John F. Kennedy Remembered

Posted November 19th, 2013 at 9:07 pm (UTC+0)

 His Legacy Strong 50 Years Later


President John F. Kennedy (AP Photo)

President John F. Kennedy (AP Photo)

Fifty years ago, in the span of just a few seconds, the course of American history was altered.  President John Kennedy became the fourth U.S. president to become the victim of assassination when he was shot while riding in an open limousine through downtown Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

Kennedy had been in office less than three years when he was killed.  He had a rough start to his presidency, backing a failed CIA plan to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro.  But in October of 1962, Kennedy found a way to have the U.S. and the Soviet Union take a step back from a nuclear confrontation over Soviet efforts to install offensive missiles in Cuba.  On many other issues, including civil rights, Kennedy would get a grade of ‘incomplete’ today.  In so many ways, his death left behind an unfinished presidency.

In the fall of 1963, Kennedy headed for Texas.  It was the beginning of an effort to shore up Kennedy’s support in advance of the 1964 election where he believed he would have to carry Texas and other key states to win another four years in office.   It was also the first time First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy would accompany him on a trip in some time.  She had lost their baby Patrick the previous August and was just coming back into the public spotlight on the trip to Texas.


The Assassination

Front pages of seven British national daily newspapers in London, November 22, 1963, blare the news of U.S. President John Kennedy's assassination.

Front pages of seven British national daily newspapers in London, November 22, 1963, blare the news of U.S. President John Kennedy’s assassination.

Americans have always had trouble accepting the notion that a malcontent like Lee Harvey Oswald could have been the only person behind the murder of John F. Kennedy.  Much of the suspicion about what really happened on that day in Dallas was fueled by the shooting of Oswald two days after the assassination on November 24.   NBC television was actually covering Oswald’s transfer from the city jail live when nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who was well known by many of the Dallas cops, thrust a revolver toward Oswald’s midsection and fired.  48 hours after President Kennedy was pronounced dead at Parkland hospital, Oswald expired in a neighboring trauma room, and the questions about whom or what was really behind the Kennedy assassination haven’t stopped since.

In 1964, the Warren Commission tried to quell the doubts about the assassination with its report that concluded that Oswald was the lone assassin.  But various conspiracy theorists wouldn’t let it go and took to talk radio and television shows in the mid-1960’s to question the official version of events.  In the late 1970’s, a select congressional committee concluded that Oswald had fired the fatal shot, but cited controversial acoustical evidence that suggested a second gunman was involved as part of a conspiracy.  A new report by University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato discredits the audio evidence that congressional investigators relied on.

Public opinion polls continue to show more Americans believe Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy than not, despite the fact that no credible evidence has surfaced over the years to buttress any of the conspiracy theories.  Likewise, to my mind, nothing has come forward that undermines the belief that Oswald was the lone gunman.  For many Americans it has simply become too difficult to accept the notion that one lone misfit like Lee Oswald could have the wherewithal to assassinate John Kennedy and change history.


JFK’s Legacy

We’ve been looking at John Kennedy’s presidential legacy as part of our special VOA Report, “John F. Kennedy, A Legacy Remembered.”  I think one of the keys to the enduring fascination with Kennedy is the fact he was cut down so young and that the images that remain are of a youthful, vigorous man who seemed to have so much more to give.  The Kennedy allure is not so much about what he accomplished, but the promise of what might have been had he lived.  During the interviews for our program I was struck by how raw the emotions remain for those who knew him including his niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and one of his former aides, former Senator Harris Wofford.  Wofford advised Kennedy on civil rights and often acted as a go-between for the Kennedy White House with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He also had a key role in the formation of the Peace Corps.  Wofford seemed genuinely moved during our interview when he talked about what the country had lost with JFK’s death and how things might have turned out differently.

We had a similar experience with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother.  Kennedy Townsend could barely bring herself to say the words, “When President Kennedy was killed”, and spoke movingly about how the deaths of President Kennedy and her father affected the country.

It’s a reminder that for people of a certain age, recalling the Kennedy assassination and the emotions that come with it can take a toll.  To many people, John Kennedy embodied the very best that America had to offer.  True enough, some of the luster has worn off in the decades since because of revelations about his private life and the efforts to hide his shaky health.  But 50 years after his death, it’s clear many American still yearn for the kind of leadership, inspiration and charm that Kennedy personified during his brief time in the White House.  As CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer told us in our special about the assassination, “It was the weekend that America lost its innocence.  The country has never been the same since that weekend in Dallas.”

Christie Rising for 2016

Posted November 6th, 2013 at 9:50 pm (UTC+0)
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie celebrates his re-election after he defeated a Democratic challenger in a heavily Democratic state. (AP Images)

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie celebrates his re-election after he defeated a Democratic challenger in a heavily Democratic state. (AP Images)

Republican Civil War Unresolved

There’s a tendency to read too much into off-year elections as implications for the national picture, so I’ll try to resist that here.  But it is worth noting that the election results from Virginia and New Jersey do tell us a few things that may or may not indicate where national politics are heading in the next year or so.

First of all, the Republican family feud between Tea Party elements and more establishment party activists is not over.  Not by a long shot.  Chris Christie’s convincing second term win as governor of New Jersey will be seen as a boon to traditional Republicans who argue that the Tea Party is divisive and that the party needs to stick to its conservative but practical roots.

Christie has already positioned himself as a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, especially among those looking for a candidate who can broaden the party’s appeal to women and minority voters.  Christie did well with a number of voting groups that Democrats usually dominate, including Hispanics, and you can bet that mainstream Republicans were taking careful notes.

Christie still has some issues—his temper for one—and may have to curb his ‘Jersey-style’ broadsides if he wants to enter the national political arena as something more than an occasional guest.  But at the same time, Christie has probably decided he will have to be himself if he moves ahead with a White House bid, and that means challenging voters to accept him for who he is, warts and all.


