Few veterans of presidential political campaigns think Donald Trump or Ben Carson will be president. The latter is a nice man, but far from a credible commander in chief. The former occupies a niche in American politics reserved for demagogues.
David Adesnik of the Foreign Policy Initiative says it hearkens back to Pat Buchanan. “Pat Buchanan broke new ground in the 1990s with his strange brew of nativism, protectionism, and isolationism (not to mention anti-Semitism),” Adesnik tells Right Turn. “What nativism, protectionism, and isolationism have in common is hostility toward something perceived as foreign.” Throw in some conspiracy mongering and you have a character perfectly unsuited to the presidency. Adesnik notes, “The original World War I-era isolationists were obsessed with the idea that arms merchants manipulated the world’s governments. Ron Paul picked up the same paranoia about the military-industrial complex, while adding the U.N. to his list of secret manipulators.” And Trump thinks Mexico is sending its criminals to America.
What is missing so far on the GOP side is a presidential-level grownup who can seize the race, reject Trumpism and offer an alternative vision. Jeb Bush was supposed to be that figure, and perhaps he will be. His new Web video attack and his sharper criticism of Trump on the stump suggest his critics have a point. To date Bush has often seemed unfocused, passive and verbally challenged. That was excusable in August, but it won’t be in the next debate and as we get closer to the Iowa caucuses. His campaign rightly derides early polls, but it must address Bush’s performance deficit. If continues to look adrift in the Trump wave, other candidates may convince voters and donors they are more compelling personalities.
Who else then?
For a time many thought Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker might fill that role. He however has been undone by Trump. Between chasing Trump and approving every dumb idea he is asked about, he seems unready and indeed lost. You know he is in trouble when Sen. Rand Paul’s ridicule rings true: “There’s been a lot of dumb ideas put out. One that the Mexicans will pay for a wall was probably the dumbest of dumb ideas, but putting a wall up between us and Canada is sort of a ridiculous notion.” A conservative sympathetic to Walker scoffed, “What’s next — a wall on the West coast to keep out dolphins?”
Moving on, the leading Trump sycophant Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is not going to fill the grownup lane. He’s the one who fomented the government shutdown and pushes for a Constitutional amendment on gay marriage. It sure is not going to be Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal who advocated ignoring the Supreme Court’s decision.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) might fit the bill, but he’ll need to assert himself to become more than the most eloquent person on the debate stage. Can he overcome youth and relative lack of experience to convince voters he is ready for the White House? That’s his challenge. And we will have to see if he is tough enough to throw some punches and forcefully denounce his opponents’ nutty ideas.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich? His positive, constructive approach to governance and long years of experience are a plus. He cannot however get caught up in a frenetic tornado of words, some which contradict others and detract from a good message. Monday at an appearance outside Detroit before Americans for Peace, Prosperity & Security he at times sounded confident, bold and informed. He clarified he does favor bigger investment in defense, knows we may need boots on the ground against the Islamic State and believes the rotten Iran deal is the result of capitulating again and again. And yet he also said the United States shouldn’t get caught up in what he says is a civil war in Iraq, and stands by his 1990’s opposition to the B-2 bomber, which became a mainstay of the military. Fewer words, a more deliberate delivery and a clear-cut agenda would help. He can’t run for president sailing on a stream of consciousness and free association.
Can New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie come back? Bush is giving him the opening to try. He actually put out entitlement and tax proposals and has a strong stance on foreign policy issues including the NSA, Iran and dumping the military sequester. He seems positively docile compared to a character like Trump, so his personality may no longer be an issue. I would be tempted to say he’s become an afterthought, squeezed out by other candidates, but in this race I would suggest everyone within reason will get a shot. Lacking a standard bearer, the mainstream Republicans may drift back to him.
And there is Carly Fiorina who seems permanently poised and never at a loss for words. She’s holding her own against the competition, which may be damning with faint praise. Still, she will have to make the leap to the top tier where merely critiquing government’s failures is insufficient. She’ll need to expand her fundraising dramatically (which may come with better polls numbers) and organization. And yes, there are lots of good ideas on top domestic issues out there, as she remind us. Nevertheless she needs to tell us which ones she favors.
You see the challenge here. There is no, as yet, single commanding figure who radiates presidential confidence and competence. The slot is open. This is not surprising because we have had a single debate and zero actual votes cast. There is time. The plausible candidates, however, should pay Trump no heed and stop calculating how to assuage the public’s supposed anger. What they need is a credible figure in the grownup lane whom they could trust with the presidency and seems capable of besting the Democrats. The rest of the race will be about who manages to fill it.