Tour of the GOP 2016 Posse: A Noah's Ark of Right-Wing Specimens

The 2016 Republican presidential posse is now in its right-wing flavor-of-the-month phase.

According to recent polls, the most popular not-quite-new face on the presidential trail is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Some of that is attributable to Cruz announcing he’s running before others—although that will soon change with Tuesday's announcement by Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, and others to follow. But Cruz the political bomb-thrower is not even a 21st-century Pat Buchanan, who peaked with winning the New Hampshire primary in 1996, but was never a serious contender for the White House. Cruz may take himself very seriously, but serious people don’t and won’t—hence the Buchanan comparison.

Why? Buchanan had impeccable insider political credentials, as a speechwriter for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan before he became pitchfork Pat who freaked out political Washington by nipping at Kansas Sen. Bob Dole’s heels in Iowa and winning New Hampshire. Buchanan also was likeable in an impish way, when interviewed. Cruz checks none of those boxes.

Cruz’s Senate career is one big screw-you to his party, from forcing a 2013 federal shutdown to not endorsing fellow Texan Republican Sen. John Cornyn, in his primary last year. Cruz just campaigned in Iowa with freshman Rep. Rod Blum, another backstabber who last fall won with John Boehner’s help but didn’t vote for him for speaker. And he's a surly know-it-all.

There’s another factor that applies to the GOP pugilists who would be president, which also includes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Dr. Ben Carson. Nobody will become the next nominee without support from the GOP establishment.

Top elected officials and Republican National Committee members hold 428 unpledged votes in their national convention, where 1,235 are needed for the nomination. That's one bar to GOP extremists. The RNC also shortened its 2016 nominating season to curtail self-inflicted wounds among candidates. Recall how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce led the charge to defeat GOP rebels during the final stretches of 2014's elections, another sign party leaders want to win, not just fight.

Pugilists like Cruz may be grabbing the limelight now, but when the rubber hits the real road to the White House you can be sure that the Republican Party’s grownups will flip the switch, cutting off their tirades, just as Walmart and the Chamber last week told Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto an anti-LGBT religious liberty bill. And he did.

So where does that leave progressives who are pondering or provoked by the GOP pack? The answer is waiting and watching, as rightwingers have their fleeting moments in the sun.

There are reasons why ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is still considered the frontrunner, even if he is barely above Walker in recent polls and the New York Times reports his nomination is not inevitable. Mostly, Bush is trying to sound as moderate and reasonable as one can sound in a right-wing dominated contest—even if he tilts heavily to the right—which is the tone corporate Republicans want. The previous main contender for that purported moderate slot, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has not recovered from the idiotic “bridgegate scandal,” where he claimed he didn’t know what his top aides were doing when they shut down days of New York City commuter traffic to punish a local mayor. On Friday, the Washington Post's political handicapper called his campaign "over."

Even Bush’s rebellious Florida protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio, who is expected to announce April 13, does not support the broad immigration reforms and national education standards that Bush does. Nor does Rubio, who is more relaxed on the stump than Walker or Cruz, have the experience participating in presidential campaigns like the Bush clan. It is no coincidence that every presidential candidate who has run for the office before is not bursting out of the starting line a year before 2016's first votes are cast.

All of the Republican candidates are social conservatives of varying degrees, which also dilutes the challenge from this corner of the right. Outright evangelicals have won Iowa before, but not much more after that other than deep red rural states. That’s what happened to Arkansas’ ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Pennsylvania’s ex-Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, even with the support of a single rich donor’s super-PAC. And libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has diluted his non-interventionist branding, recently saying the U.S. must throw its military muscle at ISIS, the Islamic state.   

For now, it may be most useful to think of categories of GOP candidates, as there is a musical chairs quality to who is ahead in the polls. The first nominating contests are 11 months away, which is a lifetime in national politics. Here are the four categories that comprise the current GOP field and some lesser-known recent highlights about the candidates.

1. Pugilists. This is the contest for who’s the toughest, no-compromise Republican most likely to throw the first punch in a fight with Democrats or enemies abroad. This is Walker, Cruz and Carson. Even though the current go-to right-wing talk radio host, Hugh Hewitt, has tried to defend Walker by claiming he didn’t say it, Walker's most telling words were uttered at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When asked how he would respond to ISIS, he said, “If I can take on 100,000 [pro-union] protesters, I can do the same across the world.” As the Washington Post headline noted, “Yes, Scott Walker really did link terrorists with protesting teachers.” Walker told Hewitt, Americans “want someone who is going to fight and win every day.”

Walker is not the only candidate to confuse fighting with solving problems. Cruz brags about defying his GOP colleagues, wants to shut down the IRS, seal the borders, repeal Obamacare, pass a U.S. constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage if the Supreme Court rules otherwise, and more. At a recent New Hampshire event—packed with stone-faced elderly white guys—he was asked about shutting the Department of Education too. Sure, the Harvard Law graduate replied.

Amazingly, Walker and Cruz face real competition for the most abrasive Republican in Carson, the black retired neurosurgeon. Even though more than 16 million people have gained healthcare coverage through Obamacare, Carson called it “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” at a 2013 prayer breakfast, where he also compared the Obama administration to Nazi Germany. He has also said homosexuality is a choice and same-sex marriage can lead to bestiality, and has no patience for undocumented immigrants, as the New York Times Sunday Magazine reported.

2. Right-wingers who don’t pick fights. This batch of candidates includes Paul, Rubio, ex-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. They all are less threatening on the stump than the pugilists, but have much the same right-wing agenda: shrink government, cut taxes, repeal regulations, slash safety nets, privatize where possible, and invest in defense.

