Qualified GOP candidates abound for election in ’16

WASHINGTON — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is on a diet, slimming down, and speaking around the country — a sure sign he’s in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

The tough-talking former prosecutor, who made a name for himself by putting crooked Democrats and Republicans behind bars, got a clean bill of health this month when an investigation cleared him of involvement in the outrageous lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

A lengthy, nine-month federal probe into the dirty-tricks fiasco that threatened Christie’s political future concluded that it had found nothing to implicate the governor in what became known as the “Bridgegate” scandal.

Christie’s blunt style of politics may not be for everyone, but it has won him legions of fans who are looking for an effective political fighter on their behalf. He was accurately described by former White House speechwriter and now syndicated columnist Michael Gerson as the “Ford Gran Torino of GOP politics — a bit ungainly, but a V-8 under the hood … with some dents.”

He will enter a crowded field of Republican candidates who are also testing the waters, but with one big difference from two years ago.

Unlike the weak, baggage-heavy field of presidential wannabes in 2012, this crop of candidates is largely made up of politically tested governors, or former governors, who’ve run their state governments, wrestled with legislatures, pushed through agendas and balanced budgets. As many as half a dozen of them, at last count.

In short, they are in sharp contrast to the inexperienced occupant of the White House, who had never run anything, not even a lemonade stand — the result of which is a failed chief executive who has presided over a weak, lackluster economy for the past six years.

Barack Obama has lots of other failures besides not knowing how to run a government. Indeed, it is hard to recall a previous president who has had so many political and departmental management scandals:

The Internal Revenue Service’s politically driven effort to undermine conservative educational groups; the deadly cover-up in the Veterans Administration where ill veterans couldn’t get the medical care they desperately needed; the State Department’s shocking failure to respond to the cry for help from the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya; the management breakdown at the Department of Homeland Security.

It’s a little too early to figure out who is leading in the GOP’s 2016 sweepstakes. No doubt that’s going to be a bit clearer after the Nov. 4 midterm elections.

But it’s not a stretch to suggest that Republican primary voters, after two terms of an incompetent president whose job approval numbers are in the basement, will be looking for a leader who’s been tested, who has a record of getting things done, and getting much, if not most, of his agenda enacted.

In other words, it’s more than likely the GOP’s nominee in 2016 will be a governor. Christie has been at the top of that lengthy list in the polls.

Just below Christie in the Real Clear Politics poll watch is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who says he’ll make a decision by the end of this year or early next year.

Both are well-known, big-state names, but they could be facing other governors in the GOP’s lineup: Rick Perry of Texas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and John Kasich of Ohio, a pivotal, must-win electoral state.

Then there are the freshmen senators: Rand Paul of Kentucky (who is third in the polls), Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. They’re among their party’s up-and-comers, though they’re all in their first terms and still learning the ropes.

But Republicans as a rule do not choose freshmen as their nominees, preferring seasoned candidates who have been around the track once or twice or even three times. Think Ronald Reagan, for instance.

Meantime, Republicans have to begin thinking seriously about what will be the big, decisive issues in 2016 that are among the highest concerns of the American people.

First and foremost, it is clear even at this stage that a dreadfully weak Obama economy, long-term joblessness, the nation’s shrinking labor force and largely flat middle-class incomes will still be the overriding issues two years from now.

The candidate who wins the GOP’s nomination will be the one who makes economic concerns the chief focus of his candidacy. The one who doesn’t mince words about the failed economic policies that Obama and his party have inflicted on our country, which have hurt tens of millions of lower- and middle-income Americans who have told pollsters they’re still struggling.

Very near the top of the list is the exploding federal debt, the result of six years of record budget deficits that threaten our nation’s solvency.

Then comes Obamacare, and how Obama and his party repeatedly told us that if we liked our medical care policy, we could keep it. His lie was exposed when millions of us got notices that our policies would be terminated and we had to get new ones that, not surprisingly, cost more than our previous plans.

Next comes the president’s dangerously naive foreign policy of retreat from the war on terrorism, which has led to a resurgent and much greater threat abroad and to our own national security here at home.

All of these are winning issues in and of themselves. But they demand an experienced, confident, level-headed leader who can appeal to a far broader electorate with a common-sense agenda for change.

These are dangerous times we’ve gotten ourselves into, and they will require an uncommonly qualified candidate to get our country back on the road to prosperity and renewal.

So choose carefully and wisely, America. Two years from now, it may be the most important decision we’ve made in a generation.