Daniel Larison

A Christie Bid Was Perry’s Best Chance

Nate Silver asked yesterday whether Christie would be the anti-Romney or anti-Perry candidate. He ends his post this way:

Mr. Romney could still win under this view if several candidates split the conservative vote and he has the moderate vote to himself. But the entry of Mr. Christie would complicate his equation and lower his odds, while posing less threat to Mr. Perry’s campaign.

Christie really isn’t running, so it’s a moot point now, but Silver seems right about this. Christie boosters expect that he would quickly become the consensus candidate. They never explain why this will happen, and they overlook the liabilities Silver lists, but the hope seems to be that Christie will simply replace Romney and siphon off support from Perry at the same time. In other words, the Christie candidacy some Republicans are clamoring to have is a fantasy.

The effect that Christie’s entry would have would be to undermine Romney enough without driving him from the race entirely, and this would then throw the contest to Perry. What Silver doesn’t mention and none of the Christie boosters address is why they need Christie for this. If Christie boosters are so desperate to find an alternative to Romney and Perry, and they’re willing to accept someone with some moderate positions in his record, Huntsman is already running, he has more experience, and he has fewer liabilities than Christie. Of course, no one seriously thinks that primary voters are going to rally behind Huntsman, so it’s not clear why anyone thinks they would have rallied behind Christie.

Huntsman’s candidacy is showing that there is not much demand for another center-right candidate in addition to Romney. That’s one more reason why the demand for a Christie candidacy makes no sense. Since Christie isn’t running, and Huntsman isn’t having much success, the remaining conservative contenders are more likely to draw support away from Perry and hobble him enough to let Romney eke out enough wins to secure the nomination.

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The Dreadful Inevitability of Romney Revisited

Tim Carney reflects on the dreadful inevitability of Romney:

This leaves Republicans with the unthinkable: Romney, who ran to the left of Ted Kennedy in 1994 and who could have been Obama’s health policy director, is now the most likely man to carry the GOP nomination in 2012.

Carney’s analysis is sound. My only objection is the description of this outcome as unthinkable. Undesirable? Certainly. Intolerable? Absolutely. One thing that it isn’t is unthinkable. A Romney nomination is the outcome that many movement conservatives openly preferred four years ago, and it was mostly the unexpected and (to party elites) unwelcome spoiler role of Huckabee that kept it from happening. Opposition to McCain was understandable and laudable, but in the drive to find someone to thwart McCain many movement conservatives embraced someone who had zero credibility as the viable conservative alternative. Because of this mistake, they invested Romney with legitimacy and credibility among Republican voters that he could never have had otherwise. As fashionable as it is to throw inconvenient policy positions down the memory hole, it is harder to persuade most voters that the candidate who was acceptable enough to the movement yesterday must be rejected tomorrow. It ought to be unthinkable that Romney can win the nomination, but it’s very likely what is going to happen. Consider it another one of the terrible legacies of the Bush era.

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Romney and the “Apology Tour”

Steve Benen remarks on the central lie of the Romney campaign (via Andrew):

But this plainly dishonest claim is at the core of Romney’s entire campaign message — it’s in every speech; it’s in every debate; it’s even in the title of his book. And the underlying point of the lie isn’t just over some routine policy dispute — Romney desperately wants Americans to question the president’s love of country. The “apology” claim is a lie, but it’s also an ugly smear.

Obviously, I agree with this, and I have been saying something similar about the “apology tour” and Romney’s part in perpetuating this lie for the last two years. Beyond the basic dishonesty of it, the frequent reliance on the “apology tour” attack tells us a lot about mainstream Republican foreign policy arguments. Obama has largely continued Bush’s national security policies, and he has not made very many departures from Bush’s foreign policy, except on Russia (where the departure has been fairly successful) and to a much lesser extent on Israel (where he has nothing to show for it). There isn’t very much that Obama has actually done abroad in the last two and a half years that clashes with what Romney thinks the U.S. ought to be doing, which is why he has to exaggerate the few differences that exist and otherwise repeat nonsense about Obama’s non-existent apologies.

