5 Ways the GOP Can Choose Among Better Candidates in 2016

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The awfulness of the 2012 field has produced countless laments but precious little introspection.

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This primary season, the Republican field is widely thought to be weaker than folks on the right would like. As yet, however, there hasn't been much introspection about what went wrong or how it might be remedied in future presidential contests. Perhaps that's due to the implausibility of blaming the usual suspects: neither Hollywood nor academia nor public employee unions nor sharia law nor ACORN nor even the "lamestream media" can be blamed for the elevation or inadequacy of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, or Newt Gingrich.

To kick off a much-needed conversation about generating better not-Mitt Romneys, here are 5 ways that Team Red can recover in 2016, or at least increase the chances for a stronger field from which to choose.

1) Stop obsessing over inconsequential slights, real or perceived. In the current primary season, a lot of conservatives deemed Jon Huntsman unacceptable, or not worthy of consideration, because he sent out a Tweet gently mocking climate-change and evolution deniers. Whether or not you object to his attempt to curry favor with the media, it is undeniable that he governed Utah for 8 years as a conservative, favors the Paul Ryan budget, and is generally more reliable and more conservative than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, both of whom have outperformed him.

2) Realize that aggressive rhetoric isn't a proxy for how successfully a politician can push conservative reforms. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann can zing liberals as harshly as anyone. Their penchant for doing so on Fox News is a major reason both of them were at one time considered viable 2012 contenders. But neither were ever electable, and even if either improbably won a general election, they'd lack the necessary skills to actually advance a conservative agenda in office. In contrast, Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, had substantial executive experience and a demonstrated ability to advance conservative reforms by cooperating with and fighting legislators from the other party. Despite his record, he was deemed unreliable -- partly because, on a debate stage, he shief away from insulting Mitt Romney in the same way he'd done elsewhere.

3) Understand that movement conservatism operates in a media bubble.That means that the politicians who Republicans think they know all about from Fox News and talk radio haven't in fact been scrutinized and vetted -- something right-leaning media outlets are hesitant to do their homework unless given the cover of a political campaign, when other conservatives are attacking. Were conservative media outlets more willing to acknowledge the flaws of their own outside of campaign season, the set of candidates deemed to be viable standard bearers would change.

4) Accept that governing always means compromise. This is relevant because a successful multi-term governor is always going to appear less pure than a businessman seeking public office for the first time or someone who needs only to win a Congressional seat in a safe district. Like the former governor, the businessman and the congresswoman will compromise to advance their overall agenda if elected to the presidency -- the only difference is that we don't yet know how they will compromise. A failure to realize as much is causing conservatives to feel unduly negative about electable candidates with executive experience, and unduly optimistic about empty vessels whose purity is mostly due to the fact that they haven't accomplished anything or run anything or been around very long.

5) Recognize the right's new foreign-policy radicalism. As George W. Bush proved in 2000, running on the need for a humble foreign policy that doesn't squander American resources abroad can be effective for Republicans, as can critiquing Democratic presidents for abusing their power or expressing wariness about the military-industrial complex. Even though President Obama has embraced much of the post-9/11 Bush-era approach to fighting terrorism, the Republican field is determined to run to his right and to portray him as an appeaser who is uncomfortable asserting American power -- a hopeless criticism given that his reply will be that he's killed Osama bin Laden and much of Al Qaeda's leadership.

There is, too, the Republican insistence on defending the Iraq War and criticizing Obama for ending it, even though half of Republicans think the war was a mistake and that bringing American troops home was the right approach. The result is a party that is out of touch with reality and its own voters. There is no reason why Ron Paul has to be the only candidate advancing an anti-interventionist critique of American foreign policy, and if the GOP had a nominee that incorporated even a moderated version of his best insights they'd actually have a chance of winning some of Paul's voters during the general election, rather than losing them all.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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