Monday, October 26, 2015

An Obama-centric Theory of the Republican Presidential Race So Far

This National Review Online piece by Henry Olsen compares Jeb Bush to Rip Van Winkle. Olsen argues that Bush's presidential campaign seems be run out of a playbook that is at least ten years out of date. By advocating generous tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, a greater federal involvement in public education, comprehensive immigration reform, and interventionism abroad, Jeb is running a 2000-era race in a 2015 world. "America has changed," writes Olsen, and Bush's "difficulties are directly tied to his inability so far to adapt to the changed environment."

In particular, the part of America known as the "Republican Party" has changed. "Republicans, even those in the somewhat conservative camp whose votes are key for anyone to be nominated, are angry," observes Olsen. "They want someone who can lead, and that means they want someone who can articulate conservative principles and take the fight to the Democrats. Bush’s steady, Mr. Nice Guy persona is totally genuine, but it seems out of step with the demands of a now-volatile GOP electorate."

Who are Republicans so angry at? Olsen doesn't dwell on this point, though the answer is clear enough: Barack Obama. Many rank-and-file Republicans are dissatisfied with their own party leaders too, of course, but this is partially a manifestation of their anti-Obama anger; they hold Republican officeholders responsible for losing to Obama in two national elections and for failing to prevent him from implementing a liberal policy agenda. In response, most Republican candidates are running on a platform of repealing as much of the Obama presidency as they can, from the Affordable Care Act to "deferred action" to the Dodd-Frank reforms to the Iran nuclear agreement.

The unexpected success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in polls of Republican primary voters is usually interpreted as a widespread clamor for "outsider" candidates. But these two figures also stand out in another, less-appreciated way. More than any other candidates in the race, both Trump and Carson have built their political personas around pure opposition to Obama. Trump's extended engagement with national politics began several years ago as an anti-Obama crusade; he even sponsored a fact-finding mission to Hawaii in 2011 meant to dig up evidence of Obama's fraudulent birth records (which was never heard of again). Carson's appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2013, when he criticized the ACA and other Obama policies in front of the president, elevated him immediately to the status of a national conservative hero.

Jeb Bush certainly hasn't been leading any kind of charge against Obama for the last eight years, and that absence alone allows his conservative bona fides to remain open to question. He appears to have no particular interest in picking fights with Obama or defining himself politically in opposition to the incumbent president—or anyone else, for that matter, except perhaps Trump. (In contrast, Mitt Romney began his 2012 campaign by promoting a book whose title, No Apology, signaled his anti-Obama message by serving as a rejoinder to what conservatives dubbed an international "apology tour" by Obama.) Though Bush's tonal mismatch with the rest of the contemporary GOP may hurt his chances in the Republican primaries, Jeb can take solace in at least one dodged bullet: at least he never gave Obama a hug.