Republican 'Normals' on the Rise
As he launched his New Hampshire door-to-door campaign on Saturday, Ohio Governor John Kasich said something surprising. "This is not a campaign," he told volunteers and reporters in front of the bus he's pretty much lived in for more than a month. "This is a movement."
I've heard this phrase from Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and it was clear what they were talking about. Sanders' movement is socialist and anti-big business. Cruz's is one of a religious, ultraconservative revanche. Trump's is a charismatic, nihilistic one.
It's much harder to define what Kasich is talking about. The former Lehman Brothers banker's presidential bid is based on his record as a skilled, conservative, hands-on executive, not on any grand idea or his personal charisma. Yet there is potential for a "movement" of which Kasich could be part, along with Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.
The three governors were collective winners of Saturday's Republican debate. Bush bested Trump in a brief argument about eminent domain and smiled sardonically as the audience booed the billionaire for trying to shush him. Christie went aggressively after Marco Rubio, claiming the first-term senator was unprepared for the presidency because of a lack of practical experience. All Rubio could do in response was go on a seemingly endless loop of a rehearsed soundbite about President Barack Obama, who had had no executive experience, either. Kasich, who has sworn to run a positive campaign, didn't get into any fights, allowing the other two governors to run interference for him, and also came off looking good.
Their performance was so complementary they could have been a coordinated act. The trio are practically even in the polls, tied for third place with Cruz, and their combined result is higher than that of the front-runner, Trump. And in a race marked by extreme views and offensive rhetoric, they embody normality.
Bush is probably doing it best in New Hampshire. By the standards of the Three Governors act, Christie looks a little too aggressive, and Kasich is a tiny bit too righteous. Bush acts not just normal but normcore.
As the trendspotting group K-Hole wrote in the report that described the trend:
Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. To be truly Normcore, you need to understand that there’s no such thing as normal.
That's Bush. His background is anything but normal -- he is the only politician whose father and brother were presidents. Yet his perfect ordinariness, a total lack of flash, his helplessness before Trump's goading in previous debates are a convincing and endearing persona. I saw him perform at a town hall on Saturday, wearing boring casual clothes any normcore adherent would appreciate and talking in the mild, almost inflectionless tones of an accountant thrust into a public role.
He opened with a lengthy tribute to his wife and family, the only candidate I have heard do this during his campaign. Bush is unapologetic about being part of his powerful clan, and his brother, his children and even his 90-year old mother are all campaigning for him. Anything different wouldn't be normal, though.
In his slightly hesitant voice, Bush said he liked fielding questions from his audience -- about the mess that is the Department of Veterans' Affairs, how he would replace Obamacare, what were his thoughts on mandatory military service -- much better than taking part in the debate, where questions, he said, "would probably be very stupid." He sounded sincere when talking about "the joy of service" and made much of not putting others down: that, he said, wasn't a sign of strength.
The U.S., according to Bush, needs a "quieter" president -- one who wouldn't, for example, dismiss Russia as a "regional power" a month before it invades Crimea. Bush promised to be less divisive and more focused on efficiency than on making great speeches. He couldn't avoid sounding a little jealous of the people who could, but that was somehow nice, too: It was, well, normal.
Bush also had a better, more dignified answer than Hillary Clinton to the question of how he dealt with his billionaire donors. "People give me money because they know my record," he said. "I have never been affected by it, but it's really up to voters to decide. People are smarter about these things than the political class."
After months of media reports of his underperformance in the polls, one might expect a minimum of interest in his candidacy. At a Bedford elementary school on Saturday, however, he faced a capacity crowd. A number of people couldn't get in, and Bush spent time mingling with them in the street. Though some of these people were still undecided -- that's customary in New Hampshire, rendering the polls all but meaningless -- others have stuck with Bush through the bad times.
I saw two of his supporters shake hands: They'd seen each other at a previous rally. "We're doing better, huh?" one of them, David Carmen, 58, a business consultant from Manchester, smiled at his acquaintance. I asked him why he thought so. "This state has a tradition of putting hype aside," Carmen said. "The country needs a good executive, and Jeb has the best record of the three governors, though the other two are good guys, too."
In reality, the records are comparable, though one could argue which of the three has been more fiscally conservative and consistent in matters such as resistance to Obamacare or anti-abortion policies. All three have their successes and their weaknesses. Christie has had problems dealing with debt, Bush's governorship was relatively long ago, Kasich overstates his case somewhat when he talks about his success in balancing Ohio's budget.
All three have worked harder in New Hampshire than in Iowa. They have held the most meetings with voters of any candidates still seriously in the running, and Lindsey Graham's 176 campaign stops should probably count toward Bush's tally since Graham now campaigns for Bush.
Their biggest problem, though, is that only one can win in the end, and none of the three wants to give up after New Hampshire unless their result is a wipeout.
Yet no matter which of the three ends up on top, it's clear to see how the "normal" movement's candidate could compete with currently more popular Trump and Marco Rubio: That movement has more supporters than either of them. Most people are normal, after all, otherwise the norm would be different.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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