What Is the 2016 GOP Primary Going to be About?

Consider this disturbing possibility: Rick Perry, who in 2012 was the gun-totin'-est, God-fearin'-est candidate in the bunch, might be the most sober, responsible Republican candidate in 2016. As you can tell by his bold new specs, Perry is reinventing himself as he prepares for another run at the presidency in 2016, a reinvention Michelle Cottle documents in this long article (with particular attention paid to those glasses). The "new" Perry thinks social issues are a distraction, says he can reach across the aisle, and wants to focus on his executive experience and economic record.

Whatever else you might say about Perry, it at least appears that he's thinking this whole thing through and has some idea of what his next candidacy will be about. Which leads me to the question in the title of this post: What is the GOP primary as a whole going to be about?

The easy answer is that it'll be a "battle for the soul of the Republican party," a phrase I'm guessing we'll hear about a zillion times between now and the convention. But that could mean almost anything. There aren't going to be too many arguments over issues; substantive disagreements in primaries are always minor anyway, and there's very little disagreement within the GOP these days about policy. Any soul-battling will likely be about tactics, as in how to go about doing what they all want to do.

That's what the last Democratic primary, in 2008, was about. At the time, Mark Schmitt called it the "theory of change" primary, a debate not about what needed to be done at the end of the Bush years, but which strategy would be most efficacious in making the Democratic agenda a reality. As Ezra Klein noted yesterday, Barack Obama's theory of change was wrong—it turned out that reaching across the aisle and transcending political divisions wasn't actually the way to achieve Democrats' goals. But he managed to achieve most of those goals anyway—an economic stimulus, health-care reform, Wall Street reform, getting out of Iraq, and now even some action on climate change.

I suppose on a basic level it isn't too surprising to hear Rick Perry dipping his toe into the waters of reconciliation, even if it's a secondary argument for his candidacy (the primary one being that he's an experienced manager). Americans always want to be told that we can all get along. Obama was hardly the first candidate to make that his central message —it was what George W. Bush said before him, and Bill Clinton before him.

The GOP primary of 2012 wasn't about anything in particular, other than whether Republicans could live with Mitt Romney. In the end, they decided they could, especially given the alternatives. But if 2016 winds up being a "theory of change" primary for Republicans, it could produce a fascinating debate. You'll have at least a couple of candidates (like Ted Cruz) arguing that change can be achieved by pushing eight years of rage behind a chariot of glory rolling through Washington to cleanse it of any trace of Barack Obama's reign. I'm not sure what Rand Paul's theory of change might be. And apparently, Rick Perry wants to be the reasonable, business-minded conservative who knows how to get things done. It actually doesn't sound that crazy.

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