David Frum

05.02.13

Cruz's Secret Weapon: Republican Despair

"The dominance of governors in our presidential politics is an old and durable phenomenon. Since the election of 1828, when Andrew Jackson's landslide victory over John Quincy Adams ended our initial era of Founding Father Presidents, governors have won more major party nominations, more general elections, and more Electoral College votes than any other category of Presidential candidate - and vastly more than candidates whose main political experience was in the U.S. Congress."

So wrote former AEI president Chris DeMuth in a 2004 paper. He then offered an explanation of the gubernatorial advantage.

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"Governors have submitted budgets, hired and fired subordinates, presided over public emergencies, called out the National Guard, negotiated public strikes, exercised discretion in the enforcement of criminal and other public laws, and endured a succession of victories and defeats large and small for which, fairly or unfairly, they received the credit or blame."

By contrast, members of Congress:

"have made speeches, sat on committees, and cast votes - virtually none of them decisive in the manner of an executive decision."

If they have ascended to leadership, they:

"have been called upon to negotiate compromises among the conflicting interests, ideologies, regions, and idiosyncrasies of their fellow-representatives …."

No wonder, DeMuth concluded back in 2004, that governors reach the presidency so much more often.

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A decade later, here's the striking postscript to DeMuth's paper. All three of the early favorites for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 are legislators with zero executive experience, public or private: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan. Rising star Ted Cruz is likewise a legislator.

Back in 2007, National Review editor Rich Lowry posited that future Republican presidential candidates would be tested in a "competence primary."

[President George W.] Bush had seen his role primarily as setting goals, then remaining resolute and confident about them. But the resolution and confidence are self-defeating if the goals aren't matched with the appropriate means. Bush has been ill-served by his willingness to stand by failed subordinates (thereby eroding any sense of accountability), by his relative lack of interest in details and by his inability to establish coherence within his own government.

This makes the Competence Primary very important in the Republican nomination contest …

Yet in 2008, Republicans rejected the two executives in the race (Giuliani and Romney) in favor of the legislator, John McCain. In 2012, Republicans made front runners of a slew of bizarre candidates, competence be damned. True, the highly competent Romney did ultimately win. He never ignited much enthusiasm, however, and he was constrained to choose a highly ideological legislator running mate. As of 2013, the competence primary seems to have been suspended altogether.

Fortunately, the Republican 2016 field thus far remains mercifully free of the charlatans and crackpots who came to the fore in 2012. The early field is intelligent and hard-working. Paul Ryan has immense policy knowledge, Ted Cruz is a brilliant litigator and debater, Marco Rubio has made himself central to the most important legislative initiative of the year. Even Rand Paul has carefully repositioned himself as a sober-minded U.S. Senator, distancing himself from paranoia and bigotry.

However, none of them can answer in advance that once-crucial question about executive competence - a lacuna that seems to bother the Republican base hardly at all.

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A new study of Tea Party activists sheds some light on why not.

Political scientists from William & Mary and the University of California at Davis surveyed 12,000 supporters of FreedomWorks. One of the survey authors summarizes a key finding of the report:

The survey asked FreedomWorks activists if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “When we feel strongly about political issues, we should not be willing to compromise with our political opponents.” Altogether, more than 80 percent agreed to some extent. Thirty-two percent of respondents “agree strongly” with the statement. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent disagreed even “slightly.” In another series of questions sent out to FreedomWorks activists, the survey asked whether they would prefer a candidate with whom they agree on most important issues but who polls far behind the probable Democratic nominee or a candidate with whom they agree “on some of the most important issues” but who’s likely to win. More than three-fourths of respondents preferred the candidate who was more likely to lose but shared their positions.

Here's what may be happening:

The confidence among conservatives that they speak for the silent American majority is fading, a casualty of the 2012 defeat. As a newly self-conscious minority, conservatives are turning their back on the executive branch and rediscovering a base of operations in Congress (where - let's remember - conservatives predominated from the late 1930s until the early 1960s). The contest for the presidential nomination thus becomes less a vehicle for choosing a potential national leader, and more a theater for arguing movement themes.

If this hypothesis is correct, then Ted Cruz easily could emerge as the dominant figure of the 2016 cycle. Who argues better? And if conservatives have lost faith in their ability to win even if they compromise, as they believe they did in 2012, then why not go with the guy you really like, and who says most eloquently what you most want to hear?