The Tea Party and Obamacare

Democrat Terry McAuliffe eked out a win over Tea Party favorite and Republican Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia in what turned out to be a scarily close race for a guy thought to be cruising in the polls in the final weeks.

Democrats were hoping for a smashing victory here as a rebuke to the Tea Party and a final slap at those behind the recent government shutdown.  But then came the politically disastrous rollout of the president’s health care law and that made the race in Virginia all of sudden very competitive.

You can bet that Democrats around the country who are concerned about their re-election prospects in next year’s congressional midterm elections are paying close attention.  Unless the Obamacare mess is fixed soon, you will see a lot of Democratic incumbents in swing states or congressional districts start to put some distance between themselves and the health care law.  And that is not good news for President Obama, whose approval ratings are already plummeting.

Republicans, of course, are chomping at the bit to get out and campaign for the 2014 elections against Obamacare.  For them it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The Tea Party faction did suffer a defeat in a Republican congressional primary in Alabama where the more mainstream Republican contender won.  But this week’s election results do nothing to clarify the state of battle between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans.  If anything, the problems with Obamacare will probably embolden conservatives with Tea Party backing in Congress and could make them more inclined toward another showdown with the Obama administration early in the New Year.  Shutdown?   What Shutdown?


It’s Hillary Versus Christie, Right?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may need to distance herself from the Obama administration if she chooses to run from president again in 2016. (AP file photo)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may need to distance herself from the Obama administration if she chooses to run from president again in 2016. (AP file photo)

Not so fast.  Hillary Clinton is tied to the Obama administration whether she wants to be or not, and so if she runs in 2016 she will have to do a few delicate dance steps on where she stands on Obamacare.  Clinton has already suggested she would try harder as president to work with Republican in Congress, a none-too subtle jab at the current president’s ability to work across the partisan aisle.

But there is also the question of Hillary’s ‘inevitability’ as the next Democratic Party presidential nominee.  It will be her second go-round and don’t forget she was a heavy favorite the first time until some young upstart upset the apple cart.  Won’t voters be looking for something different, a new face, in 2016?  If not Clinton, who?  Vice President Joe Biden?  Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley?  Clinton and Biden give the Democrats some big names, but the rest of their bench is not well known.

And that brings us back to Governor Christie.  Yes, mainstream Republicans will start fantasizing about who will fill out his cabinet.  But before we get to that point there is this little matter of winning the Republican nomination and going through numerous nominating caucuses and primaries, complete with raucous candidate debates.  Will the Tea Party accept Chris Christie?  Or will conservatives be so divided that Christie can find a way to clinch the nomination, assuming he runs?  Christie can rest easy for now and worry about these things another day.  But the timetable looms sooner than you think–he’ll have to make a decision about running probably by the end of next year.

Shutdown Winners and Losers

Posted October 17th, 2013 at 4:42 pm (UTC+0)
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 The Republicans’ Waterloo?


“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.”
—T.S. Elliot, “The Hollow Men”

And so as the curtain comes down on ‘The Great Shutdown of 2013’, many Americans are left mulling over one simple question—why?  A few months back in this column I noted the efforts of prominent Tea Party Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah to launch a nationwide campaign to defund ‘Obamacare’, the president’s signature health care reform law.   I thought it was significant at the time and would resonate all the way to the Republican presidential primaries in 2016.  I still do.

National Park Service employees remove barricades from the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial as thousands of furloughed federal workers began returning to work after 16 days off the job because of the partial government shutdown. (AP Images)

What happened these past few weeks in Washington is the result of the rise of the Tea Party movement beginning in 2009.  But it’s also the culmination of decades of growing political polarization in the United States and a hardening of attitudes in both major political parties, especially among the Republicans.

Many will now wonder if this latest confrontation will lead to a cooling off period between the two parties that could lead us away from the perpetual struggle over debt, deficits and the size of government.  Most of the experts say that’s not likely and they’re probably right.  But I do think the way this latest donnybrook ended is going to give more mainstream Republicans pause before they sign up for another cruise to nowhere on the Tea Party Express.

Some of the Winners

President Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House the day after lawmakers voted to avoid a financial default and reopen the government. (AP Images)

President Barack Obama:  This is not a universal assessment, by the way.  But the president stood his ground and didn’t blink, something a number of his Democratic allies were nervous about given the last time he went toe-to-toe with Republicans over the debt ceiling in 2011.  Mr. Obama needed this badly because the clock is ticking on his second term and we all know that second term presidents lose steam pretty quickly, especially after the midterm congressional elections.

Does this mean he can simply return to pushing his agenda in Congress, especially immigration reform in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives?  Ah, no.  But it may mean that as the never-ending budget deliberations resume he may face a slightly defanged Tea Party caucus and a lot more mainstream Republicans reluctant to go over the cliff in a futile attempt to undo Obamacare.

The president also benefits from the fact that while the rollout for Obamacare has been plagued by problems, all of that has been overshadowed by the weeks of political skirmishing on Capitol Hill.  In these divided and highly polarized times, a win is a win.  It doesn’t mean you will prevail next time.  But it should make your adversaries think twice about how far they are willing to go to fight for what they want.

Senator Ted Cruz:  The Texas Republican has emerged as the standard bearer for the Tea Party in Congress.  That’s a plus if you are thinking about running for president in 2016 and want to solidify a base of support made up of Tea Party activists and no-surrender conservatives.

It looks like the Cruz game plan is to seize the spotlight at every opportunity and champion Tea Party causes like defunding Obamacare.  Cruz recently won a straw poll of social conservatives at a Values Voters summit in Washington and all of this activity should help him with conservative voters in the Republican presidential primaries in 2016 looking for a no-compromise, true-blue conservative Republican out to change Washington from the bottom up.

Congressional Democrats:  Democrats were upset with President Obama in previous negotiations over the debt limit and budget with Republicans because they felt he gave too much away.  This time they insisted that he hold firm and he did, so they feel vindicated.  How this plays out in the upcoming budget deliberations is unclear, however.  Democrats often suffer from the same political malady that afflicts Republicans—a propensity to overreach.  And it’s not clear how the end of the shutdown helps them in any way prod the House to move on immigration reform, a top priority for Democrats looking to reward all those minority voters, especially Hispanics, who helped in Mr. Obama’s re-election victory last year.

