GOP Presidential Candidates: The More the Scarier

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Hillary Clinton apparently doesn’t scare the Republican Party, since a candidate roster of unprecedented size is amassing in search of the party’s presidential nomination. But the very size of that overcrowded field is diminishing GOP chances of retaking the White House in 2016.

For centrist voters, the chaotic array of candidates will reinforce an impression that except for criticizing the incumbent president, the GOP lacks focus. Meanwhile the Democrats will, perhaps fitfully, draw toward their center of gravity. The challenge Clinton faces in maximizing unity and enthusiasm before her coronation as nominee is not trivial, as Bernie Sanders’ unexpected strength in the recent Wisconsin Democratic convention straw poll reveals. But Clinton's intra-party difficulties look trivial compared with those a ridiculously crowded field presents to the GOP.

This is all the truer because base Republican voters are juggling a complicated set of criteria that makes it hard for them to settle on what “best nominee” actually means. With no clear leader, the conservative ship of state is truly adrift – notwithstanding any half-hearted protestations about the embarrassment of riches.

An important factor in lengthening the candidate roster and also making a quick winnowing unlikely is a long decline in political discipline among conservatives, who for many decades have dominated the Republican electorate. One notable result of this indiscipline is trouble judging who is most worth backing in a presidential race – the proliferation of fuzzy thinking about who is most likely to win a general election, remain true to conservative principles, and deliver for conservatives as president. This situation results from at least two causes. One is conservatives' and libertarians' ambivalent attitude toward power and therefore toward practical, as distinct from merely expressive, politics. The other is their long record of frustration with presidential power and federal authority.

Despite their substantial success within the GOP, some of these voters have felt increasingly alienated from a political system that has produced such limited policy victories for them in the half century since conservatives flouted the party's moderate establishment to nominate the unabashedly ideological Barry Goldwater. In addition, the famous “Buckley Rule” from that era, accurately attributed to the founding editor of National Review — that the party should nominate the rightmost viable candidate — has been widely preached but little fulfilled.

What William F. Buckley Jr. meant was that the party should focus on someone who would clearly advance the conservative cause even if he didn't win. Even by that modest standard, it would be hard to choose from among the current crop of contenders on the Republican right. How has Ted Cruz, for example, demonstrated any ability to nudge large swaths of voters in his direction, even in a losing cause? As for winning a national election while advancing conservatism’s broader agenda, Ronald Reagan may be the only nominee who ever pulled off that trick. In that sense Reagan succeeded where Goldwater did not. But in the 2016 field, the Republicans don’t appear to have a Reagan or a Goldwater. They do have a Bush, but that’s part of the problem, not the solution.

To cite one result of the dysfunctional criteria many conservatives now apply to nomination contests: Organizers of the early debates will probably feel compelled to include Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson even if their poll numbers are statistically nonexistent — lest conservatives accuse them of favoring insiders. Symbolic politics are too much at work. Conservatism and its postwar legacy of intellectual seriousness are in real peril.

The crowded debate stages will prevent any one or two candidates from making a strong enough impression to actually begin shaping the Republican field. Worse, the teeming cast will allow far too little time for viewers to learn much about candidates or issues — a problem not just for democratic citizenship, but for the GOP's morale and sense of identity as well. The overcrowding will also tend to dangerously delay the emergence of strong motivation for any particular candidate among volunteers and donors, even if they have early inclinations toward one or another. (Each candidate of any prominence will have some deeply, durably committed backers. But not, we think, a very significant number.) The existence and likely continuance of a plethora of campaigns will also multiply occasions for resentment among the supporters of various candidates, or types of candidates, as the looming battle is joined. And finally, all of this proceduralism will waste even more Republican money in the primary phase than would be the case anyway.

Furthermore, even if conservatives did promptly zero in on the questions that actually matter most to their cause, this candidate field would be hard to judge. A thumbnail sketch of the higher-profile Republican hopefuls' key assets and liabilities suggests the trouble that primary voters will have in deciding who is most electable and politically trustworthy — and therefore ending, reasonably soon, what promises to be a dangerously long primary season for the GOP.

Jeb Bush would insure the GOP against the risks of relative inexperience, can be expected to show strong command of many issues, and wouldn't offend centrist independents. But his name and the dynastic factor are backward-looking minuses — and he isn’t likely to  win the hearts of social conservatives or immigration restrictionists, two constituencies that exert significant pressure on the nominating process, or the many Republicans who distrust the politics of compromise and incrementalism.

Ben Carson breaks the party's supposedly damaging “white male” image — and does so as an outspoken conservative. His combination of geniality, superior achievement in a profession far more popular than the corporate world, and fearless denunciation of the left could be formidable, but he’s never held or run for office, and is given to the kind of impolitic gaffes that invariably bedevil political amateurs.

Ted Cruz has a strong aura of self-promotion, and something rings hollow in his rhetoric, (and his thin Senate record) especially if he is standing next to someone like fellow freshman Sen. Rand Paul. But he can motivate conservatives, and with his public speaking skills might be able to get others to listen.

Carly Fiorina is the Hillary Clinton antidote, at least as far as gender demographics are concerned, but her resume stands in stark contrast to the Democrats’ frontrunner. Clinton is a former first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state—though not without critics of her role as the nation’s top diplomat. Fiorina is a corporate CEO with a mixed record of success and a failed Senate candidate.

Mike Huckabee has, like Jeb Bush, “run” a state. Uniquely among the candidates, he also has experience dealing with the Clinton machine back home in Arkansas. More than most in the field, he understands the economic plight of working and middle-class Americans. And his commitment to social conservatism is genuine and appreciated by the GOP base, but may have limited appeal. Those traits might make him a more formidable primary season candidate than his current poll numbers suggest, but his social conservatism could render him unelectable in November 2016.

Rand Paul capitalizes credibly on the anti-Washington mood —giving the impression of an honest, committed, independent thinker who would rather be right than president. But his tendency toward isolationism — even if he pref ers it to be called non-interventionism — is simply not in sync with most Republicans’ foreign policy views.

Marco Rubio, the third of the GOP’s troika of freshmen senators, is a fresh face, projects inclusiveness and optimism, and is especially quick and articulate. Like Cruz, he is Hispanic and speaks evocatively of the immigrant experience. But many conservatives also want a candidate who can speak convincingly of the great danger they believe the country is in — and who is comfortable “going negative.” He may not be able to.

Scott Walker has an impressive gubernatorial and electoral record, beating back the twin bogeymen of public-employee unions and MSNBC (in the person of Ed Schultz) for good measure. But does he have the charisma the role demands? His network of think tank leaders, opinion leaders, and donors is impressive to insiders, but does he come across as presidential? Will his lack of gravitas give voters pause?           

David B. Frisk, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, is the author of “If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement.”

Jonathan Riehl is a communications consultant and teaches communications at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C. He is completing a book on the history of the Federalist Society.

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