30 July 2015

Why the Republicans could be back in business


There are eighteen Republican wannabes. Most of them know that they have no chance of being their party’s candidate for the White House but they all know that seeking the nomination is a good way to get on Fox News, sell a book or increase your after dinner speaking fee.

In one week’s time ten of the Republican hopefuls (chosen according to their opinion poll standing) will gather in Cleveland, Ohio for a two hour debate. It will be the first of the nomination process in what is an exceptionally open race. Donald Trump currently leads the early opinion polls but his negatives with independent voters are so high that few expect him to clinch the nomination. If you want to take a punt on who is likely to be the GOP’s nominee the safest bets are Jeb Bush (who governed Florida during the easy years, is raising mountains of cash and has famous relatives), Scott Walker (the first governor to ever survive a recall vote and who is turning left-wing Wisconsin into a free market laboratory) and Marco Rubio (the Tea Party Senator from Florida with big appeal to Hispanics).

But despite the fact that winning three elections in a row is uncommon it’s the Democrats who are favourite to retain the Oval Office. Yesterday, I listed ten reasons why the Republicans are likely to lose the popular vote for the sixth time in seven successive elections but today I want to make the case for a Republican supporter to be optimistic.

Here are ten reasons why the Republicans could be back in business.

1. America is ready for a change of direction: While the Republicans trail the Democrats on who is most trusted to handle issues like the environment and education they lead on gun control and the terrorist threat. More importantly they are competitive on the issues that will decide the votes of independent voters in swing states. They’re marginally ahead on the budget deficit (+4%) and taxes (+1%), for example, and only slightly behind on the economyas a whole (-3%) and immigration (-2%). Their biggest advantage, however, is found in the answer to one big question: is America going in the right direction? Just 30% think it’s on the right track and twice as many – 61% – think it’s on the wrong course. That’s a great backdrop for any candidate who can present themselves as the change candidate. Hillary Clinton – the clear favourite to be the Democratic pick – will struggle to present herself as representing change. She was Obama’s Secretary of State when he withdrew from Iraq, reset relations with Russia and warned Assad not to cross red lines. She’s already tried to distance herself from the president but she’ll struggle to be seen as a clean break candidate. It’s also one of the big reasons why choosing a third Bush could represent such a missed opportunity for the Republicans.

2. America is ready for more growth: In an international context the US economic performance looks relatively good but the home of the misnamed World Series doesn’t judge itself by global standards. And because the Obama recovery is much weaker than the Reagan recovery, for example, there is impatience. Launching his presidential campaign Jeb Bush claimed that “there is not a reason in the world why we cannot grow at a rate of 4% a year.” And he then said that level of growth would produce “19 million jobs”. Perhaps. He didn’t set out how he’d produce this economic miracle but his brother “W” has set up “The 4% Growth Project” at his presidential library. Given W’s uneven reputation – even within his own party – the Republican nominee might be wiser to point to the economic success of GOP-run states since the crash. The City Journal has compared the performance of Republican-run states with Democrat-led states and found that “since 2010, the United States has added 660,000 new manufacturing positions—and more than 500,000 were in states with GOP governors.” Rick Perry, an outsider candidate for the nomination and former Texas Governor, ran ads in Democratic states like California inviting businesses to move to the lone star state. He cited lower taxes, sensible regulations and a less onerous legal climate for the Texan “miracle”. There’s also a strong case to make that Republican-run states have less inequality and counter-productive interventionist policies. Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth has made that case in the Wall Street Journal. By picking someone like Scott Walker – who has radically reformed Wisconsin’s trade union laws since becoming the governor of this traditionally left-leaning state – the Republicans would signal that they were serious about reform. They would also signal confrontationalism, however. Ohio’s Governor, John Kasich, would be less polarising (but more about him in point ten).

3. Moderation in candidate selection is beginning to win (I stress “beginning”): In the early years of the Tea Party phenomenon the Republicans missed chances to retake the Senate because they kept picking unsuitable candidates. One talked about “legitimate rape”; Another admitted to dabbling in witchcraft in her youth. In the most recent cycle the Senate Republican Campaign Committee fought back and ensured more sensible candidates triumphed in primary races. The party base was easier to persuade in 2014 after learning the hard way that hardcore candidates were unelectable. The Republican leaders have also been more willing to take on the hardline factions within their ranks – notably when John Boehner had his “Are You Kidding Me?” moment. Do watch it. David Brooks claimed that “the beau ideal of American Republicanism is the prudent business leader who is active in the community, active at church and fervently devoted to national defense”. That kind of candidate is back. Meanwhile, the popularity of the self-styled socialist Bernie Sanders on the other side of the aisle suggests that the Democrats may be having a “Corbyn moment”. There are crazies in both parties.

