Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.
The Capitol Hill media were absolutely captivated by this hearing about foreign aid to Africa, which surely had nothing to do with the presence of an extremely wealthy man and an extremely handsome man.
Remember when Republicans were over the moon for Chris Christie? There was a period when YouTube videos of him shouting down some uppity teacher or other constituent were gleefully forwarded from conservative to conservative; here was a guy who knew how to put liberals in their place! He was a tough-talking former prosecutor who knew how to win in a blue state! Before the 2012 election, GOP megadonors were imploring him to run for president, but he decided to hold off for 2016. And now, no one's begging. In this poll in New Hampshire, he comes in sixth, with 4.6 percent of the vote. In this Iowa poll, he's tied for seventh place, with 4 percent.
So what the heck happened? It isn't that hard to figure out. Most broadly, people actually began thinking about the presidential campaign. Primary voters thinking about the presidential campaign had other potential candidates they could compare Christie to. And as it turns out, whoever you are and whatever your priorities, there's at least a candidate or two who is more appealing than Christie. Looking for a conservative fire-breather? There's Cruz or Huckabee or Carson or any number of others. Want an older, steadier type? Jeb Bush is your man. Looking for a governor? You've got Walker or Jindal or Bush. In short, nothing about Christie is unique, other than his attitude.
And it turns out that attitude doesn't wear all that well. Christie's tough-talkin' schtick, while great for generating momentarily compelling video clips, doesn't have a lot of purchase on the primary campaign trail, where you spend most of your time not sparring with constituents but begging your own people to vote for you.
I suppose it's possible that once the candidates start debating, Christie can yell at his opponents and remind Republican voters of what they liked about him, namely that he's kind of a jerk. But that's probably not enough to build a campaign on.
As the 2016 presidential race has swung into motion in the last couple of months, we've heard a lot about Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker, and even Ted Cruz. But there hasn't been a lot of news about Rand Paul, whom many people considered the most interesting candidate in the race. Paul has proven adept at gaining positive news coverage, and the fact that he's a quasi-libertarian makes him a little less predictable than other candidates. In fact, that's the core of his appeal. He can't argue that he has a lengthy list of accomplishments; his 2010 Senate campaign was the first time he ran for any office, and he hasn't authored any important legislation. Being different is what makes Rand Paul compelling.
The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”
But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.
The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.
We should have seen this coming. Last August, I wrote that while Paul may have a few positions that don't fit neatly into traditional Republican conservatism, the more central an issue is, the more likely he is to take the expected GOP line:
Even if being a little less ideologically predictable is part of Paul's appeal, it turns out that there are some positions that are negotiable for a Republican presidential candidate trying to win over primary voters, and some that aren't. A true libertarian can start off telling those voters that he favors low taxes and small government, and they'll cheer. He can tell them he's concerned about the militarization of the police, as Paul recently wrote eloquently about, and they might say, "I still think we need law and order, but I get what you're saying." He can tell them that government surveillance of Americans is getting out of control, and they might decide he has a point, even if they're still concerned about fighting terrorism. But if the libertarian candidate goes on to say that because he believes in maximal personal freedom, he also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of drugs, they'll raise their eyebrows and say, "Hold on there, buddy."
That's not what Rand Paul will be saying; on those last three issues, he ranges from firmly Republican (he opposes abortion rights) to essentially Republican (he opposes same-sex marriage but says it should be left up to the states) to somewhat less Republican (he opposes legalization but has suggested some sensible reform of marijuana laws). In other words, he's about as libertarian as an ambitious Republican can be: pushing the GOP a bit on issues where the party is pulled by competing impulses (like law and order vs. skepticism of state power), but safely in the fold on every issue where there's consensus in the party.
Why is Paul making this proposal now? It's partly because the presidential race is getting going, but mostly because this intra-Republican argument over the budget has brought the issue of military spending back near the top of the agenda. If he wants to be competitive in the presidential race, Paul has to get on the right side.
Contemporary conservatism has four main pillars: low taxes, small government, "traditional" social values, and a large military. No one who wants to be the GOP presidential nominee can stray from any of them in any serious way. And this is Rand Paul's dilemma: His distinctiveness as a candidate comes from the fact that there are areas in which he questions Republican orthodoxy, but if he questions parts of that orthodoxy that Republicans fervently believe in, they'll reject him. But when he does things like propose a large increase in military spending, he ends up looking just like every other Republican.
This is Volker Kraft of Saalfeld, German, with the apple tree he and his wife have decorated with 10,000 Easter eggs. It's his thing, I guess. You may think this is silly, but what's your thing? Forwarding stupid Vines to your stupid friends? If you bring as much pleasure into the world as Volker does, then you can talk.
Not that it matters much now, with all the fascinating campaigning still to come, but I still think that Jeb Bush is the most likely Republican nominee, for reasons I outlined here. Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal, however, says that one of the cornerstones of Jeb's appeal to Republican primary voters—that he's the electable candidate—isn't something they're buying, partly because there isn't a whole lot of evidence for it, other than the fact that Jeb is the kind of candidate who would seem to be more able to appeal to a general electorate. Ed Kilgore follows up:
Electability is supposed to be the Republican Establishment's ace-in-the-hole, the argument carefully conveyed over time that wears down "the base's" natural desire for a True Conservative fire-breather. In your head you know he's right is the not-so-subtle message. But Jeb's electability credentials are as baffling to regular GOP voters as they are obvious and unimpeachable to elites. And unless Jeb's backers can supply some more convincing evidence than "trust [us] on this," these doubts may never be quelled, particularly when you've got somebody in the field like Scott Walker who can boast of three wins in four years in a state carried twice by Obama—and without compromising with the godless liberals like Jeb wants to do.
Looking at it more generally, the jury is out as to whether the appropriate precedent for Jeb is somebody like Mitt Romney, who gradually won over intraparty skeptics by dint of money, opportunism, and a ruthless ability to exploit rivals' vulnerability, or somebody like Rudy Giuliani, a guy who looked great until actual voters weighed in. And even that contrast may not capture Jeb's problem: Rudy did well in early polls.
To the extent that Jeb does ultimately rely on an electability argument, he's in danger of resembling a much earlier precedent: Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, whose late push to displace Richard Nixon was instantly destroyed by polls showing him performing more weakly than Tricky Dick in a general election. That's actually where Jeb is right now. Unless and until his general election numbers turn around, and he's running better against Clinton than anybody else, it's going to be tough for him. All the money and opinion-leader endorsements and MSM adulation in the world cannot win the nomination for a candidate unless these resources at some point begin to translate into actual votes by actual voters. If they don't like Jeb to begin with and think he's a loser to boot, that may never happen.
Here's the thing about electability: If you're making an electability argument based on type, it's probably full of holes, whereas if you're making the argument based on this particular individual, it stands a better chance of being true. To take just one example, in 2008 there would have been a lot of good arguments for why a candidate like Barack Obama was unelectable. A senator hadn't become president since John F. Kennedy, Obama only had a few years in office, he was young, and, oh yeah, he was black. But all of those were reasons why a candidate like Barack Obama wasn't electable. That particular Barack Obama, however, turned out to be extremely electable.
There's an anti-Jeb electability argument based on someone like Jeb, which says that when the GOP has nominated moderates it has lost, but when it has nominated conservatives it has won. This is basically Ted Cruz's argument, and it's true in some ways but very wrong in others. The anti-Jeb electability arguments based on this particular Jeb, especially the fact that his last name creates problems that Walker or Rubio wouldn't have, are much more persuasive.
The electability debate figures into every primary campaign at some point, and there may be other ways in which Jeb can argue that he's really the electable one. I still think that he's more Romney than Giuliani, but this is obviously something he's going to have to spend some time thinking about so he's ready to answer the inevitable questions he'll get from voters about it.