And Now a Few Losers

Tea Party Republicans:    The best description of this group early on came from Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, emerging as one of the effective moderates on the Republican side of the Capitol.  Corker tweeted that the Tea Party led defunding effort was the equivalent of heading into a “box canyon.”  You find these long and twisty canyons out in the western U.S. that lead to—wait for it—a dead end.  Another image that comes to mind is the idea that Tea Party Republicans were peering over the edge of the cliff when the ground came up and hit them in the face.  That’s because they didn’t realize they had already fallen off the cliff.

Tea Party activists claim the shutdown has energized their followers like nothing else since the inception of the movement in 2009.  They say fired up Tea Party followers will come out in droves for conservative candidates in next year’s congressional midterms.  But something tells me the large group of silent majority Republicans in the House who want the Tea Party support but don’t want to share the blame when their tactics backfire will be more cautious in upcoming budget fights not to get too close to any cliffs.  Or at least insist on a safety railing.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at a Tea Party rally at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013.

Senator Ted Cruz:  Hey wait, I thought he was a ‘winner’?  Well, he’s both.  Cruz may have solidified his status as a rising conservative star and presidential hopeful in 2016, but being the face of the shutdown will not endear him to moderates.  Cruz has made his share of enemies in the Senate in a relatively short time, and I’m referring to fellow Republicans who rate him high on ambition but short on an ability to get things done or get along with others.  Cruz no doubt has established a claim to winning conservative voters in the 2016 primaries.  But the question is will moderate Republicans find him an acceptable, plausible nominee in the long run given that one of his rivals could be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who likes to tout his appeal to independents and conservative Democrats.  The political fallout from the shutdown could easily resonate well into the 2016 presidential campaign.

The Republican Party:  The party is badly divided right now on both tactics and what is should stand for.  Republicans and their brand took the biggest hit in public opinion polls as a result of the shutdown, and the vote in the House showed that 87 of the 233 Republicans in that chamber were willing to vote with Democrats to end the shutdown.  House Speaker John Boehner will have to reassess going forward how much leeway he will continue to give conservatives in the House to take the lead on both legislation and strategy in the upcoming budget battles.  Most Republicans believe they can repair their brand by the time next year’s elections roll around.  But that may involve more confrontation with the Tea Party than they so far have been willing to risk.

The U.S. Image Abroad:  This latest confrontation did not instill a lot of confidence around the ability of the U.S. to keep its governing house in order.  The world may have to get used to the instability and volatility that is a byproduct of divided government.  In the long run that might not be good news for the U.S.  The U.S. system of government is already seen as too complicated and inefficient by many around the world and it will take the Congress and the president finding more common ground than they have so far to turn that image around.

Republicans Take a Beating on the Shutdown

Posted October 11th, 2013 at 5:07 pm (UTC+0)
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Leaders Try to Find a Way Out

A woman protests outside the Capitol building as Congress continued the budget battle last week. (AP Images)

The American public is starting to weigh in on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling debate, and it’s not a pretty picture for the Republican Party.  The latest public opinion polls show that Republicans are getting hammered over the shutdown and fears that the U.S. could default unless the borrowing limit is raised.

The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 53 percent of those surveyed blamed the Republicans for the shutdown, while 31 percent blamed President Barack Obama.  Only 24 percent now have a positive view of the Republican Party, while the Democratic Party gets an approval rating of 39 percent.  Republicans got their lowest marks ever in the Journal-NBC poll, which has been tracking how the public views the two main political parties since 1989.

There were similar findings in the latest Gallup poll.  Only 28 percent in that survey now view the Republican Party in a positive light, down from 38 percent in September.  In both recent polls, President Obama’s approval ratings are inching up a bit.  But to be fair, the public seems pretty down on all the key players in Washington right now and wants to see some sort of compromise to end the political crisis.  Nearly 80 percent in the Journal-NBC poll said the country was currently on the wrong track, the highest reading on that question since the U.S. was in the midst of the 2008 recession.

A Growing Republican Divide

There’s no question that the shutdown and debt limit debate are being pushed most aggressively by the Tea Party faction in Congress, especially that group of 40 to 60 Republicans in the House of Representatives chomping at the bit for a confrontation with President Obama and his Democratic allies.  Remember, though, that this group initially wanted to make a stand over the issue of either defunding or delaying the president’s signature health care reform law, which even Mr. Obama now refers to as ‘Obamacare’.

In recent days Republican congressional leaders have gradually shifted the emphasis away from battling Obamacare and now prefer to focus on cutting spending and lowering the budget deficit.  This is a setback for the defund Obamacare faction within the Republican Party, led by folks like Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  They had hoped a government shutdown would rally public support around the country to do away with the health care law and would make them heroes in the ranks of the Tea Party movement.  This is especially important to figures like Cruz who seems intent on seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

But the shutdown and flirting with disaster over the debt ceiling have sparked a backlash against the Tea Party supporters from more moderate, mainstream elements in the Republican Party.  Business groups have long been key financial backers of Republicans in Congress and they are watching with alarm as the Republican brand takes a beating in public opinion polls.  Some mainstream Republicans are so upset they are now seeking to challenge those incumbents who rely on Tea Party support, and they are actively encouraging business groups to fund these challengers.

Despite these concerns, the Tea Party remains the main catalyst within the Republican Party.  What has made the group of Tea Party House Republicans so potent in recent months is that well-financed conservative organizations like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks are willing to actively back Tea Party challengers in safe Republican congressional districts where an incumbent member only has to fear a challenger from his or her right.  For Republicans there is nothing more fearful today than the prospect of facing a far-right primary challenger with Tea Party grassroots support backed by money from groups eager to target incumbents they deem to be too moderate.

Is This the New Normal?

