Once the 2014 midterms are behind us — the very next day, most likely — the 2016 presidential race will take off. By the end of the year, we are likely to know, for example, if former Florida governor Jeb Bush is running. We’ll see which GOP governors won their reelection bids convincingly and are ready to pivot to the national stage. And candidates who have steered clear of the pre-primary limelight (e.g. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Paul Ryan) will need to decide if they’ll continue along their career paths (conservative media or the House Ways and Means chairmanship, respectively). But it would be a mistake to ignore what has already occurred or to disregard some key lessons for presidential aspirants.
Persistence matters: Texas Gov. Rick Perry has doggedly stuck with his comeback effort and is no longer a punch line in GOP circles. By demonstrating a solid grasp of foreign policy and leadership on immigration, he’s shown he’s a legitimate contender. Likewise, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has soldiered on since the bridge scandal broke. He is a diminished figure but still a plausible candidate.
Conventional wisdom is conventional but usually wrong: The GOP has gone isolationist. The GOP will never stand for another Bush. The tea party dominates the GOP. Wrong, wrong and wrong. It’s now Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who is the odd man out on national security and trying to migrate from (or conceal) his libertarian isolationism. President Obama’s national security train wreck put a premium on candidates with a muscular foreign policy outlook. Jeb Bush is near the top of the presidential polls and is a favorite among donors. His positions on immigration reform (legalization but not citizenship) are mainstream conservative views. And his brother’s reputation has rebounded. Meanwhile, the tea party is being drubbed again and again, having peaked and then collapsed with the ill-advised government shutdown — led by two senators who now seek the presidency not as heroes of the right but as freshmen hotheads.
The dark horse isn’t Gov. Scott Walker: Right now Walker is in the reelection fight of his life, and not only because he has a capable and well-funded opponent in Mary Burke. His staff, widely seen in GOP circles as less than top-rate, has not served him well, and he lacks a vision for his state. He might still win, but a blowout is highly unlikely and he seems less like a presidential candidate than a feisty-but-embattled Midwest governor. In any event, he’s had no time to lay the groundwork for a 2016 race. Now it is Govs. Mike Pence (Ind.) and Rick Perry who have moved into the “Don’t forget about. . . ” category.
The GOP will not need a superstar to beat Hillary Clinton: Clinton now seems handicapped, if not hobbled, by her role in the Obama foreign policy debacle and by her own political ham-handedness. She will have a solid base of supporters and unlimited funds, but her faults now loom large. Her greed and chumminess with corporate America are real problems. Her ideas, to the extent she has them, are tired and musty. If she runs, her opponent will need to be able to dissect her foreign policy spin, but one can readily see that a down-to-earth and competent Republican, not necessarily a charismatic superstar, can beat her — particularly if the Obama presidency continues its meltdown.
The GOP has an opening and a message. Obama has done wonders for discrediting the liberal welfare state and a McGovernite foreign policy. Meanwhile, a crew of reform-minded Republicans has shown that the 1980s agenda (cut taxes, cut spending) is no longer sufficient or all that relevant to voters today. A wide array of innovative ideas on education, health care, entitlements, job creation and poverty have the makings of an attractive center-right agenda. GOP governors, who likely will be well represented in the 2016 field, can boast of their own reform successes. An anti-government message touted by tea party types has not found resonance with the public, while a newer and more sound version of conservative governance has arrived. Now it needs the right messenger.