When Romney started using this attack, I didn’t understand why Romney was focusing so much attention on issues related to foreign policy. Romney is notoriously bad when it comes to the substance of foreign policy, which is all the more striking given his reputation for being a quick study and technocratic, wonkish type, so it didn’t seem to make sense that he would make this one of his main critiques of the administration. Later on, I realized that this rhetoric about apologies and other conservatives’ charges that Obama didn’t believe in American exceptionalism were never meant to refer to anything that Obama had actually done. Instead, they were opportunities for the people making these charges to wrap themselves in the mantle of American nationalism, define belief in American exceptionalism in such a way that it could only apply to people who agreed with them, and to impute anti-Americanism to anyone else. The entire exercise is clearly fraudulent, but it is also one that many Republicans find quite satisfying. Romney can reconcile his habit of saying whatever people want to hear with his need to satisfy partisans during the nomination contest: who better to make an absurd falsehood into the core of his campaign than Romney? Looked at this way, Romney’s shameless willingness to say anything could be more of an advantage in securing the nomination than anyone thought possible.

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Christie, Daniels, and the GOP Elite’s Panic

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will not be accepting Bill Kristol’s request to serve as “the rough beast” of the Apocalypse:

Mr. Christie’s aides say the governor hasn’t budged from his months-long insistence that he won’t enter the presidential fray, despite what one described as a “relentless” stream of calls over the last week from prominent Republicans urging him to run.

The Christie hype has never made much sense to me, but then I can’t quite understand why so many party elites are in such a panic so late in the year. If enough of them concluded early on that Romney was unacceptable to them, the time for drafting their preferred candidate was six or eight months ago. There has been a steady hum of Ryan and Christie boosterism for the last several months, but it didn’t amount to much publicly until August when it was probably already too late for either of them to organize effectively. What makes this all the more puzzling is that Romney isn’t unacceptable to many party elites, but many of them are acting as if he were. He is “one of them” in many ways, and he would never be in the position he is today had it not been for their (sometimes grudging) acceptance of him four years ago. Party and movement leaders created him as a viable national candidate, and now they seem to regret what they have wrought.

Trying to lure Mitch Daniels into the race always seemed a very half-hearted affair. Unlike speculation for just about every other would-be candidate, Daniels speculation was focused on all the potential “problems” with his candidacy: he talked about a “truce” on social issues, and he wasn’t eagerly promoting more foreign wars. Daniels received all of the scrutiny and criticism that the other would-be candidates such as Ryan and Christie ought to have been receiving all along. Compared to the embarrassing adulation being heaped on Ryan and Christie for much of this year, there was never all that much enthusiasm for a Daniels candidacy, which is quite strange when we consider that Daniels has more credibility as a fiscal conservative than Ryan and has none of Christie’s liabilities. Daniels would have faced criticisms had he joined the race, but I wonder if one reason Daniels chose not to enter the race was that he was encountering so much resistance so early on. Having helped to run Daniels off, party and movement elites are scrambling to find someone, anyone, to fill the gap.

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Rick Perry: The HP of Presidential Candidates

Michael Tomasky tells us that we shouldn’t look to him for investment advice:

The conventional wisdom is dumping hard on Rick Perry. Politico blared Friday, in the wake of his fumbling debate performance, that he might already be “Texas toast.” This tells me now is exactly the time to buy Perry stock. The reasons are simple. First, the likelihood that Perry will iron out the wrinkles and become a better debater and candidate over time is greater, and maybe far greater, than the likelihood that Mitt Romney will become more acceptable to conservatives.

There is always the danger that the consensus on Perry’s weaknesses is an example of people seeing what they want to see. If enough people regard the prospect of a credible Perry candidacy to be disturbing, they may start to imagine that Perry’s candidacy is beginning to fail when it isn’t. However, I don’t think that explains what has been happening this week. Perry’s performance in the third debate has been universally derided as his worst one yet, which may mean that he cannot or will not “iron out the wrinkles” to become a better debater, perhaps because he doesn’t think he needs to do that. That may suggest a sense of entitlement that Perry feels because of his inflated national poll numbers. Whatever the reason, Perry has appeared to be getting much worse as a candidate since he launched his bid six weeks ago. More accurately, Perry was always a flawed candidate with some glaring weaknesses that have been fully exposed as he has been subjected to more scrutiny, and he has so far shown few signs that he can effectively criticize his rivals or make his arguments to advance his candidacy. His underwhelming second-place showing in the Florida P5 straw poll today suggests that activists have started to take notice.