It’s clear that Washington and the rest of the country are getting impatient with both the government shutdown and the never-ending partisan battles over the budget.  The world is also taking more notice, wondering if the political dysfunction has become so crippling that it threatens to undermine the U.S. as a driving economic force and model for other countries.

A tea party supporter holds a "Don't Tread On Me" flag during a rally at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa in this AP file photo.

A tea party supporter holds a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag during a rally at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa in this AP file photo.

But we’re likely to see more of these battles as the second Obama term progresses, not fewer.  Republicans have been reluctant to let go of the shutdown because they believe it’s the best leverage they have to force the president and Democrats to the bargaining table and talk about bigger issues like government spending and debt.  They want to claim some sort of victory for their Tea Party supporters back home just in time for next year’s midterm congressional elections.

Democratic political strategist Stan Greenberg had what I thought was a great take on what is driving conservative and Tea Party supporters within the Republican Party.  Greenberg’s recent survey found a deep sense of frustration among grass roots activists within the Republican Party that it was not doing enough to stop what they regard as President Obama’s “socialist agenda.”  Greenberg says the sense he came away with from these conservative focus groups was that these voters believe the president has already won and passed his agenda.  He says these voters don’t have a problem with gridlock and side with Republicans in trying to do anything they can in Washington to block his agenda.

This group of hardcore conservatives likely cares little about the national polls that show most people blaming Republicans for the government shutdown.  After all, one of the rallying cries of the Tea Party movement when it sprouted up in 2009 was ‘no more compromise’, part of a pledge to end business as usual in Washington.  So this group is not going to go away anytime soon.  The question is, given the beating the party is taking in the polls, how will mainstream, establishment Republicans respond to these aggressive tactics both in the short term and in upcoming elections in 2014 and 2016.

Showdown Looms Over Government Shutdown

Posted September 25th, 2013 at 8:36 pm (UTC+0)

Tea Party Republicans Take a Risk

In this 1996 file photo, a closed sign blocks the path to the shuttered Washington Monument during the partial government shutdown that resulted from a budget impasse between then President Bill Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress. (AP Photo)

The U.S. government faces a partial shutdown Tuesday unless cooler heads prevail in the showdown over Republican attempts to defund President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law.  But from what we’ve seen in recent days, some of the Republicans peering over the budget abyss seem inclined to jump in and see what happens.

There is a core group of a few dozen Republicans in the House of Representatives and a handful in the Senate who seem hell-bent on pushing their opposition to what they like to call ‘Obamacare’ right up to the edge, and perhaps past, where even most Republicans are comfortable with going.  From Senator Ted Cruz’s 21-hour plus simulated filibuster on the Senate floor to a succession of Tea Party rallies in front of the Capitol, what I would call the ‘no compromise conservative coalition’ has decided it’s time to draw a line in the sand over Obamacare, come hell, high water or even political consequences in next year’s congressional elections.

The Forces Behind the Clash

No doubt about it, 2008 was a significant year in the history of U.S. politics.  Barack Obama’s accession as the first African American president and all that signified in terms of the country’s long racial struggles and attempts to live up to its original democratic ideals were all encapsulated in the story of the 2008 presidential election.

But consider for a moment the significance of what happened just two years later in the congressional midterm elections of 2010.  Republicans made historic gains in the House and took control with major help from the Tea Party movement, which originated in part out of opposition to the president’s health care proposal but also because of years of conservative frustration with congressional Republicans cutting deals that led to higher government spending and, in some cases, higher taxes.

These frustrations fueled a movement that directly resulted in the election of Republicans, especially in the House, who were less inclined toward compromise and driven more by grass roots conservative demands that they stand for something and reject business as usual.  In short, a different breed of congressional Republican, more worried about what conservative activists thought in their own home districts that the more national concerns being pushed by Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

Add to this another complication.  Republicans effectively used the 2010 national census and subsequent redrawing of congressional districts around the country to not only solidify their majority in the House but to make many individual congressional districts even more conservative than they were previously.  That ensured that Democrats would have little chance to compete in many of these districts.  It also meant that while Republicans had little to fear from Democrats in their home districts, what they really had to watch out for was a primary challenge by someone even more conservative than they were.

Oh, and let me add in something about money too.  With the loosening of campaign finance laws, thanks to the Supreme Court, and the greater of involvement of corporations and unions in campaigns and political ads, it is much easier for upstart Republicans who have support from Tea Party groups to challenge incumbent Republican lawmakers in both the House and the Senate.  Groups like Heritage Action and Freedom Works, which support Tea Party efforts, can be mobilized quickly and effectively to make life miserable for an incumbent who is not deemed sufficiently conservative.  The result:  many Republicans are now afraid of their own conservative shadows and will do anything to avoid battling a more conservative challenger in a Republican primary.  There was a time when some lawmakers would react to appeals to set aside partisanship for the good of the country.  Today, many lawmakers are more concerned with protecting themselves from the wrath of the Tea Party.

A Preview of 2016

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks on the Senate floor during a marathon speech against Obamacare that lasted more than 21 hours. (AP Photo)

The Ted Cruz ‘speechathon’ in the Senate this week was clearly a preview of the 2016 battle for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.  Cruz is battling for an early advantage with Tea Party supporters and other conservative activists as he looks ahead to what many people believe is a likely run for president three years from now.  In order to be a viable candidate, Cruz would first have to win over a large swath of the conservative wing of the party, the wing that now always plays a crucial role in the early stages of the primary campaign.

In the last two presidential election cycles, conservatives were split among several candidates and that allowed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 to emerge as the nominee, even though both men had previously positioned themselves as moderates.

Cruz is hoping to get an early start by become a conservative favorite, and what better way to demonstrate that than by holding the Senate floor for more than 21 hours in a doomed effort to undo Obamacare.  But Cruz will have plenty of company competing for conservative votes in the 2016 primaries from fellow senators like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, not to mention New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  But it was no coincidence that among those joining Cruz in his talkathon were none other than Paul and Rubio.  Although they only made cameo appearances compared to Cruz, they are not about to cede the spotlight to Cruz when it comes to crusading against the number one target for the Tea Party and conservatives in general—Obamacare.

