27 April 2015

Marco Rubio would give embroiled Clinton a run for her money


It is now just about eighteen months before the November 2016 Presidential election.  The conventional wisdom says that it is risky to make predictions about the fickle state of politics when there is so much time for political blunders or national crises to reshape the electorate’s choice of the next president.  In principle, I accept in this form of prudent skepticism.  But in this instance, I think that much of the confusion of this election campaign will shake itself quickly.

My own guess—and it is one that leaves me more than pleased with the outcome—is that Marco Rubio will be the next President of the United States.  It is of course uncertain that he will beat Hillary Clinton in a general election—assuming she gets the nomination.  But the tide of battle is moving strongly in his direction.  The most recent Quinnipiac University poll indicates that in a head-to-head competition Rubio runs, by small margins, stronger than any other Republican against Clinton.  She still sports a tiny 45-43 point lead, which is likely to erode in the weeks to come.  Republicans, who seem to want to win the election, have made Rubio the frontrunner just after he threw his hat in the ring.  He is young, smart, and articulate, and unlike Clinton and Jeb Bush—himself a worthy candidate—there is no strong negative bloc that stands between him and an electoral victory.

Why then the Clinton decline? The first reason is that Clinton’s campaign, if one can call it that, is off to such a clumsy and ham-handed start, to say nothing about the rising perceptions of her dishonesty even before the primary season reaches full steam.  Her low-key announcement behind a glass wall did not show a woman with the strength or willingness to march headlong into the major political issues of the time.  Her 1000 mile minivan road trip to Iowa will inspire little confidence. One day she will actually have to board a jet plane that flies at over 10,000 feet.

Substantively, she is weak and unfocused.  Her campaign to be the “champion” of the American family at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa will be dismissed as a real evasion from the major issues of the day.  No president can make things right inside the household.  But what he or she must do is figure out how to jump start an economy that has stagnated for the past six years under Barack Obama. For Clinton, it means that she has to put some clear distance between her policies and those of President Obama, which is hard to do given that all the immediate political pressure comes from her political left.

To build success in the primaries she will be driven to endorse policies—a mandatory living wage, more progressive taxation, strong pro union legislation—that could easily doom her in the national election.  Given her own stratospheric income, and aristocratic indulgences, I don’t think that she could do well in a debate against Elizabeth Warren.  Nor could she do well against Marco Rubio, who is more nimble, vigorous, and passionate than she.

That grim projection is the good news for Clinton.  The bad news is, of course, her incredible lapses in judgment about the latest, but surely not the last, Clinton scandal, which involved four years of steady cash infusions to the Clinton Foundation between 2009 and 2013 during her term as Secretary of State. No one knows the details of her actual involvement with Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear agency, and its subsidiaries in their successful effort to acquire the control of a Canadian mining company Uranium One. But people do know that this deal required State Department approval, so that it is imperative to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, which clearly she did not.

Further inquiries might show her direct intervention, at which point she should face—fat chance—a potential criminal investigation for abuse of office.  It is not just the right wing who deplores her politics, which they do. Clinton scored a rare double: the Wall Street Journal excoriated the deal and the New York Times refused to defend her, asking for more information for what everyone regards as a rotten deal.  Peter Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich is not likely to go out of circulation anytime soon.

Sadly, the latest revelation of her shenanigans are not some bolt out of the blue. They come hard on the heels of the email scandal, in which she chose to cleanse her hard drive in the face of a Congressional investigation of her role in Benghazi. Right now there are voices in the Democratic party who are calling for her to step aside, fearing that the longer she stays in the news, the worse the information will be, and the more difficult it will be for Elizabeth Warren or any other Democrat such as New York’s Bill de Blasio or Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to step into the void, which is why O’Malley, a glib talker, is already considering a bid.

At this point, it looks the winner from any Clinton demise will be Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is the undoubted darling of the left.  She has in my view played a shrewd political waiting gameIf Clinton does not implode, it would be foolish for Warren to enter into a battle that will leave her bruised, dispirited, and isolated.  She does not have the money to run a campaign and few if any major donors will follow her lead. There are few better ways to lose political access and influence than to support a failed challenger for the political throne.  Clinton, like her husband, has a long political memory.

Ah, but consider the alternative.  If Clinton implodes, then Warren becomes the instant Democratic frontrunner who should have little trouble staying ahead of a nondescript field that includes Vice President Joseph Biden, who at age 72, has been unable to build up any credible base of his own.  But if Clinton is forced to bow out, Warren would be sure to jump in, and would probably be able to secure a Clinton endorsement for her campaign to become the first female president of the United States.  I doubt at this point that Warren can win because apart from a strong base in the Northeast and the West Coast, a decent Republican candidate could run the table in the South, the plains and mountain states, and most, if not all of the Midwest, where Warren’s elitist Harvard populism will not play particularly well.

And Rubio is more than a decent candidate. He gave a strong speech, and he has substantive positions that stress growth first, not equality.  On this score, his strongest opposition is likely to come from Scott Walker who has the courageous stand against unions to his credit.  But the question that dogs Walker is whether he is ready for prime time.  One straw in the wind that suggests he is not is his recent protectionist attitude on immigration that earned him the wrath of the Wall Street Journal for urging strong restrictions on H-1B visas, which is the pathway through which skilled scientists and engineers make their way into the United States.

As I have long argued, naked protectionism sounds no better when it comes from a Republican than it does when it comes a Democrat.  The short-sighted protectionist view assumes that new entrants to the United States will only take jobs, but never create them.  Their positive contribution to the economy makes them good consumers as well as good producers.  It forgets that if the United States does not open its doors to foreign workers, then American businesses will open facilities overseas to recruit them—or lose business to the firms that do.

It is not possible for any Republican candidate—shades of Mitt Romney—to win the empathy derby against any populist Democrat. But they shouldn’t even try.  What they have to do is point out that deregulation and reduced taxation, leading to market liberalization, are the only paths to renewed and sustainable economic prosperity.  The populist position denounces those who create wealth, and it assumes that capital and labor are constantly at war with each other, when in a vibrant economy they work in tandem to create more jobs and a higher standard of living.

Right now Scott Walker seems to have lost his way in the presidential wars.  On the immigration issue at least, Marco Rubio has yet to stumble.  If he keeps his feet, he can win both the nomination and the presidency.  If he, or any other Republican run on a populist-lite campaign, they are sure to lose, leaving the United States rudderless and adrift for four more years.

Richard Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, The Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago.