The punditocracy has a bias in favor of definitiveness. Talking heads on cable TV, bombarded by polling, are asked to pronounce on the 2016 candidates, as if the election were just around the corner. Candidate A is ahead. Candidate B doesn’t know enough about foreign policy. Candidate C can’t deliver a speech. Not only is it silly to pronounce anyone in the lead in a field of 20 potential candidates, months before the first votes are cast and when a plurality does not know whom it favors, but it is also foolhardy to assume candidates do not change — for better or worse over time.
On Sunday, Jeb Bush gave one of his better interviews to date. His answers generally were crisp and clear. On the Islamic State he agreed that the president has no clear strategy. He then continued:
BUSH: We need to make sure that Iraq is stable for the region and to create — narrowing the influence of ISIS not just in Iraq, but in Syria. So, it doesn’t appear that they have a strategy.
Then they put — every time that they talk about a strategy, they put conditions on that strategy to make it harder to actually implement it. So, I think the first thing you need to do is take advice of military leaders that know a lot about this than folks in the White House. Take their input. Create a strategy. Express what the strategy is.
And the strategy ought to be take out ISIS in coordinated way and do it over the long haul. This is not something that is going to happen overnight. . . . But it does require training of the Iraqi military. It requires garnering the support of the region. It requires the airpower that we have right now. It requires better intelligence. It requires special forces, for sure. The president is using that, and that’s a good thing. . . . But the simple fact is, if we can reengage with the government and with the military and train them and embed troops with them, and narrow the influence of the Shia militia and restore what existed when the president came into power, which was a fragile, but a secure Iraq, then we will be far better off than what we have today..
Likewise, on the National Security Agency metadata program Bush was emphatic. (“There’s no evidence, not a shred of evidence that the metadata program has violated anybody’s civil liberties. The first duty of our national government is to protect the homeland. And this has been an effective tool, along with many others. And the Patriot Act ought to be reauthorized as is.”) He was also unequivocal in his immigration stance. (“I’m for a path to legalized status, where people get a provisional work permit, where they pay taxes, pay a fine, learn English, don’t commit crimes, don’t receive federal government assistance, and where they earn legal status. They don’t earn citizenship. They don’t cut in line with people that have been patiently waiting on the outside. That seems to be a fair system. But those that are opposed to that or call that amnesty don’t have plan really to deal with the 11 million people that are here illegally.”) And he was more exacting in his criticism of the Clinton Foundation’s receipt of foreign monies, arguing that “at least, at a minimum, they should be fully disclosed, which was the agreement I thought she had between the government and the Clinton Foundation. It turns out that the rules don’t always apply consistently for the Clintons.” He also didn’t buy that Hillary Clinton was in the clear because of the absence of a quid pro quo. “Well, there’s the implication of it, for sure, if you read these articles. But they signed a deal with the administration. I will come in to the Department of State and I will make sure that my spouse will report any dealings he has with other countries and so will the foundation. And the net result was, they did some, but they didn’t do them all. And now you have this doubt. It’s inappropriate.”
But Bush is not the only potential candidate who has improved. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, appearing on Fox, was more poised, friendly and substantive than he was a few months or even weeks ago. He rattled off a list of domestic items:
We’ve got to push a big, bold, aggressive agenda when it comes to growth. It’s not just about austerity but really about growth, about understanding the people of this country create jobs, not the government. You know this president and people like Hillary Clinton, they tend to think you grow the economy by growing Washington. Last year six of the top 10 wealthiest counties in America were in or around Washington, D.C. I think we ought to grow the economy in cities and towns and villages all across the U.S. The way to do it is a lower tax burden, lower marginal tax rates, make American employers, job creators competitive again with a rate that’s competitive around the world so that more American jobs can come back from overseas. Repeal Obamacare and put patients back in charge again. Dramatically rein in regulations, sending many of those responsibilities back to the state and ultimately to the people. Using the abundance of all the energy supplies we have here in this country and on this continent and having a level playing field when it comes to trade globally. I think all of those things can get us from the stagnant growth we’ve been seeing in the last few months to a growth pattern I think is realistic to get us to four, almost 4.5% growth.
He’ll need more detail, of course, as the campaign goes on, but one does get a sense of his priorities and his inclination toward pro-growth policies. His biggest improvement, however, has certainly been on foreign policy. On Iran, he declared: “On day one, January 20th, 2017, I’d pull back from that faulty deal. I think it’s a big error. I’d be willing to negotiate with Iran, but on our terms, not on their terms.” He ticked off their regional trouble-making that must end if there is to be a deal: “I mean Iran has got their hands involved, whether it’s with the Houthis in Yemen or what we see in Syria or elsewhere around the world in terrorist or terrorist-related activities. They need to get out of that and they need to get rid of the intercontinental ballistic missiles, not only those targeted at Israel, but those potentially targeted at the United States. Those are the terms of our deal. And if they don’t, we need to pull back on that deal, put sanctions back in place from America, and encourage our allies around the world to do the same.” More so than his answers, his manner seems, well, more presidential.
And that is what we tend to forget at this stage in the race. These are candidates in the making. They will improve — or stumble. They will show command of the issues — or blunder. And they will communicate not only verbally but also in body language and tone whether they have the grit, steadiness and equanimity to go the distance.