It has been very easy for the consensus that Romney is simply unacceptable to too many conservatives to take hold because of an assumption that most conservative voters see Romney the way that most pundits and bloggers see him. “We” know that he is an ideologically compromised fraud, so a lot of people imagine that he can’t possibly be accepted by enough Republican voters to win. This takes for granted that voters have a lot of information about Romney, it assumes that most of them are judging candidates according to their ideological purity, and it ignores how much importance most Republicans place on winning the Presidency. Lev addressed this the other day in response to my incredulity that nearly two-thirds of New Hampshire primary voters trust Romney:

Anyone who has been following politics closely for the past decade knows exactly what Romney is, but most people don’t follow politics closely.

In order to grasp just how exceptionally unprincipled and opportunistic Romney is, one has to have spent an unusually large amount of time following his policy statements over the last six years, and then one has to become familiar with more than a decade of Romney’s previous candidacies. Apart from some activists and people with very strong views on certain issues, relatively few people are going to bother with this, and not all of these people will automatically conclude from this that Romney is unprincipled. Many professional partisans will be satisfied so long as Romney says all the right things now, and most voters are much less ideological than activists and professional partisans. Romney has spent the last six years eagerly cultivating conservatives, mouthing their phrases, and indulging their assumptions. Flattery is rewarded. Many of us are accustomed to accepting the idea that phoniness is politically damaging and “authenticity” is advantageous, so it is hard for us to believe that someone can pander and demagogue as shamelessly as Romney has and “get away with it,” but maybe he can. Partisanship is primarily tribal, which is a major reason why conservative Romney supporters don’t care about his past record, the individual mandate, or any of the other things that are supposed to doom him, and that helps to explain why Romney has as many conservative supporters as he does.

Tomasky argues that Romney is simply too unappealing as a person, and my instinct is to agree with this because I find him extremely unappealing, but that doesn’t appear to be what Republican voters or even many non-Republican voters think of him. Yes, there are quite a few conservatives who could never contemplate supporting Romney in the primary, and some, including myself, who could never support him at any point, but we are clearly in the minority. According to Gallup, 90% of Republicans would definitely vote or be willing to consider voting for Romney in the general election, and only 81% of Republicans say the same about Perry. Romney has a similar edge among independents: 70% are definitely supportive or willing to consider Romney, and just 60% say the same about Perry. Even 32% of Democrats say that they are open to backing a Romney candidacy compared to just 24% for Perry. These differences aren’t so marginal. The two of them have identical favorable ratings among Republicans at 74%. It truly gives me no pleasure to point all of this out, but there it is.

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Huntsman’s Folly

It isn’t news to me that Jon Huntsman is misguided on Iran policy, but he reminded us again today. His Florida CPAC speech made it quite clear (via Andrew):

And when our military is overextended, we risk being unable to aid our allies in times of crisis, such as Israel staring down a nuclear Iran. I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If there was ever a reason to use American force, it would be that.

Yes, Huntsman could live with a nuclear-armed Iran. So could the rest of us, and so could Israel. Huntsman has clearly put himself on record in support of launching an unprovoked attack on another state. It is a timely reminder that many sudden converts to skepticism about the war in Afghanistan are still quite insistent on starting another war in the region. Obviously, war with Iran will do nothing to rebuild our national “core,” and there is no telling how such a conflict might escalate or spread. Huntsman has had the opportunity to distinguish himself from the field as a fairly sensible realist on foreign policy, but between his disastrous refusal to take a position on Iraq and his infuriatingly conventional position on Iran he is doing his best to turn himself into a less popular version of John McCain.

P.S. Paul Pillar addressed the dangers of this sort of reckless campaign rhetoric earlier this week:

Probably more dangerous is the rhetoric coming out of the Republican campaign about Iran—more dangerous because it propels a vicious circle of mutual hostility and threat perception that already has seen many rounds of escalation. Republican extremists and Iranian hardline extremists feed off each other’s militant rhetoric. This is a rhetorical line that is likely to get only worse during the general election campaign.

