The perfect Republican candidate for president, two leading conservatives suggested, might be like Frankenstein: cobbled together from bits and pieces taken from other candidates in the crowded field.
That suggestion came amid growing consensus within the conservative establishment as to who the strongest candidates might be, if not which issues they ought to be emphasizing.
Arthur C. Brooks of the free market-oriented American Enterprise Institute singled out former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He took care to add that all Republican senators in the field should, by virtue of their office, be included in that top tier.
Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, also named Rubio, Walker, and Bush, throwing in Ohio Governor John Kasich for good measure. (One notable absence from these lists? Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Kristol highlighted “the failure of Rand Paul,” saying that despite ably presenting his ideas, “there’s just not much purchase there” with ordinary voters.)
But if the field itself is taking shape, the issues that will define it remain uncertain. Kristol and Brooks spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Sunday, in a panel on conservatism and the 2016 election, moderated by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart. Both were optimistic about the prospects for conservatism in the presidential election, but for very different reasons.
Kristol was insistent that this will be, “a national-security election,” focused on foreign policy. “ISIS, Iran, Putin. The world is less safe than it was,” he said, laying the blame at the feet of President Obama. “His foreign policies have made the world more dangerous.”
Brooks acknowledged that the field is using rhetoric “that’s not very libertarian, that’s a lot more aggressive on foreign policy than we’ve seen in a long time.” Still, he argued, perhaps the most striking feature of the field was that Republicans are “competing with each other to see who has better solutions for people who are in poverty.” That, he pointed out, represented a dramatic shift from previous cycles. ““I can’t imagine any candidates who say: ‘You know the problem with the poor in this country? They’re just a bunch of takers.’ That’s pre-2012,” he said.
Kristol agreed that Mitt Romney’s approach to the issue in 2012, branding almost half of the electorate as takers, was a blunder. “The biggest mistake of Romney was the 47 percent comment and attitude,” he explained. It was compounded by the lack of a positive agenda. “Voters looked up in September ’08, and the biggest mistake Romney made was not having a fresh economic policy.”
But even as they surveyed the fragmented field, with thirteen candidates formally declared and more waiting on the sidelines, neither Brooks nor Kristol was able to spot a candidate who perfectly embodied their preferred views. That, both insisted, was a positive sign, evidence of a party newly infused with youth, energy, and ideas. And even candidates who seem unlikely to capture the nod may shape the nominee’s agenda in helpful ways.
“The job is for reform conservatives to work on the composite candidate,” explained Kristol. That, he cautioned, had limits; the party has some obligation to police its extremes and “to make sure that everyone has a relatively normal agenda—that there isn’t a ‘scary body part’ of the composite candidate.” But, he concluded, “when it forms itself, this candidate will take on the views of 2, 3, 4 people.” Brooks concurred: “A successful nominee often absorbs in certain ways aspects” of the others who are running.
So the question for conservatives may be less who to choose as their standard-bearer, than which of the ideas now circulating among the rivals for the nomination should be incorporated into the agenda of the composite Franken-candidate who prevails. And on that, Kristol issued a cautionary note: Billionaires, he said, “can be a problem.” When candidates spend too much time with wealthy donors, “as a result, they have a slightly weird view about what people care about and where the voters really are.” He cited the fact that candidates often discuss cutting capital-gains taxes, while voters are more likely to be interested in lowering payroll taxes, as one example.
But whether the composite candidate who emerges is tilted toward foreign policy, as Kristol’s wing of the party might prefer, or toward domestic issues, as Brooks clearly favors, there does not seem to be much concern that a raucous, rancorous primary will leave the party divided. Even the billionaires funding favored candidates out of their own pockets, said Brooks, “really, really, really want a Republican president. They really want to win.”
That, perhaps, is the most important legacy of the 2012 race, overshadowing even the ways in which it has reshaped the Republican Party’s internal debates. After eight years with a Democrat in the Oval Office, conservative activists of all stripes are ready for a change.