Two new names have been added to the early speculation about the 2016 presidential race – one intriguing and the other simply mystifying.
The intriguing name is that of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican former House member and preeminent conservative who has demonstrated more pragmatism and common sense in his critique of the Affordable Care Act than most other conservatives angling for the GOP presidential nomination. Pence has begun taking soundings about a possible bid for president in two years —and he warrants watching.
While more than 20 other conservative Republican governors or state legislatures have refused to accept expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor under Obamacare, Pence just announced his intention to accept the federal funding, but use it in a different way to expand health-care coverage for the working poor.
The mystifying potential entrant is former Democratic Sen. James Webb of Virginia, a highly decorated former Marine, one-time Navy secretary during the Reagan administration and prolific author who disclosed on Monday that he is considering a bid for president. Webb retired from politics after a single term in the Senate largely because he found the life too frustrating and boring. Now he says he is concerned about the direction of U.S. foreign policy and is contemplating a way to reengage in the national debate.
“My wife and I are just thinking about what to do next,” Webb said during an appearance on WAMU’s “Diane Rehm Show,” according to a report in The Washington Post. “I care a lot about where the country is, and we’ll be sorting that out.”
Presidential politics is irresistible catnip for the power hungry, visionaries and the vain — but it is rarely a draw for those with time on their hands who are simply casting about for something to do. Whether Webb is serious about plunging back into national politics or simply trying to drum up interest for his new book, I Heard My Country Calling, remains to be seen.
“It takes me a while to decide things,” he said.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato expressed surprise at Webb’s musings, adding that, “He is as unpredictable a politician as I’ve come across, and even after a Senate term, I don’t really think of him as a politician.”
When Webb was first sworn in as a senator in January 2007, he was a Democratic Party icon who engineered a stunning upset of incumbent Republican Senator George Allen – a victory that gave his party a narrow majority in the Senate. The former novelist and political maverick overnight began to exercise considerable influence on national security issues and helped overcome GOP opposition to pass the largest GI Bill expansion in a generation, according to Politico.
But Webb, 68, grew increasingly frustrated with the Senate and his own party’s tax and economic policies. And as Rosalind S. Helderman of the Post wrote, Webb “spent little time in office or since leaving it nurturing the kind of political connections that would be needed to run for president, particularly to challenge the kind of fundraising and organizing juggernaut that would be available to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Indeed, if for any reason Clinton decided not to run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, there are many other more active and better known Democrats waiting in the wings — including Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Pence, too, would have to navigate a crowded field of Republican presidential wannabees if he decides to enter the race, with conservative Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas already beating the bushes for support while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is receiving strong encouragement to run from more establishment Republicans and business leaders.
Pence — with his conservative credentials as the one-time head of the Republican Study Committee and his practical, leavening experience as Indiana’s chief executive — would offer a plausible alternative to some of the GOP political bomb throwers on Capitol Hill. And if he decides to run for president, Pence reportedly would begin with a strong fundraising network built from his time in Washington.
Pence, 54, has fueled speculation he will run for the White House with a series of out-of-state political forays and his prominent rollout of a newly crafted health insurance plan for the poor that he is presenting as an alternative to Medicaid. He has been saying for months that he is "listening" to national conservatives pressing for a presidential bid, according to the Associated Press.
He was the headline speaker at the Wisconsin Republican Party's annual convention earlier this month and is scheduled to speak at a similar convention to be hosted by the Alabama Republican Party next month. He was also in New York for two days last week “to tell Indiana’s story and do all we can to reinforce our message that Indiana is a state that works.”
Although he fought against Obamacare while he was a member of Congress in 2010, he now is arguing for his fellow Republicans to seek constructive solutions to problems with the law, rather than seeking to dismantle and replace it.
“When it comes to the issue of health care, I believe that people in my party need to be solutions conservatives, offering real alternatives to the big government answers,” Pence said on Monday in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank in Washington. He added that conservatives must help to make sure that the social safety net is well constructed “and strong enough to provide a firm basis for those starting out on life’s ladder.”
According to Sabato, Pence has substantial executive and legislative experience and is a favorite of conservatives, which would be a real plus should he decide to run for president. But he may have to give up his second term as governor of Indiana if he entered the race, which might prove a deterrent.
“It is also not easy to govern a state while campaigning full-time for the White House,” Sabato said. “Perhaps Pence just wants to be part of the conversation about policy and the direction of the GOP.”
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