With the 2012 election mere weeks in the rear-view mirror, many would say it’s too soon to begin talking about 2016, and they’re right. But I’m going to do it anyway. Why? Well, because I’m bored and because 2016 looks like it may finally be some Republican light at the end of a long, long electoral tunnel.
If we thought the last Republican primary was crowded, the coming one seems like it might be even more so. There’s the 2012 rejects – Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, possibly Newt Gingrich. All have mentioned, at least privately, an interest in running again, while former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has made no pronouncements himself, others have mentioned a possible second run. (As a big fan of Huntsman and a former volunteer for his campaign staff, I think he should; after all, he was the one arguing for a shift in Republican politics before there was an election that made it politically necessary. And in case it wasn’t clear already, Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina made it clear last week that they feared Huntsman much more than Romney, but I digress).
There’s the older political hands who have been waiting in the wing – Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Bob McDonnell, Rob Portman, Mike Pence, maybe Mike Huckabee. And then there’s the largest group, the up-and-comers of the Republican Party – Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Romney VP candidate Paul Ryan, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and South Dakota Senator John Thune.
The prevailing wisdom is that the 2016 Republican nominee will come from one of these last two groups. The 2012 crew (Santorum, Perry, Gingrich) was so beaten, bruised, and demoralized by the lengthy and often embarrassing Republican primary that no candidate has much of a political future.
That leaves a slimmer, but still swelled Republican field. In the weeks since Mitt Romney’s loss, Republican politicians have expressed a greater degree of understanding of the political realities of a modern America. Bobby Jindal went on CNN and chastised Mitt Romney for his comments regarding President Obama’s victory being the result of “gifts” he gave to certain groups. Rubio (a Cuban-American) and Jeb Bush (married to a Hispanic woman) have led the charge arguing that the Republican Party needs to shift its stance and tone in regard to Hispanics and immigration.
As the debate rages over the fiscal cliff, some Republicans have begun to repudiate the taxpayer pledge created by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Norquist, long considered the most powerful lobbyist in Washington and, by some, the root of many of the city’s problems, is finally facing the repudiation of a Republican Party that understands the need for some level of compromise. Depending on who you read, Grover may be over, Republicans are flouting the all-powerful Grover, or they’re throwing him over the cliff. However it’s put, it signals a shift from the hardline Republican politics of the last few years, and the 2016 nominee will have to deftly navigate this landscape.
Some on this list have certain issues hanging over their heads. Scott Walker has become a hero of the Right, but hated more than anyone by the Left, and the possibility of unrelated legal entanglements could become an issue. Nikki Haley was endorsed by Sarah Palin and is considered a leader in the Tea Party movement from which many Republicans want to distance themselves, plus she has some unrelated issues of her own. Paul Ryan may be weighed down by the Romney loss and the continued political difficulties inherent in his budget proposal. Rand Paul’s libertarian beliefs have limited support among the electorate while John Thune and John Kasich have limited name recognition.
In my opinion, there are five serious contenders for the nomination: Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Jon Huntsman (with the caveat that Huntsman has shown little interest in running and would have to do some serious damage control to fix his reputation within the beltway). The other four are all strong candidates, are all well-liked within the party and the electorate, but have some baggage themselves.
Bobby Jindal, the 41 year old Indian American governor of Louisiana, has a great resume for someone so young. He served in the Bush Administration as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Planning and Evaluation. In this role, he served as the principle policy advisor to the HHS Secretary. Following a losing bid for governor, Jindal served in the House of Representatives in Louisiana’s 1st congressional district from 2005-2008, serving on the House Committees on Homeland Security, Resources, and Education and the Workforce. In 2007, he ran again for governor, winning with 54% of the vote, and was reelected in 2011. During his tenure as governor, he has been praised not only for his work on the state budget, but also for his leadership during Hurricane Gustav and the BP oil spill.
The knock against Jindal (if one exists) would be two-fold. First, there are questions from his past that have lingered, specifically this description of his participation in an exorcism while in college. Second, his involvement in the Bush Administration – no matter how mundane or uncontroversial – and his role in Congress during years when spending was out of control could be used against him.
Marco Rubio has, since his election to the Senate in 2010, been touted as the future of the party. He is a young, eloquent, Hispanic leader who appeals to both the Tea Party and the beltway types. His convention speech was as clear and concise a defense of conservatism as I’ve heard in a long time, but at the same time he’s argued that the Republican Party’s position towards immigrants and Hispanics generally is both wrong and politically unsustainable. Besides some lingering (probably benign) issues about his heritage and religious affiliation, there’s not much in the way of baggage when it comes to Rubio, with this caveat: he will not run if Jeb Bush, his political mentor, runs.
Bush may have the easiest path to the nomination. He was a successful and popular two-term governor of a swing state, Florida. He is married to a Hispanic woman and won the majority of the Hispanic vote in both of his elections. He has been warning the Republican Party of the political implications of many positions, warnings that were vindicated by Mitt Romney’s loss. But most importantly, if he decides to run, he would immediately have access to the famous Barbara Bush fundraising rolodex, a network the other candidates would have to spend months building.
The knock on Bush, like Jindal, is two-fold. First, he also has the shadow of his brother’s administration hanging over him. While Jeb is and has always been a vastly better politician than W, it’s unclear whether voters en masse would be able to make a clear differential between the two and elect another Bush (it would be the 3rd in 24 years) to the White House. It’s also unclear whether the Bush brand of conservatism (W called it compassionate conservatism) is politically palatable to Republican primary voters. Second, there are some financial dealings in Bush’s past – particularly his time as an advisor to Lehman Brothers private equity group in the years before Lehman collapsed – that will raise some questions.
The wildcard in this discussion is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The most recent approval ratings out of New Jersey show that Christie is now the most popular Republican in the country, with a rating of 77%. He has been the type of reform minded, in your face Republican that the party has been missing of late, but it’s unclear whether that free-thinking persona (some would call it reckless) would play well in a Republican primary or a national campaign. Some also question his conservative bona fides, particularly on immigration, gun control, climate change, and the nomination of judges.
All of these candidates have flaws, but all humans have flaws so we shouldn’t be surprised. Their flaws, however, pale in comparison to the last group of Republican presidential candidates. The Republican Party is on sound footing, or at least on its way back towards sound footing with any of these candidates at the helm. In many ways, the right candidate for this moment may depend on who the Democrats nominate. Will it be Hilary? Biden? O’Malley, Cuomo, Warren? Time will tell.