Obama’s Syria Quandary

Posted September 13th, 2013 at 9:37 pm (UTC+0)
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Is Vladimir Putin Washington’s new best friend? Photo: AP

The Political Stakes of an Uncertain Outcome

So how did we get to the point where Russian President Vladimir Putin conceivably saved President Obama from a very embarrassing defeat in the U.S. Congress over the use of force in Syria?

Well first off, we aren’t there yet.  And secondly, you get the feeling that this whole ‘wing and a prayer’ approach to the horrific mess in Syria could unravel at any time, adding another layer of international chaos on top of a brutal civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.

What transpired this week was the equivalent of a giant time-out, and virtually everyone with a stake in the outcome of the conflict seemed to welcome it.  The fact that it began to play out just hours before President Obama addressed the nation elevated the scene to high political drama.

The president’s surprising decision to try getting congressional approval for military strikes to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capability put him in a political bind largely of his own making.  Mr. Obama faced stiff opposition not only in Congress but among the American people.  Public opinion polls showed that opposition to U.S. military strikes in Syria had actually increased during the president’s public relations offensive to the point where several surveys showed that 60 percent or more of Americans opposed the U.S. getting involved.  In short, the president was looking at a very heavy lift in trying to sway public opinion.  He’s a fine orator and all, but that truly seems a bridge too far.


Now What?

Seizing on the Russian proposal to have Syria give up its chemical stockpile offered the Obama administration a detour, at least in the short term.  A loss in Congress could have undermined the president on many levels, and second term presidents often don’t need much of a push to become politically irrelevant far sooner than they realize.  Had the president lost his bid in either the House or Senate or both to get approval for strikes, you can bet the Republicans would be smelling blood in the water.  They’ve kept their teeth shiny and sharp feasting on Obamacare for the past few years.  A congressional defeat on Syria would have really stimulated their appetite.

But the president is far from out of the woods politically.  What happens if the Russian plan is simply a ruse to buy time to protect the Syrian government from U.S. strikes?  Can the president then argue that at least he tried to give diplomacy a chance and still press for the authority to launch attacks?  And if Congress then refused, could he withstand the political firestorm if he decided to go ahead with strikes anyway?

It’s hard to see how there will be much of a shift in U.S. public opinion no matter what happens with the Russian effort.  And there remain too many Republicans who simply want the chance to vote against whatever the president wants to turn the tide in Congress, especially in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.


Strange Bedfellows

One of the fascinating dynamics of the congressional debate over Syria was the strange, yet seemingly organic, alliance of factions on the far left and right.  When was the last time you saw and FreedomWorks, a leading Tea Party group, on the same page?  But the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria seemed to galvanize liberals who felt burned by the whole Iraq experience during the George W. Bush administration.  And it also breathed new life into conservative anti-Obama groups looking for any excuse to stoke the fires of political resentment.  Talk about a perfect storm.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were trying to cut a deal on Syria in Geneva. Photo: AP

Of course, just when it looked bleakest for the president in Congress, “along came Putin” and the whole tenor of the debate quickly seemed to shift to “let’s give peace a chance.”

So the Russian diplomatic initiative gives everybody a little more time.  That might help President Obama down the road.  He can point to going the extra mile to try to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis if he ever has to go back to Congress and ask for its blessing on air strikes.  It also forces Putin and the Russians to step out a little further into the glare of the international spotlight, perhaps leading eventually to a “put your money where your mouth is” moment before the United Nations where everyone will be able to see if they were serious all along or just stalling.

But the diplomatic focus also ensures that Syria will continue to be a major priority for the administration for the foreseeable future, even as the president prepares to face a resistant Congress on a host of budget issues that have a direct effect on the U.S. economy.  For a president who was studious about avoiding U.S. involvement in Syria for the past two years, it’s an uncertain and risky new world.


Budget Wars Heat Up

Congress is back from its summer recess and it seems everybody is ready to resume what has become for many a tiresome series of political skirmishes over the federal budget.  Two major deadlines loom.  Congressional funding authority for the budget expires on October 1, and lawmakers will need to act to raise the debt limit borrowing authority by sometime in the middle of October.  As expected, both deadlines are fraught with political intrigue and posturing.

Over the past few months, conservative factions of Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have hardened in their opposition to the president’s health care law.  If anything, they are more determined now than they ever have been to find a way to either kill Obamacare or at the very least find a way to delay its implementation by a year.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is one of the Republicans leading the charge against the president’s health care plan, Obamacare. Photo: AP

This faction has some notable Republican supporters in the Senate, including Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.  All three of these gentlemen are doing nothing to tamp down expectations that they will seek the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016.  In the House, more than 40 Republicans are insisting that the Republican leadership make a real attempt at defunding Obamacare even to the extent of risking a government shutdown.

Republicans got most of the blame for brief shutdowns in the 1990s and some veteran, more practical Republicans are trying to warn of the dangers of repeating that this year.  But this has become a rallying cry for Tea Party types and conservative purists, and many Republicans are watching carefully because they fear primary challenges from the right in next year’s midterm congressional elections if they don’t take a strong enough stand against the health care law.

So prepare for another round of budget roulette with not one, but two chances to head to the brink over shutting down the government.  Democrats are confident the Republicans will blink.  But they also acknowledge that Republican leaders right now either can’t or won’t try to challenge this hard-right faction, setting up another round of divisive political gamesmanship that tends to turn off the public and grinds the machinery of government to a halt.  Remember, it’s never too early to play politics by looking ahead to the next election.

Obama’s Syria Gamble

Posted September 4th, 2013 at 10:25 pm (UTC+0)

House Speaker John Boehner looks on warily as President Obama explains his Syria policy at the White House September 3. After the meeting Boehner said he would support the president. Photo: AP

Reaching Out to a Reluctant Congress

Fasten your seat belts.  This could be a bumpy ride.  President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before any military action against Syria is the kind of high stakes gamble rarely seen in Washington.

