2016 Battle Looms for Heart and Soul of Party
The last two Republican Party presidential candidates—John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney last year—have something in common. Neither one could ever qualify as a true life-long conservative. And a lot of self-described “real conservatives” want Republicans to keep that in mind as they begin to mull the field of White House contenders for 2016.
Conservative activists no doubt see the 2016 battle for the Republican presidential nomination as their best chance, perhaps since Ronald Reagan won in 1980, to put forward a real conservative candidate. The conservative school of thought on the two recent elections is that Republicans lost because neither McCain nor Romney was conservative enough to rally the base, both times resulting in victories for Barack Obama. They promise things will be different in 2016.
But a power struggle within the party looms as the 2016 presidential race draws closer. Libertarians, Tea Party activists, social conservatives and mainstream Republicans are all looking for a winner in three years. The challenge will be finding common ground on which Republican that should be.
Crowded Field for 2016
The race for the Republican nomination three years from now looks to be wide open and a number of lesser-known contenders are trying to raise their national profiles. Start with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Paul hopes to build on the base of followers loyal to his father, former Representative Ron Paul of Texas, drawn by his libertarian bent. If anything, Rand Paul seems to have more potential to draw voters from a wider swath than his father did, maybe even from some liberals who like his views on drones and foreign wars. He could build on the organizing done in several states by his father’s campaign that could give him a leg up in the early campaign organizing. Paul has great appeal to a subset of Republicans and moderate voters who have a libertarian bent.
Ted Cruz on the other hand comes across like the proverbial young man in a hurry. This is Cruz’s first year in the Senate, but he has wasted no time in acting like a candidate itching to try for national office at the earliest possible opportunity, which in this case is 2016. Cruz has already made the rounds in the early caucus state of Iowa, which has become a key testing ground for conservative Republicans seeking the White House since the 1980’s. Cruz is very popular with the Tea Party crowd and is trying to rally Republicans around the idea of defunding Obamacare as part of a threat to shut down the government. Cruz is a good debater and could be a force in the numerous primary debates that will probably begin late in 2015.
What About Christie, Bush and Rubio?
While Paul and Cruz have proven appeal to the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the party, there are some other heavy-hitters waiting in the wings with big vote potential as well. In this group are New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Christie appears headed for an easy gubernatorial re-election victory in November and polls show he will do well among New Jersey Democrats. That could be a powerful calling card for establishment Republicans looking for someone who has proven appeal to moderates and conservative Democrats in a presidential election.
There are questions about Christie though. Does his temperament run too hot for prime time? Would he turn off women voters with his occasional angry rants? And how would he make it through the Republican primaries defending centrist positions on the budget, abortion and immigration? If he goes into the race as the establishment pick to win the nomination, he might rile up all those conservatives who fear a repeat of the McCain-Romney path to defeat.
But if Christie were able to win the nomination, right now he looks like the most formidable Republican contender in the field in the general election. That’s why many in the Republican establishment want to build a campaign around him.
As for Jeb Bush, does he really want to run in the age of the Tea Party wielding so much influence in the Republican Party? And does he feel up to the challenge of fighting for the nomination like his dad and brother did? And speaking of them there is also the name question.
Is the country ready for another Bush so soon? Bush strikes me as an ideal candidate back in the old days when they didn’t hold meaningful primaries and party bosses picked the candidates. He could be a general election candidate with strong appeal to moderates, something he did well in Florida. But I see his problem as convincing conservatives and winning the nomination.
Then there is Marco Rubio. Senator Rubio got on the wrong side of some conservatives on immigration reform when he helped get a bipartisan bill through the Senate. Now he appears to be trying to win back conservative and Tea Party support by throwing in with the crowd that is demanding to defund Obamacare or shut down the government. Looks like a lot of bobbing and weaving there and even some Republicans are wondering if he is ready for prime time.
Rubio’s potential appeal to Hispanic voters is his trump card. But it plays much better in the general election campaign than in a divisive primary season where conservatives play an out-sized role.
We’ll know more in the months ahead as the government shutdown game hits yet another climax. Several veteran Republicans are warning the young Turks in the House not to force the issue on a shutdown. They remember well the debacle that befell Republicans in the mid-1990’s when Newt Gingrich and others called Bill Clinton’s bluff and tried to force budget cuts through using similar tactics. Those Republicans who remember didn’t like the result. But they seem to be having a hard time convincing a younger more confrontational generation of the dangers of over-reaching.
In the meantime, Republicans are already girding for what promises to be a knock-down, drag-out fight for the heart and soul of the party among its many factions, all of whom are desperate to put a Republican back in the White House in November of 2016.