stability and gravitas.
Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.): The idea of Scott Walker has gained traction, but he is still a relative unknown to many in the party. Can he impress as a presidential candidate, or will he be outside his comfort zone? Can he run for reelection this year and simultaneously lay the groundwork for a national campaign? The jury is out, although plainly donors, insiders, activists and voters alike are almost rooting for him to pan out.
Now, let’s not forget Christie. His staff is still pumping out rebuttals to New York Times’ accounts, which, unfortunately, reminds conservatives that bridge flap is an ongoing burden. That said, he just had a record-setting month for fundraising for the Republican Governors Association. As the target of overly enthusiastic mainstream-media skewering, he’s finally got some street cred with the right. Moreover, in his speech on Tuesday in Chicago, Politico reported, he “returned to themes he favored on the campaign trail last year as he pursued crossover support from Democrats and independents. The themes, such as bipartisanship, could factor into his self-portrayal as a pragmatic and electable candidate if he runs for the White House in 2016.” The sanest take to date may have come from Bill Daley, President Obama’s former chief of staff, who reviewed his performance favorably: “I thought he did very well. Obviously it’s been a difficult six weeks. Look, now it’s out of his hands, control of it, and so it’s in other people’s hands.”
More than anything, the Christie bridge episode has frozen donors, operatives and activists. Will he survive or not? The wait-and-see mode may prove to be beneficial for the party and the winner. Some extra months to kick the tires of potential candidates will help the party weed out the unserious, unelectable and unfit. At least that’s the hope.