Few would have been surprised had the president decided to go ahead with cruise missile strikes in Syria without waiting for a green light from Congress.  But by inviting lawmakers to weigh in now, Mr. Obama risks a possibly messy outcome where Congress could, conceivably, decline to provide him with the kind of political cover he wants.

That would leave it up to him to either go it alone or stand down from any military action.  All of that, of course, would have profound implications for U.S. credibility around the world among both friend and foe alike.

After a meeting with key congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, it looked like Congress was prepared to grudgingly go along with the president.  Republican House Speaker John Boehner emerged from the meeting between the president and congressional leaders and said military action in Syria is something the “United States, as a country, needs to do.”

But the next twist in the road came Wednesday when Senator John McCain, a leading hawk on Syria, said at first that he couldn’t support the latest Senate resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. McCain finally came around after language was added calling for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power on the ground in Syria.”

McCain advocates a wider U.S. role in support of rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the White House needs the support of McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham if it has any hope of getting the Senate and House of Representatives to approve military action.

The first step along that path came Wednesday afternoon when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the amended resolution. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

In the House of Representatives, joining Boehner in support of a military strike was Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. In the old days before paralyzing partisanship infected Capitol Hill, the support of the two major party leaders in the House virtually assured passage of legislation.  But the old days are long gone and there are many more complicating factors at play in the “realpolitik” of modern day Washington.  And it remains to be seen how many Republicans Boehner can bring along in the end.  After all, the House Republican conference has been on the verge of revolt in the past over Boehner’s leadership and his ability to influence


Opposition Left and Right

Experts believe the president’s chances of winning support for a limited military strike in Syria are better in the Democratically-controlled Senate than in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  Veteran Democratic senators like Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein of California have already come out in favor of a resolution authorizing the president to use force. More conservative voices like McCain and Graham will also need to be brought into the fold.

On the other side of the argument in the Senate is freshman Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Paul is a leading light of what is coming to be known as a non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party, more Libertarian in outlook and willing to question whether foreign military involvements are in the U.S. national interest.  Paul led the skeptics in questioning Secretary of State John Kerry during this week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing and does not shy away from the limelight.

Two key members of the Senate who debated the president’s Syria policy were Rand Paul, left, and John McCain. Photo: AP

Paul is also a likely Republican presidential contender in 2016, and staking out a firm position in opposition to intervention in Syria could help him with Tea Party and other conservative groups looking for a champion three years from now.

Paul says he will also try to persuade members of the House to oppose the Syria effort.  The Republican-controlled House is more fractious than the Senate and the administration is most concerned that a loose coalition of anti-war Democrats and non-interventionist Republicans could join forces and deny President Obama the votes he needs to gain approval in that chamber.  So the White House strategy will be to limit their losses among liberals, especially those who felt burned by the Iraq War debate in 2002 that focused on weapons of mass destruction that never materialized.  This is where Nancy Pelosi’s support will be crucial.

On the other hand, Speaker Boehner could have his hands full trying to round up reluctant Republicans.  Many Republican House members say their constituents are showing little interest in yet another foreign military operation following long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And a lot of Republicans in the House just don’t like President Obama and have little inclination to do anything to help him.

The challenge for Boehner is whether he can round up enough Republicans who can be grudgingly persuaded to help and cobble together enough Democrats to get a majority in the House that will support a limited engagement in Syria.  Those members in tough races next year may be reluctant to go against their constituents.

Many opinion polls show Americans oppose involvement in Syria.  The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey found 59 percent of those asked oppose the U.S. launching missile strikes in response to last month’s chemical weapons attack.


The 2016 Factor

This issue could play a role in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.  In addition to Rand Paul, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are all considered likely White House contenders three years from now.  Paul and Cruz are clearly in the skeptical camp right now with regard to using force in Syria, and Paul could wind up playing a pivotal role in opposition.  Rubio also has expressed skepticism, but appears to be leaving his options open.  Christie has said little so far, but you may remember that he engaged with Paul earlier this year on the use of drones and on the broader role of the U.S. abroad.  Christie represents a more traditional internationalist Republican Party outlook that traces back to Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower.  It’s possible that whatever happens on Syria could be a point of conflict among the field of Republican White House contenders in 2016.


Winning Over a War-Weary Public

Mr. Obama no doubt carefully watched what happened in Britain when Prime Minister David Cameron failed to win over Parliament in his bid to join the effort to punish the Syrian government for what the U.S. says was a chemical attack on Syrian civilians last month.

War fatigue is even higher in the United States, where Americans are anxious to finally be done with military engagements in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Getting congressional approval before any military action could bolster the president’s political standing domestically and it could be read as a signal of U.S. determination by the world community.  Winning over public opinion seems a taller order right now.  Too many Americans are sick of war after more than a decade fighting on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the debate over Syria continues in Washington, rallies are being held around the world, both for and against military intervention in Syria. This one was last Sunday in Tokyo.

Of course the flip side of that is that congressional disapproval and inaction by the Obama administration could undermine the president’s credibility, both at home and abroad.  That’s why you already see some senior Republicans like Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, arguing that the debate is really about the “credibility of the United States” in standing up to the use of chemical and biological weapons.

But even supporters of a congressional resolution to use force in Syria could be hard-pressed to answer what they hope to accomplish by military strikes targeting the Assad regime.

If the strikes are to be limited from the outset and not meant to shift the balance of power in Syria’s civil war, what’s the point?  Can you guarantee the United States won’t be drawn into a wider conflict in Syria?  Hasn’t the U.S. already lost international prestige by not acting swiftly?

There may not be clear answers to those questions.  But supporters of military action will no doubt pose questions of their own—what are the costs for the United States and its allies if the world remains silent in the wake of a chemical attack?  And if we do nothing, does that not encourage Assad, and perhaps others, to carry out such attacks, mindful that the international community may not be able to muster the communal will to hold them accountable?