Huntsman’s real chance was to offer an intelligent alternative to this. He chose to do the opposite.

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Perry’s Confusion in the Debate (II)

Peter Feaver does his best to redeem Perry’s Pakistan answer:

Even though he seemed to misstate who rejected whom on the India-F-16 deal, Perry was right that U.S.-India relations are intimately affected by, and themselves affect, U.S.-Pakistan relations. The effects are often pernicious, and improving relations with India does not always improve relations with Pakistan, but it would be folly to pretend that one can deal with Pakistan without factoring in how India affects Islamabad’s strategic calculus.

Perry didn’t “seem to misstate” this. He got it flat wrong. He said that “we had the opportunity” and that “we chose not to do that.” There was an opportunity, but it wasn’t one that “we” squandered or chose not to pursue. The American bids were rejected partly because of our relationship with Pakistan, but that goes against Perry’s approach to the question, which is that “our allies need to understand clearly that we are their friends.” All right, which ally in South Asia is Perry choosing to support more, and which one is he willing to risk alienating? His answer suggests that he doesn’t see the trade-offs inherent in trying to having close relationships with two regional rivals.

Because he had things backward on India and the fighter jets, he made a second, even more irrelevant leap to complain about the decision not to sell advanced fighters to Taiwan. Perry’s confusion continued as he concluded that selling fighter jets to India and Taiwan would be of some use in responding to the disastrous Pakistan hypothetical. Was Perry suggesting that the U.S. ought to encourage an Indian attack on Pakistan in the event that Pakistan’s arsenal were compromised? Is that supposed to make us have more confidence in Perry’s judgment?

It would be folly to pretend that Pakistan and India can be engaged independently of one another, but Perry never came close to saying anything like this. We can’t credit Perry with being right about the effects policies toward India and Pakistan have on one another, because he never said anything like this. To the extent that his simplistic “stand with our allies” mantra means anything, he was saying the opposite. Feaver has read something into Perry’s remarks, and then congratulated Perry for his insight. I am reminded of the exertions of some Republican pundits back in 2008 to try to make sense of Sarah Palin’s half-baked answers on foreign policy and security issues by crediting her with a level of understanding that she clearly didn’t have. Perry was repeating a mantra that the U.S. must stand with its allies, which is something no one denies, and he concluded by saying that “we don’t have those allies in that region that can assist us if that situation that you talked about were to become a reality.” In fact, the allies are still there, but it’s not clear how India would be able to assist the U.S. directly in responding to such a scenario. If India intervened, they would be risking full-scale war and the possibility of a nuclear exchange.

It is difficult to debate foreign policy in a “sound-bite campaign,” but it becomes impossible when some of the candidates are clearly unfamiliar with the issues.

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Romney, Perry and Paul in New Hampshire

Early on, Rick Perry was dubbed the “Teastablishment” candidate. This was why he was perceived as such a powerful threat to Romney. According to this view, Perry had the record and experience to satisfy party elites and the Tea Party credibility to please grassroots activists, and Romney was not supposed to be able to make significant inroads with the latter. At least in New Hampshire, that doesn’t seem to be true. A new Rasmussen New Hampshire poll puts Perry in second place 21 points behind Romney, but what is more interesting is that Romney narrowly leads Perry even among those who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party 30-26. Among all other groups except evangelicals, Romney runs away with the race. He has a 27-point lead among mainline Protestants, a 28-point lead among Catholics, and a huge 44-point lead among voters 65+. Perry is shaping up to be the same kind of regional, evangelical candidate that Huckabee was.

Ron Paul continues to outperform his polling from the previous cycle, and his 13% in New Hampshire is a definite improvement over the 8% he received in the 2008 primary. Especially as Bachmann continues to fade, Paul has a reasonably good chance to finish in the top three in Iowa, and a very good chance to do the same in New Hampshire. As in the Suffolk poll, Paul draws more support from moderates (15%) than conservatives. He runs second among independents (19%), and he has a remarkably strong showing among 30-39 year olds (23%), which is one demographic that he wins outright. It makes sense. This is the cohort that came of age during the Bush years, and many of them are understandably appalled by the GOP they have known for the last decade.

