Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The GOP 2016 Field: And Then There Were Sixteen

The candidates should have more incentives to break with party orthodoxy more often in such a large field, but the opposite has been happening.
Republican debate

Dan McCarthy writes in The New York Times this morning about the disappointing uniformity of the 2016 Republican presidential race:

There’s nothing wrong with the number of candidates seeking the Republican nomination. The field will narrow once the debates begin, and until then the more opportunity the party has to debate its direction, the better. But that’s where the contenders so far disappoint. From Jeb Bush and Scott Walker at the head of the pack to Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee in the middle to Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham at the back, their similarities are more striking than their differences. All want to be the generic conservative candidate.

As Dan notes later on, this is especially true on foreign policy. The quarreling between Walker and Bush over the last few days over the intensity and speed with which they will scrap the nuclear deal is instructive. It confirms that there is no substantive debate between the leading Republican candidates on one of the major foreign policy issues of the day. There is at most some quibbling over the timing and tactics needed to undo the agreement, and most of this is just posturing to create the impression of meaningful differences between candidates where none exists. There is no division among the many candidates on this deal, which is all the more discouraging when 40% of Republicans support the agreement. The nuclear deal offers a fine opportunity to revisit and challenge the party’s tired assumptions about the efficacy of sanctions and “preventive” war, among other things, but none of the sixteen candidates is willing to seize it. The odd thing is that in such a large field the candidates should have more incentives to distinguish themselves from the pack and to break with party orthodoxy more often, but the opposite has been happening.

As John Kasich makes his formal announcement this morning, there is the prospect of some real disagreement on a few domestic policy issues, but it is questionable whether his arguments will receive much of a wider hearing. His anemic levels of support so far are likely to leave him out of the early main debates. This is the main downside of the overabundance of candidates in this cycle: the candidates that might add something new or modestly different to the main debates are unlikely to participate in them. Meanwhile, the main debates will be full of candidates that are just echoing a very conventional party line. The GOP would likely have a more constructive debate over where the party should go if it had half as many candidates with at least twice as much diversity in policy views as the current field offers. As it is, we will be stuck with more than a dozen versions of the same uninspired talking points on almost everything, and the only noticeable differences on display will be ones of affect and style. That will make for dull viewing, but more important it will mean that the GOP will remain wedded to the same failed policies that the electorate keeps rejecting.



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