The congressional debate in the coming days could have enormous consequences, not only on the president’s efforts to win domestic support for his policy toward Syria, but also on an international community eager to learn how far the U.S. is willing to go to counter adversaries after more than a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

U.S. Public Wary on Syria

Posted August 30th, 2013 at 8:08 pm (UTC+0)

President Barack Obama tells reporters August 30, 2013 that he has not yet decided what kind of military response U.S. will take to Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons. Photo: AP

Public View Limits Obama’s Options

First off, a little history, please.  Remember Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008?  Sure.  Remember why?  Well, in part it was a reaction to the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were launched under the administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush.  There was more to it than that, of course, but history will forever link Mr. Bush’s name to the conflict in Iraq.  And many Americans no doubt hoped that the election of Mr. Obama presaged an era of U.S. wariness with regard to possible foreign military involvements.

Well, the specter of Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq and the reasons for it are looming large over Washington again (and London for that matter) as U.S. policymakers wrestle with a response to what Washington says was a chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian government on its own people.

One of the lasting political legacies of the Bush years is a sentiment among many Americans that they were duped during the run-up to the Iraq war by the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had to be taken out because his regime had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

When the war proved to be tougher than expected and those mass destruction weapons were never found, a new standard was set for presidents on how NOT to get the United States engaged in a far-flung military action.  And so now Mr. Obama, who defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in 2008 in part by questioning her support for the war in Iraq, must try to find a way to rally a war-weary nation deeply skeptical of foreign military adventures.


War Weary Public

Recent public opinion polls indicate Americans are very reluctant to consider deep military engagement with Syria.  A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed believe the U.S. should not intervene militarily in Syria compared to 9 percent who said yes.  Other recent surveys also suggest a strong hesitation among the public for any kind of serious military intervention, a byproduct of the lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Smoke rises over Daraa, Syria August 27, 2013, as heavy fighting continues in the nation’s civil war. Photo: AP

At the same time there is no denying that Americans are horrified by the images they have seen of apparent chemical weapons use in Syria, and that may be boosting public support for a more arm’s-length military campaign that might involve cruise missiles strikes.  A new NBC News poll found that while 50 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should not intervene militarily in Syria, 50 percent would be willing to support long-range missile strikes launched from Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea.  Other surveys have shown a rise in support for airstrikes in the wake of revelations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown recently told me that his polling found that three in five Americans simply don’t see any national interest in intervening militarily in Syria.  He went on to say that his data reflects a view that Americans are “marginally OK” with long distance drone or cruise missile strikes provided there is “no chance” of U.S. casualties.

Secretary of State John Kerry noted in a speech Friday that some, both at home and abroad, “cite the risk of doing things” in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  But Kerry said a war-weary American public also needs to ask “what is the risk of doing nothing?”

There is no doubt Americans are sick of foreign military interventions that become open-ended and divert attention from budget and other problems at home.  Drone strikes and long distance missile attacks are an easier sell with the public.  But many Americans have grown skeptical since 9/11 that there are any easy military fixes to the challenges facing the country.

Afghanistan and Iraq both proved immeasurably more complicated and vexing than first thought and the public’s appetite for any military involvement abroad is very limited.  U.S. policymakers must take care to frame the stakes, consequences and possible outcomes clearly from the outset, and a there is a lot of debate over that at the moment here in Washington.


Congress Tries to Weigh In

 The NBC poll also found that nearly 80 percent of Americans want President Obama to get congressional approval before using force in Syria.  That includes 70 percent of Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans.

The administration has been briefing key lawmakers on its approach to Syria, but well over 100 members of the 435-member House of Representatives have signed a letter calling on the president to seek formal congressional approval before taking action.  Many lawmakers are trying to assert their role under the War Powers Act.  The law was enacted in the wake of the Vietnam War and lays out the responsibilities for both the president and Congress in determining when and how the use of military force is justified.

The history of congressional approval in advance of hostilities is uneven.  I recall covering the wrenching congressional debate before the 1991 Persian Gulf War when anti-war protestors screamed “No blood for oil!” from the Senate gallery.  President George W. Bush had an even bigger challenge in 2003 when his administration tried to convince uneasy Americans that it was necessary to attack Iraq.

Then Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking at the U.N. Security Council February 5, 2003, makes the U.S. case for invading Iraq. Photo: AP

And who can forget Secretary of State Colin Powell presenting the administration’s case at the United Nations?  Those efforts were undermined by later revelations that the much sought-after weapons of mass destruction never materialized.

But at other times congressional concerns have been largely swept aside.  President Bill Clinton was the moving force on authorizing the air campaign against Serbia in 1999.  President Obama followed a similar course when he committed U.S. support aircraft in Libya in 2011.

British Prime Minister David Cameron already found out the hard way that the legacy of the Bush administration’s attempts to justify the Iraq war remains strong.  Cameron had to back down on his push for support in Parliament when even some members of his own party refused to go along with the idea of a military response in Syria.


Obama’s Difficult Road Ahead

The situation in Syria is the latest addition to Mr. Obama’s crisis list.  Congress returns to work in early September and lawmakers will be focused on the need to renew funding for the federal government when the current spending authority runs out at the end of September.  Not long after that, lawmakers will be faced with the need to raise the debt limit so the government can borrow enough to continue to pay its bills.

Some Republicans may want to risk a government shutdown by trying to defund the president’s health care law as part of any budget agreement.  Most analysts see that effort failing for the moment.  They predict a bigger battle over the debt ceiling, with Republicans demanding budget cuts in exchange for raising the borrowing authority.  That in turn will be a key skirmish as lawmakers from both parties look ahead to the 2014 congressional elections and try to maximize gains.

What’s unclear is how U.S. military action in Syria will affect or complicate these other major challenges that lie ahead for the president.  The next few months will be a critical time in Washington on several fronts, and what happens during this period could determine whether Mr. Obama’s second term will be seen as a success or a failure.