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Perry’s Confusion in the Debate

Walter Shapiro describes Rick Perry’s confused answer on Pakistan during last night’s debate:

Asked a hypothetical about Pakistan losing control of its nuclear arsenal, Perry wisely ducked the explosive what-would-you-do-first part of the question. But then Perry veered off on an odd tangent that took him from the Haqqani terrorist network in Pakistan to our reputed reluctance to sell advanced F-16s to India, Pakistan’s historic enemy. Next, Perry drifted into our unwillingness to fully arm Taiwan. About all that was missing was a critique of our military posture towards Luxembourg.

Just don’t get him started on our appeasement of Wallonia. This is the sort of thing that Perry is liable to do when presented with a question on foreign policy: fall back on the usual tropes that the administration ignores allies and empowers or appeases enemies, regardless of whether that has anything to do with the question. He evidently doesn’t know much about international affairs, but he knows that he has heard conservative pundits repeatedly complaining about F-16 sales or the lack thereof, and he has some interest as the governor of Texas in having more F-16s sold. What’s worse than Perry’s meandering answer is that he may think his response was quite clever. After all, he said nice things about supporting two allies, and he wants to sell them weapons. Who could complain about that?

What really stands out in Perry’s response is how both issues have absolutely nothing to do with the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal (how would selling fighters to Taiwan give them the ability to intervene in Pakistan?), but his answer was even worse than most people think. Perry’s remarks on India managed to get the essential facts wrong. Perry said, “For instance, when we had the opportunity to sell India the upgraded F-16s, we chose not to do that.” In fact, what made the Indian decision to reject American bids for the new fighter jet contract so bothersome was that the administration had actively lobbied on behalf of the bids. The problem wasn’t that the U.S. chose not to sell jets to India. Despite the fact that it would have angered Pakistan, the administration was eager to sell them. Because the purchase was so large and will eventually make up half of their air force, India’s government didn’t want to buy from American companies because of a fear of what future administrations might do:

A major hurdle for the United States, Riedel said, was its perception in India as an unreliable arms supplier because of past embargoes imposed after various wars and nuclear tests.

“There is a belief that in a crisis situation, particularly if it was an India-Pakistan crisis, the U.S. could pull the plug on parts, munitions, aircraft — precisely at the moment you need them most,” he said. “Memories are deep in this part of the world.”

Most voters aren’t going to care that Perry doesn’t know what he’s talking about on foreign policy, but it should set off alarms that one of the two leading contenders for a major party nomination seems so poorly informed about one of the more important regions in the world. There were already reasons to dread the prospect of having Perry in a position to make foreign policy decisions, but it is worse than we thought. It appears that he is even more clueless on these issues than the last governor from Texas.

P.S. Perry’s performance as a candidate so far confirms that he was as overrated from the beginning as I thought.

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Romney and New Hampshire

The most surprising item from the latest New Hampshire primary Suffolk poll was the response to the question, “Do you trust Mitt Romney to say what he believes, even if it is unpopular?” Amazingly, 60% of all respondents said yes. Most of the reactions to the poll have focused on how little support Perry has (8%), and how well Ron Paul (14%) and Huntsman (10%) are doing, but what I find most newsworthy is that most people “very likely” to vote in the primary (62%) don’t perceive Romney to be the famously unprincipled panderer that he is, and conservatives are even more likely to agree that Romney can be trusted to say what he believes. When asked the same question about Perry, fewer respondents agree (54%). 32% of all respondents name Romney as the candidate they trust the most.

Contrary to the assumption that I and a lot of other observers have made, Romney wins more support among conservatives (48%) than he does among moderates (37%), and Perry has the support of just 13% of conservatives right now. Huntsman and Paul are winning over a third of the moderates between the two of them, and Romney is still running away with the lead. I had been assuming that Romney would win almost all of the moderate vote and pick up enough conservatives along the way to eke out victories, but it seems so far that he is faring well with both groups. Many things could change in the next five months, but it’s hard to see how Romney fails to win New Hampshire.

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