Paul, who announced his candidacy on his website and in a speech Tuesday, is the only candidate from the GOP’s ideological libertarian wing. He grew up politically under his father, Congressman Ron Paul, who ran for the White House many times. But unlike his dad, who seemed content to speak the truth as he saw it and wasn’t intent on winning, Paul has been trying to build a base among young voters. The biggest problem he has created for himself, however, is that by trying to be pragmatic—saying the U.S. must go after ISIS—he’s undermined his brand as a non-interventionist. He also opposes many emerging GOP positions, such as saying the federal government should not act on inequality. Like the pugilists, that divergence is going to keep Paul in a right-wing corner as the race unfolds.

Louisiana’s Jindal is another candidate going nowhere. For a while, he was touted among Republicans as a rising intellectual. But his remarks about Islamic militants creating no-go zones in Europe were met with ridicule. Then there’s his state’s horrendous public health record and giant budget deficit. Jindal's 2016 prospects are done, but it is notable that he believes, like other free market boosters running, that cutting taxes will lead to economic growth for everyone, even if facts show that’s not true. Conservatives like this will always have corporate backing, because they pretend free markets never lead to exploitation or growing inequality.

Perry, who just ended 14 years as Texas governor, told Hewitt last December that he is about to launch a campaign with this same Reagan-like script. Americans, Perry said, are “ready for a positive vision of this country, that our better days are ahead.” When asked for specifics, he complained that while Obama oversaw a 61 percent growth in domestic energy production—largely through oil and gas fracking—“it’s gone down 6 percent on the federal estate.” Thus, he would open up more drilling on public lands—another corporate giveaway. On foreign policy, Perry said he’s been coached by Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, among others. He is another candidate who can’t let go of the dream he should be president.

Rubio has said he will announce in April 13 whether he is running for re-election or president. His fast rise in Florida politics was aided by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, which could make him another GOP turncoat if he runs against Bush. Beyond competing for funders and votes in that big state, the 43-year-old senator is much more relaxed on the campaign trail than the pugilists, even though many of his claims don’t hold up. In late March, Rubio, who touts his foreign policy acumen, was shredded by Secretary of State John Kerry for factual inaccuracies about Iran’s nuclear facilities. Another odd facet of Rubio’s political persona is how he disparages his family’s history to take clichéd positions, such as trashing unions, even though his father lost a culinary union job after picketing. Or backing away from comprehensive immigration reform, even though his family’s Cuban refugee status helped them gain a start in the U.S.

3. Moderates in name only. This is Bush, who started his not-yet-official campaign by saying he would not pander to extreme right-wingers and social conservatives to get the nomination—even though, as we saw last week with Indiana’s anti-LGBT religious liberty bill, he did just that: embracing that law as he opened up about his faith. But most of what Bush talks about is pro-corporate. He distinguishes himself from the GOP’s blow-up-the-government wing by embracing comprehensive immigration reform and federal education standards (and also charter schools).

In Republican forums, Bush sincerely bemoans that America has become a divided nation with political gridlock, suffers from a weak economic recovery, and has diminished social mobility. But behind that seemingly moderate tone is an agenda where safety nets must be cut because he won’t raise taxes on the rich, just as federal regulations and the tax code must be repealed or reformed to be friendlier to big business. Like the other candidates, Bush says unrestrained economic growth is the answer. To get there, he promotes U.S. energy independence, immigration reform and restructuring the education system, including privatization. When talking at the Reagan library in 2013, Bush compared the fracking boom to the Internet in terms of its economic significance.

The other moderate-in-name-only is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who still has not recovered from the Bridgegate scandal, in which he said he was unaware his top aides took revenge on a local mayor who displeased him. Christie’s staff shut down one of the busiest routes into Manhattan, through that small city, during the first week of school in 2013. Christie’s excuses have only made his stature shrink, but that has not kept him from pursuing the presidency. Other developments, like an extensive New Yorker profile describing how Christie unseated Tom Keane, Jr., who was New Jersey’s Senate Minority Leader, even though his father—former Gov. Tom Keane, Sr.—was Christie’s political mentor, underscore that he’s a thug who cannot be trusted.

Last week, as other candidates defended Indiana’s anti-LGBT religious liberty bill, Christie notably said he would support a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks, pandering to social conservatives. But he remains a bottom-tier candidate, prompting the WaPo's Chris Cillizza to write on Friday that his campaign was all but over. 

4. Religious conservatives. Everyone seeking the nomination is anti-abortion, and as we saw last week, anti-LGBT. But even if religious conservatives have a record of winning the Iowa caucuses (as did Huckabee in 2008, and Santorum in 2012), no evangelical candidate has come close to winning the nomination. The most notable factor about religious conservatives in 2016 is that they are likely to stay in the nominating contest longer than others because they will have their own wealthy donors.

Both Santorum and Huckabee have been laying the groundwork to run again. Huckabee, who just left a years-long job on Fox News, has the most intriguing credential of all the Republican candidates; the ex-Arkansas governor says he knows Hillary and Bill Clinton better than anyone. On the other hand, his most recent book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy is filled with insults for blue-state America, which is not very presidential.   

The Bottom Line?

There are many reasons why the 2016 nomination is still Bush’s to lose. Mostly it is because the rest of the field is dominated by varying shades of right-wing extremists, and the GOP establishment—from the high-ranking RNC to grassroots editorial writers at the influential Manchester Union-Leader newspaper in New Hampshire—wants a candidate who can win.

They don’t want more Sarah Palins, or more Tea Partiers, or bomb throwers like Cruz, or pugilists like Walker, or ranters like Carson, or non-interventionists like Paul, or others who aren’t ready for prime time. They don't want a candidate in 2016 who draws comparisons to Barry Goldwater in 1964, who was attacked for being too trigger-happy with nuclear weapons. They want to be in power, which means they’re looking for a predictable establishment candidate who is a known quantity.


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