This morning, I reflected on the fact that if I didn’t feel a professional obligation to do so, I would not have watched either Republican debate last night. It’s not that I’m disinterested in politics per se, but that I think these events are pantomimes of democracy, a performance meant to convey meaning, but actually means nothing.
Maybe I’m just jaded this way, but I watched the things looking not for a candidate I could affirmatively back, but for the candidates who looked like they could be most plausible as president, and who would do the least harm in office. That’s a very low bar to have to clear, but in my judgment, only Rubio, Bush, and Walker cleared it. Maybe Christie. Not, alas, Rand Paul, the candidate I’ve been most interested in (my TAC colleague Catherine Addington rightly asked on Twitter last night why Paul appears to have jettisoned the things that made him stand out from the GOP pack).
If I were a candidate, I would find these events frustrating, because they do not in any way depend on the depth and seriousness with which you have worked out your policies (everything goes dead when one of them starts droning on about his accomplishments, and policy details), but entirely about the theatrical and emotional effect you have regarding selling a vision. Neither Bush, nor Rubio, nor Walker were able to convey vision last night, but to be fair, with a stage that crowded, it would have been hard to have done. Cruz did, and the vision he conveyed was brittle, extreme, and off-putting. Trump’s vision is Trump. Carson’s vision may become clear once he wipes the sleep out of his eyes and has his morning cup of coffee. To be fair, none of the others offered a vision either, but Christie may have helped himself by not looking as hot-tempered as he often does (or at least not letting his temper get the best of him in his heated exchange with Rand Paul), and Paul may have hurt himself by expressing his passion in a way that came across as merely cranky. As for Huck, well, he was mighty promising in 2008, but now he’s just the talk show host from the Fox News Channel. He’s good in that role, but it has diminished him greatly as a presidential prospect. Kasich, I had hopes for, but he’s clearly reached his political pinnacle as Ohio governor, and good on him for it.
The reason why Bush, Rubio, and Walker all emerged from last night looking plausibly presidential is because they didn’t make any big mistakes, and seemed grounded by comparison to the competition. Maybe that’s the best thing you can hope for in a debate with 10 candidates in it: not screwing up. I want to see more of all three men, want to see how they do when they have more time on stage. One of those guys is going to be the GOP nominee, it seems to me. Christie and Paul, whatever their virtues, have problems of temperament. So does Ted Cruz; plus, he’s a bomb-thrower. All the others are irrelevant. Either Paul or Christie may be able to turn things around with a strong debate performance next time, but if I were a GOP donor, I would be looking at Rubio, Bush, and Walker from here on out. And if it weren’t for Bush’s experience as governor and massive war chest, I would be looking only at Rubio and Walker, because I have yet to see Jeb Bush give any credible rationale for why he should be president, other than that it’s his turn. I think he would make a decent president, but fair or not, he has such a burden to overcome, with that family name. He has to convince Republicans to take another chance on a Bush — and to take a chance that swing voters won’t vote against him based on bad memories of his brother’s administration. People who were 18 years old when Bill Clinton left office are now in their thirties. They have personal experience of what it means for a member of the Bush family to govern America.
And think of all the adult voters who have no memory of the corruption of the Clinton years, and for whom Hillary Clinton is not Lady MacBeth, but a senator and Secretary of State. For people my age (48) and older, Hillary is poison. But if you didn’t live through the Clinton presidency as an adult conservative, you probably don’t have that anybody-but-Hillary feeling in your gut. Plus, to the extent you do think of the Clinton presidency, you may recall it as a time of peace and prosperity, not impeachment and sleaze. Whatever debacles the Clintons brought upon us pale by comparison to the Iraq War of George W. Bush, as well as the economic collapse over which he presided (and which, note well, was prepared too by Clinton and the Washington consensus, but most people don’t understand that).
All of which is to say that it is hard to imagine a Republican convention being genuinely excited about Jeb Bush, given how he has been underperforming on the stump, and the millstone of his brother’s legacy. Unless Bush dramatically picks up his game, I think this is going to come down to a Rubio-Walker contest. Assuming that Bush remains a muddled campaigner, it will be interesting to see which of those two, Rubio or Walker, has what it takes to slay the Ted Cruz dragon. Whatever else you may say about Cruz, the man is a true believer. He has little chance of winning the nomination, because he’s shown himself to be too reckless. But he’s going to drag the field far to the right, if they’re not careful.