4. Sarah Palin is not the only Republican woman anymore: Somewhat embarrassingly Carly Fiorina is the only female in the crowded Republican field, but she’s not as eccentric as the only woman in the last GOP debate cycle: Michele Bachmann. There are other women in the Republican Party that are also an improvement on Sarah Palin. There’s Susana Martinez, the popular Governor of New Mexico. There’s Mia Love, the first black Republican Congresswoman. There’s New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte. And, most of all, there’s the Indian American Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley. She became the face of the New American South when she recently announced that the Confederate flag would no longer fly over her statehouse. “I think the more important part is it should have never been there,” she said. “These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realised now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.” If the Republican nominee wants a woman on his ticket he (and it will be a “he”) has a good bench to choose from.

5. The Reformicon movement is gathering strength: In point nine of yesterday’s list I noted that George W Bush’s compassionate conservatism from 2000 to 2008 was not popular in GOP ranks and made it harder to deliver a new round of modernisation. But many Republicans are trying – but under a different label. Senator Marco Rubio is talking about wage subsidies to help the low-paid. Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Mike Lee have attacked crony capitalism. Rand Paul has proposed the “Redeem Act” to give ethnic minorities, young Americans and drug offenders more second chances from a punitive criminal justice system. The “Right on Crime” movement is trying to bring more sense to America’s extraordinary levels of incarceration. I’ve written more about the rebirth (and rebranding) of compassionate conservatism here: It’s happening!

6. Institutional muscle for reform conservatism: Arthur Brooks’ The Conservative Heart was something of a disappointing book – putting not much more than a compassionate spin on the same free market agenda – but the American Enterprise Institute which he leads is putting significant resources into “poverty studies”. It is examining recidivism, mobility, homelessnness, rent burdens and family breakdown. It’s a serious, holistic work programme that could provide meat to a new, more socially just Republican leadership.

7. Getting ready to reform rather than repeal ObamaCare: As David Frum has long argued, the Republicans cannot get rid of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act – too many previously uninsured Americans benefit from it. Its unpopularity has narrowed from a net 19% last year to 6% this year – and the gap is likely to close further. Fortunately, as James Capretta has noted, there are sensible reform plans coming from within Republican ranks. A sensible Republican nominee will not stand on an abolitionist platform but that stance may not be popular in the Republican primary process where ObamaCare remains deeply unpopular.

8. Social issues don’t need to hurt the Republicans: Despite elite and European opinion abortion is still an issue that favours the Republicans – albeit marginally. The Republicans are more trusted on gun control in most surveys. And then there is the issue of same-sex marriage which has become a massive problem for many Christian conservatives. I agree with Chris Cillizza and his conclusion that the Supreme Court did the GOP a huge favour in its recent judgment – endorsing the right for gay couples across America to marry. “While I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, their ruling is now the law of the land,” said Ben Carson, another GOP hopeful. Many Republicans will continue to fight, of course, but the party would be better moving on to the more winnable and popular fight for religious liberty.

9. The money to build a good ground war operation: Whoever wins the Republican nomination they will need to build a ground war operation that matches the formidable Democratic machine. One of the reasons why the opinion polls flattered Mitt Romney in the last presidential election was that they didn’t take account of Barack Obama’s superior Get Out The Vote operation. A candidate like Jeb Bush – who has set a record for fundraising – will have the resources to build a great machine. The possibility for any GOP candidate to build that machine depends upon there not being a protracted and messy nomination process. The New York Times has this assessment of the current fundraising position – most expect more than the last cycle’s EXTRAORDINARY $7 BILLION to be spent by November next year. I know, I know.

10. Rubio-Kasich: It’s too early to pick a nominee – let alone a full ticket – but the Republicans have lots of good combinations to choose from. My very early favourite would be Kasich-Rubio but I’d accept Rubio-Kasich on the basis that Kasich (according to David Brooks the “most underestimated” Republican candidate) has adopted too many positions that offend traditional Republicans to be the presidential nominee. Here’s a typical anti-Kasich rant. Rubio is a Tea Party favourite (or at least was until he softened on immigration), for the swing state of Florida (representing 10% of the needed electoral college votes), is at the heart of the reformicon movement and is a fluent Spanish speaker. Kasich won re-election as Governor of Ohio by a massive 31% last year – carrying 86 of the state’s 88 counties – and Republicans need Ohio (7% of the necessary electoral college votes) to win the electoral college. A Rubio-Kasich ticket gives the Republicans ready-made machines in the two most important swing states.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right.