GOP boasts strong field of presidential candidates

What if they held a presidential campaign and a think tank broke out?

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisc., who is considering running for president, offered his thoughts on poverty last week. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been giving regular policy speeches on poverty, college loans and helping the middle class. Former senator and GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Pa., is promoting a book of policy proposals on education, family and revitalizing American manufacturing. Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., is offering ideas on criminal justice and will give a big foreign policy speech in the fall. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has given speeches on health care and education aimed at a national audience.

Who isn’t trying to be the ideas candidate in the 2016 campaign? Texas Gov. Rick Perry is working to overcome his 2012 debate aphasia, so he’s trying to show some policy chops. Though former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush holds controversial ideas on Common Core education standards and immigration, those close to him say he won’t run unless he can promote those ideas with gusto.

It isn’t usually this policy-thick in the GOP presidential field. The Republican candidates are not only seeking to distinguish themselves from each other with the quality and originality of their ideas, but they are making the case that unless the party promotes new ideas, it will not prevail.

The class of candidates for 2016 has the potential to be the most robust in almost 40 years — perhaps in modern Republican history. It depends on who finally decides to run, of course, but six governors and four senators are thinking seriously about it. Popular but implausible candidates like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have not emerged. If you were an excitable type, you could really get your hopes up that the high caliber of the candidates might connect with the energetic issues debate taking place in the conservative movement and spur an actual public discussion and competition of ideas.

The challenge for any conservative policy fans is how to promote ideas in Washington these days.

The presidential competition offers the best venue for idea promotion. The contest will get a lot of media coverage and voter attention, and candidates have political incentives to focus on policy. Lesser candidates can get coverage and raise money by promoting original policy ideas.

It’s very helpful to show a donor skeptical about your 2016 chances a few clips or blog entries talking about how innovative and interesting your ideas are.

The question is whether ideas can actually survive once the race is joined in earnest. The 2012 GOP primary was a purity test. At one debate, no candidate would consider a budget proposal whereby $10 in savings was traded for a dollar in tax increases. Mitt Romney kept a pillow over his Massachusetts health care reform, his signature achievement as governor, for fear of raising unfavorable comparisons to Obamacare. On immigration, the competition to show who was more conservative pushed Romney to promote “self-deportation” for undocumented workers.

Newt Gingrich, Georgia, fancied himself the ideas candidate — and he had a few good ones — but when he strayed from the orthodox support for Ryan’s Medicare plan — calling it “right-wing social engineering” — he was hounded into silence. When he did emerge as a candidate at the top of the field, it wasn’t because of his ideas on brain science, but because he was seen as a good fighter who could bloody President Barack Obama. .

Those forces could take hold again; indeed, they likely will. Conservatives who participate in primaries want to know where candidates stand on the bread-and-butter issues. That means candidates are going to seek out differences with their opponents where they can achieve the most politically. Fancy theories are nice, but voters take their cues based on what they know.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

© 2014, Slate