Republican Immigration Split

Posted August 21st, 2013 at 9:56 pm (UTC+0)


Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, is stirring up party conservatives with his opposition to immigration reform and any budget deals that fund medical care reform. Photo: AP

Appease the Base or Reach out?


There are plenty of signs that the Republican Party is in various stages of disarray at the moment.  Arguably, their biggest challenge in the years ahead is finding a way to appeal to Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and young people – voters outside their comfort zone.


But at its recent summer meeting in Boston, the Republican National Committee seemed to take a step backward.  The RNC passed a resolution that called for the completion of a fence along the southwestern border and stipulated that most Americans oppose any form of amnesty that would open a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.


The pathway to citizenship is a crucial part of any immigration package for Hispanic voters, and for most Democrats in Congress.  By staking out a big fat “No!” on the idea, Republicans are potentially undermining attempts to put on a different face for minority voters in upcoming elections.


Not all Republicans agree with this approach.  There is a faction that seriously wants to address Mitt Romney’s dismal showing in last year’s election when President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote.  These Republicans believe that unless the party can find a way to broaden its appeal among Hispanic and younger voters they may be doomed in future presidential elections.


But at the moment the conservative Tea Party activists and the “strengthen the border” crowd seem to be holding sway, and Republican lawmakers who support a path to citizenship could invite a conservative primary challenger in next year’s midterm congressional elections.  It’s that fear of a challenge from the right that has many Republicans reluctant to get behind anything that could later be described by critics as amnesty.


The Senate has already passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill with some Republican support that strengthens the border security and lays out a long and winding path for citizenship.  House Republican leaders have already rejected that approach and say they will pursue a piece by piece approach that focuses first and foremost on border security.


September Showdown

Republicans face some key decisions when lawmakers return to Washington in early September.  In addition to questions about what the House of Representatives will do about immigration reform, Congress and President Obama face an October 1st deadline on funding the government.  The current temporary spending bill expires at the end of September and the upcoming budget battles over the budget sequester cuts, raising the debt limit and whether to defund Obamacare could all come to a head next month.


There is a group of Republicans pushing hard on the idea of cutting off funding for the implementation of the president’s health care reform law.  So far the Republican congressional leadership is keeping a low profile on the issue.  Many of them think the idea of risking a government shutdown over defunding Obamacare is politically reckless.  But they are also afraid of offending conservative and Tea Party activists who have seized on the idea as a rallying cry.


Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, another possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, also wants to force a possible government shotdown over funding President Obama’s health reform law. Photo: AP

Among those pushing the idea in the Senate are Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.  Cruz, Rubio and Paul are all likely Republican presidential contenders in 2016 and it seems none of them wants to be caught on the wrong side of this issue looking ahead to the presidential primaries.


Even if the attempt to defund the health care law fails, many of the 2016 contenders could use the issue as a litmus test in the coming campaigns, putting some rivals on the defensive and subject to attack from the right for not standing up against Obamacare in Congress.  Expect this to be an issue no matter happens in the 2016 presidential primaries and another potential divide between Tea Party supporters and establishment Republicans.


Cruz to Canada:  No Thanks, eh

Speaking of 2016, is Ted Cruz going to have a “birther” problem?  Cruz was born in Canada, but because his mother was an American citizen, he became one at birth.  The bonus here is that Canada also considers him a citizen because he was born in Calgary.  But Cruz is now going the extra step of renouncing his Canadian citizenship, which most pundits believe is a sign he is serious about running for president three years from how.


Cruz has already had a meteoric rise to national prominence among conservatives.  He won his Senate seat just last year and quickly ruffled some feathers of the old guard, including colleagues like John McCain.  But fellow Republicans have also noticed Cruz’s ability to rile up the right on issues like Obamacare and immigration, and it became clear early on that some veteran Republican senators did not want to cross him.   But Cruz may be making as many enemies as friends among Republicans with his ambition and willingness to grab the spotlight.


Lots of Republicans Looking to 2016

One Republican senator to keep an eye on for 2016 is Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Paul is the logical inheritor of his father’s national political organization and that could pay huge dividends in early presidential contest states like Iowa and New Hampshire where Paul’s hybrid brand of conservatism and libertarianism could motivate a lot of grass roots activists.

Is former Florida governor Jeb Bush a ‘dark horse’ waiting in the wings to snatch the Republican presidential nomination in 2016? Photo: AP


Paul inspired a lot of conservatives and even some liberals with a libertarian bent earlier this year with his Senate filibuster aimed at the Obama administration’s extensive use of drones.  Paul is also trying to reach out to African American and Hispanic voters, and you might also look for him to visit a lot of college campuses in the months to come.  Among all the prospective Republican contenders for 2016, Paul seems to have the most potential to expand the Republican brand beyond older white voters.  It still looks to me that by the time 2016 rolls around, a lot of Republicans unhappy with the establishment and looking for a new face will likely be drawn to Paul.  More establishment-oriented Republicans may gravitate toward New Jersey Governor Chris Christie because they may see him as their best general election candidate.


There are some dark horses waiting in the wings for 2016, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.  Walker appeals to conservative activists around the country for the way he stood up to organized labor.  Bush appeals to the Republican establishment, but so far has given little indication he’s interested in running.


Other Republicans could get interested in the race as well if there is no clear frontrunner, including Ohio Governor John Kasich.  Kasich and Walker are both up for re-election next year and convincing victories in those two swing states could make them more appealing to Republicans around the country.

The Coming Republican Civil War

Posted August 14th, 2013 at 5:28 pm (UTC+0)

Many Republicans looking for a different kind of candidate in the next U.S. presidential election in 2016 are looking to Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky. Photo: AP

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


Some Republicans are gravitating toward Texas Senator Ted Cruz for the kind of conservative leadership they want in their 2016 candidate. Photo: AP

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.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is considered a potentially strong presidential candidate, but would have to get by more conservative Republicans in the primaries. Photo: AP


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.

Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.


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