Contrary to conventional media wisdom, this week’s CPAC proved Republicans are likely going to put a formidable team on the presidential field in 2016—and they’ll have at least one advantage going into the election: Their primaries are going to be much more interesting, dramatic and entertaining than the Democratic primaries. This means Republicans are going to soak up a whole lot of press coverage and attention while the media and voters largely tune-out what is likely to be a foregone conclusion on the Democratic side.
Now, I believe someone will rise up, albeit briefly, to challenge Hillary Clinton. There will likely be a scare. Someone will emerge as the alternative and provide some "giant killer" storyline for awhile. But what was thought to be "inevitable" in 2008, will be more so in 2012, and the Hillary machine should role up the nomination early.
But, on the Republican side, never have things been more undecided and uncertain. And, therefore, a whole lot more fun. The typical paradigm of handing the baton to the senior statesman who has paid his dues and waited patiently in line (Nixon, Reagan, H. W. Bush, Dole, McCain) is out the window.
There is no frontrunner on the Republican side, thanks in part to Bridgegate. Chris Christie may survive the scandal, but he's scarred and has become just another mere mortal candidate. Jeb Bush may decide to run, but he will get no immediate dynastic anointment and will have to navigate a much different kind of primary electorate than his brother or father.
And there are going to be some very savvy candidates, not just clownish flame-outs like Herman Cain. Rand Paul will bring his interesting mix of libertarian non-interventionist policy to the dance. Marco Rubio has muscled up on a forward-leaning foreign policy that Putin is making more popular. Ted Cruz will be an intelligent Tea Party favorite. Rick Perry gave one of the best speeches at CPAC, and he will likely prove to be a much improved candidate when he has three years to prepare rather than three months like last time around. Paul Ryan, the "ideas guy,” will just have more and better ideas. Bobby Jindahl, who knows more about healthcare than almost anyone in or out of government, will be freed from re-election concerns to focus like a laser on this attacks on the administrations' record. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee feel like retreads, but they know their religious conservative base well and will fire them up like professional pyro maniacs.
And then there's Governors Scott Walker and John Kasich. If Walker wins re-election, he'll immediately move up into prime consideration as a proven winner in a blue state who took on and beat the unions. Kasich is a smart former congressman with a lot of budget expertise who can tell tell his story as an effective and proven governor.
And there could potentially be some women who in the mix, too: Governors Nikki Haley from South Carolina and Suzanna Martinez from New Mexico haven’t expressed a strong interest in the top slot, but if they don't run, expect to see them on the short list for Vice President.
Yes, Hillary will be formidable. And yes, Republicans still have a lot of work to do framing a message that appeals to a majority of Americans. But the overall team of candidates Republicans will put on the field in 2016 looks a whole lot more like juniors and seniors than the sophomores and freshmen of 2012.