Abbott: Let’s see. On our team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know’s on third.
Costello: That’s what I want to know: the guys’ names.
—Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Who’s On First?
I spent some time last week watching the CPAC appearances by the major likely serious (sorry, Mr. Trump) 2016 GOP Presidential contenders. In a change of format from prior years, each of the speakers devoted at least some of their allotted time to a Q&A session. Although that was almost certainly pre-vetted and the speakers had canned responses at the ready, it was refreshing to see them have to move on their feet a bit.
While it’s way too early for endorsements, let me offer some early takeaways.
Governor Scott Walker
If there was star among the not-yet-announced would-bes, it was Governor Walker. Taking a folksy approach with his sleeves rolled up while working in front of—not behind—the podium and teleprompters, the Wisconsin Governor turned in a much better performance than his lukewarm showing at the 2012 convention. And he’s got some good things to say about what he has been doing in Wisconsin, which is why his stock is surging. He has successfully taken on the public sector unions in a union-heavy state. He survived a recall vote against the full weight of the DNC. He is much younger than the GOP establishment, and presents an energy and vigor that eluded Mitt Romney in 2012. He’ll also carry what I think will be the advantage of truly being a District outsider. There is a long way to go, but Governor Walker established himself as one to watch.
Senator Rand Paul
Senator Paul also had a strong showing, and ultimately won the straw poll. But you have to take that with a grain of salt: his dad (former Texas Rep. Ron Paul) won a bunch of them in his time. I was struck by a couple of things. One, while confronting ISIS was a constant theme of the convention speakers, he was the only American (UKIP leader Nigel Farage also took this position) to argue—correctly, in my view—that it needed to be done with American support behind the proper local combatants. The other was I thought blue jeans plus his inability/unwillingness to get his hair under control showed a certain lack of seriousness for what is essentially a debutante ball for presumptive GOP Presidential candidates. I like a lot of what Senator Paul has to say, but he’s going to have to polish his appearance and more consistently get beyond the hyper-libertarian staples of auditing the Fed and gutting the Patriot Act if he wants to fare better on the national stage than his father.
Governor J.E.B. Bush
I cannot tell you how much it pains me to admit this:
I thought Governor Bush had a good showing.
His name was resoundingly booed earlier in the day, but he waded into the lion’s den and I think really helped himself. He did straight Q&A with Sean Hannity, and was articulate, funny, and appropriately self-depricating. More to the point, he had answers to questions about his position on amnesty (frankly, it is a little hard to argue with the point there is no way to deport 11 million people), anchoring himself firmly to the proposition that border security comes first. He did more evading than answering on the issue of Common Core, but I think we’ll see over time that he will have a way to answer that as well. He comes across as much more intelligent and Presidential than his brother. Unfortunately, he’s still his brother’s brother and—maybe you can skip this, but I can’t—he can’t say “noo-klee-uhr” either.
He can fundraise all he wants, I think if the electorate gets a voice, anyone named Bush is going to have tough sledding. We just don’t do royal dynasties in this country. And if that doesn’t bother you about yet another Bush in the White House, I have five words for you:
David Souter and John Roberts
Governor Chris Christie
Like Bush, Governor Christie came in as something less than a crowd favorite. He also opted for straight Q&A (this time with Laura Ingraham), and that is where he is really at his best. That said, I thought sitting down was a poor choice, and if he’s going to run he’s going to have to get some better-fitting suits.
Memo to Governor Christie: Yes, a little shirt cuff should show, but your suit jacket sleeves really should extend past your elbows.
Christie was entertaining, and did the best he could to point to his “conservative” accomplishments. But even when chumming the waters, he generated at best a tepid crowd reaction. He’s backpedaling on Common Core, where he has to admit he wanted the federal money when he signed New Jersey up for the Race-to-the-Top program, but now says he regrets the degree of federal control that came with it. This is the same Governor who was getting all touchy-feely with Obama a week before the 2012 election, in his effort to—you guessed it—collect as much federal money as possible in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It is hard to take his smaller-government pitch seriously with this record. I suspect he will never win over the conservative base, and his bull-in-a-china-closet act—he referred to it as “passion,” racistly blamed it on his Sicilian and Irish parents, and made clear he has no intention of dialing it down—will ultimately turn off enough of the rest that his candidacy will not last long.
Dr. Ben Carson
I really want to like this man. And as a man, I do. But this CPAC appearance demonstrated that as a candidate he has weaknesses that just aren’t getting fixed. You could excuse a certain lack of polish a couple of years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast; call it refreshing amateur outsider’s plain talk, or layman’s charm. But running for President is no place for amateurs. He’s now been on the major national speaking/talk show circuit for several years, and this was at least his third CPAC appearance. Yet while he says a lot of the right things, he still says them in a way that reeks of not-ready-for-prime-time. In a world where all that matters is now you come across on television, I’m afraid his presenting skills are not going to be up to the task.
Senator Ted Cruz
Senator Cruz is nothing if not consistent. What you got from him at CPAC was what you always do: pure red meat. The junior Senator from Texas was playing in his element, and with the possible exception of being a little too aggressively hawkish on ISIS, he was spot-on. I’d like to see him spend more time on substance and less on snarky one-liners, and he’s got to learn to stop the sheepish little giggle every time he thinks he’s said something clever.
But that’s nit-picking.
The real problem is he can’t win. He’s too polarizing, even within the GOP . . . which is why we need him to stay in the Senate.
Governor Rick Perry
If you liked your portion of red meat from Senator Cruz, you loved it with the side order of fire and brimstone served up by Governor Perry. Someone seems to have told him that the way to out-conservative the field is to say the same things everyone else is, but louder and with more fist-waving. Watch Lane Smith’s trial performance as District Attorney Jim Trotter III in My Cousin Vinny, and you’ll get the basic idea.
I don’t know that Governor Perry had much realistic prospect after his 2012 debate meltdown, but he didn’t help himself at CPAC by appearing at one point to get lost in his teleprompter mid-sentence. Worse, in his effort to filter his conservative message through his inner Baptist preacher, he just came across as sort of an extremist bomb-chucker, which isn’t necessary. And when he demonstrated that, like the Bushes, he also can’t say “noo-klee-uhr,” I suspect in many minds he disqualified himself for access to the buttons for activating same.
And, as an aside, his Drew Carey glasses look goofy.
Governor Bobby Jindal
I thought Governor Jindal had a good showing. Once you get past the disconnect of him looking pure Mumbai yet sounding pure Baton Rouge, he had some good things to say. Repeal Obamacare, get rid of Common Core, win the war against radical Islamic terrorism. Good stuff, that. Better was his willingness to call a spade a spade and say publicly that Islam has a problem within itself, and it is incumbent upon Muslim leaders to work within the Muslim community to identify, neuter, and eliminate violent radical extremists. I suspect telling, however, was Governor Jindal’s avoidance of specifics on his conservative record in Louisiana. Maybe he’s saving that for the campaign trail, but one wonders if it has more to do with the fact that for all his conservative rhetoric, he’s done virtually nothing to control spending and get Louisiana’s fiscal house in order.
The next 20 months are going to be interesting. As we go through this, hopefully someone within one of the campaigns finally figures out what the Dems have known for some time: how to communicate message in the 21st Century.