The Conventional Wisdom and the Race Ahead

There’s a seasonal shortage of news at the moment, with the politicians at home for the holidays and the stock markets still mulling over the Black Friday sales figures and the rage of the Ferguson rioters seemingly chilled by the early winter weather, so the pundits are availing themselves of the opportunity to speculate about the next presidential election. Our powers of prophecy are limited, especially about matters two years away, but lacking a more urgent topic we will be so bold as to venture a few thoughts about the matter.
The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton will inevitably be the Democrats’ nominee, but that was also the conventional wisdom at this early point in the ’08 election cycle and we all know how that turned out. According to the prevailing theory Clinton has all the name recognition, organization, and money, and no one in her party has the resources to challenge her, but all of that was also true in ’08. We are suspicious of conventional wisdom and prevailing theories in every case, but especially so about Clinton’s inevitability.
Since ’08 Clinton has added a four-year stint as Secretary of State to her lengthy resume, but even the State Department’s well-paid spokeswomen have trouble naming anything good that came of it while her critics can point to the “reset” with Russia and the failure to provide adequate security to the diplomatic staff in Benghazi and the scapegoating of a filmmaker in the aftermath among a number of very bad things came of it. The rest of that lengthy resume looks even less impressive than it did ’08, too. Her legal career was mostly known for her ability to parlay her husband’s more well-heeled constituents into clients until an audio recording surfaced of her chortling about the child rapist she had ruthlessly defended despite being convinced of his guilt, intermittent publicity tours by Monica Lewinsky will continue to remind a scandal-weary public that her time as First Lady was mostly spent defending her husband’s serial adulteries when she wasn’t firing White House travel agents for her friends’ benefit or attempting to foist some crazy health care scheme on the public, and at this point no one can remember anything from her brief time in the Senate except for some very harsh-sounding orating against a George W. Bush administration that will also be largely forgotten by the time ’16 rolls around. Her more recent career as a memoirist has proved equally disastrous, with countless gaffes and some surprisingly negative press accompanying her publicity efforts. In ’16 she’ll be eight years older than she was when the Democrats rejected her in ’08, and no more appealing.
The conventional wisdom further holds that this time around there are no challengers to Clinton who have the necessary credentials to be president, but this overlooks the fact that last time around the Democrats preferred a candidate with no qualifications for the job whatsoever. That “weak bench” all the pundits seem to mention is filled with equally unqualified potential challengers, which means that none of them will have less to explain on their shorter resumes, and any of them could at least claim to be a fresher face. One shudders think that a Saul Alinsky groupie such as Clinton is insufficiently liberal for the primary voters and caucus-goers of the Democratic Party, but her lucrative ties to big business and reputation for high living leaves her vulnerable to a challenge from a further left that is consumed with anti-corporate sentiment and obsessed with income inequality. Many of our liberal friends are already enthused by the possibility of nominating Massachusetts’ Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the fake Indian who will have been in the Senate for as long as the last Democratic nominee had been and is best known for delivering a ridiculous speech arguing that because government builds roads and hires cops businesses should be obliged to pay for any cockamamie idea the government comes up with.
Over on the Republican side, the conventional wisdom holds that the Republicans have a deep bench but no front-runner. Such mixed sports metaphors leave us unsure if this is a good thing or not, but we think it means Republicans are in better shape than the other team. The deep bench part strikes us as true enough, as the possible candidates include such a diverse lot as Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, as well as Rep. Paul Ryan as well as several past and present governors such as Texas’ Rick Perry, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Florida’s Jeb Bush, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Throw in pediatric neurosurgeon and non-politician Ben Carson and other a few dark horses who are bound to emerge, and it’s a very competitive field. If none are thought to be inevitable, that only suggests there is much to choose from.
The conventional wisdom is partial to one of the Senators or Christie or Bush, but that’s because the conventional wisdom always puts too much stock in name recognition, organization, and money. Cruz is beloved by conservatives for his willingness to employ all the constitutional means at his disposal on behalf of his stands, but those same tactics will make him easily caricatured as an out-of-control right winger. Paul is too much an isolationist for a party that hasn’t been isolationist since Eisenhower. Rubio has hurt himself with a soft-on-illegal immigration policy. Ryan was was Mitt Romney’s running mate and has since been perceived as too willing to make deals. All are unavoidably associated with Washington, which is currently regarded unfavorably by both parties as well as independents, and even the Republicans inclined to favor gridlock can argue that no one in Congress has made it gridlocked quite enough. The conventional wisdom’s infatuation with Christie and Bush is downright fanciful, as both have stacked out important positions that are anathema to the typical Republican primary voter. Christie’s suspicious bridge closings and infuriating embrace of President Barack Obama are enough to remove him from his contention, but he’s also shown a soft-on-Islamism streak and has views on gun control and immigration that are too northeastern for a party dominated by the south, middle-west, and west. Bush has also ruined his chances with his sentimental views on illegal immigration, and his outspoken support for a ridiculous Common Core that would federalize school curricula is another problem, and at this point the party faithful seem to have had enough of Bushes or any other dynastic line of politicians.
Our guess is that one of the other governors will likely wind up with the nomination. Several have impressive records of balancing budgets and promoting economic growth and not bossing their citizens around, all of which will have more appeal to the average voter than any Democrat’s promise to equalize incomes and enforce proper attitudes regarding homosexuality or whatever the civil rights cause of the moment might be, and several have made this case in states usually inclined to vote for Democratic presidential nominees. All have faced ferocious opposition from the public sector unions and legal establishments and press in their home states, so any debilitating scandals they might have should be well known by now. We’re most intrigued by Walker, who has won election and staved off a recall effort and then won re-election in a traditionally liberal state despite the best efforts of well-funded and ruthless enemies, and somehow retained a reputation for being polite.
The same conventional wisdom that admires Christie’s confrontational style regards Walker politeness as bland, even if Walker has proved himself adept at the most bare-knuckle sort of political combat, but we think the public might be inclined to appreciate a more low-key and accomplished candidate after eight years of soaring rhetoric and crashing results. Although we forget the title, we recall a novel that featured a political consultant character saying that the only campaign themes that had ever been invented were “bright shiny day” and “back to basics,” and after two terms of bright shiny days the Republicans could do well with the alternative. The Republicans face daunting demographic challenges and a stubborn presidential electoral map and the usual disadvantage in the mass media, as even the conventional wisdom can see, but with their deep bench and the opposition’s flawed front-runner they might have a fighting chance.

— Bud Norman

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