On May 14, I joined a tiny, highly exclusive group of Republicans, namely those who have decided not to seek our party’s presidential nomination. By contrast, the coach section of the party contains perhaps two dozen people who have announced (or soon will) their availability. Good luck to them all (well, maybe not all). Here’s the hard reality. If two dozen candidates actually declare, 23 of them will lose. I, on the other hand, will still be able to say I have never been defeated in a nomination contest.
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed “considering” running and learned a lot about our country. Here’s a bit of what I picked up, some of which professional political operatives and their chattering class hangers-on get, and some they do not.
First, the Republican nomination is wide open, and the polls will fluctuate wildly for some time. Voters expressing a preference frequently do so only very weakly. Citizens inclined to support candidate X are still completely willing to consider switching to someone else. Although campaign staffs and volunteers are beginning to develop into visible organizations in key states, even those are fluid and evanescent. Accordingly, there is today no compelling reason to heed what commentators say about the “horse race,” since they have no better idea than anyone else what is going on.
Second, I was truly impressed by how seriously voters in states like New Hampshire and Iowa take their responsibilities. They expect candidates to answer tough, often penetrating questions about issues they think are important. Those who complain that the early states are not “representative” of America as a whole miss the point. The early states vary widely among themselves, but more important, they are the only venues where significant retail politics at the presidential level is still possible. Iowa and New Hampshire voters may react enthusiastically to red-meat speech lines and love seeing celebrities as much as anyone, but on the decisive day, I believe they will vote for what they think is in the country’s best interests. (And, no, I am not opening offices in Manchester and Des Moines looking forward to 2020 or 2024.)
Third, the focus on recapturing the White House is exceptionally strong. This election is critical to reversing the Obama presidency’s mistakes, one reason the candidate field is so large and support so fractured. Congressional Republicans should take heed, because this energy also needs to be mobilized to defend the 24 of 34 Senate seats up for election held by Republicans and the close House races where Democrats will exert every effort. No one doubts the presidency’s political centrality, but our task must be to fuse the intense desire to win it with the need to keep House and Senate majorities to support a new Republican president. Otherwise, we will simply repeat the current stasis.
Fourth, a generalized desire to win does not determine the ultimate winner. The issues that will differentiate the candidates have not yet emerged, and there is currently no dominant theme. True, as time passes, some contenders with no realistic chance will fall by the wayside because of their own weaknesses. Nonetheless, losing candidates from prior cycles cannot be ruled out. The desire for a “fresh face” will not inevitably prevail over the attractiveness of real experience, given the debacle of electing the resolutely unqualified Barack Obama.
I believe protecting the country is a president’s first responsibility, and that national security should therefore be the most important issue, especially in a Republican nomination contest. Candidates must show they are prepared to make decisions of potentially mortal consequence for the country’s safety, not just spar verbally with Hillary Clinton during debates. This involves far more than advocating going from A to B; it requires the skills necessary to actually get from A to B.
Once the media tire of mooting what George W. Bush did in Iraq in 2003, threatening developments abroad could play a major campaign role. A terrorist attack on the homeland, more chaos in the Middle East, or Russian agitation in the Baltics could prove graphically how insecure we have become under Obama. One dominant impression from my “considering” days is just how unimaginative Washington-based political commentators and operatives can be. The conventional wisdom today is that national security will be central in 2016, whereas a year ago, the conventional wisdom was precisely the opposite. Eugene McCarthy said during his 1968 campaign against Lyndon Johnson that reporters were like a row of birds perched on a telephone line: When one flew off, all the rest flew off. Nothing has changed.