Let's get judgmental...
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum
Sometimes, his undeniable righteousness meanders toward self-righteousness, his drama morphs into melodrama, and his timely exhortations veer into emotional exorcisms that leave you worried the world is dangling from a cliff, and there's just one guy who can save you -- Rick Santorum. He can be e.x.h.a.u.s.t.i.n.g.
But today, at CPAC, he was the first part of all those things, and none of the second parts. He was sensational.
Instead of trying to cram one-liners and Reagan nods into his fifteen minutes, he told a story that was uniquely Santorum and completely oblivious to any rebranding or reinvention.
Of course, no one really thought he'd retrench after losing in 2012 and let John Weaver give him a makeover for a 2016 run. His decision to write an exclusive column for the pseudo-conspiracy mill, World Net Daily, suggested he wasn't going to shift meaningfully.
But he completely squashed any notion of recalibration when he took a direct shot at GOP reinvention by paraphrasing Christ.
"What does it profit a movement to gain its whole country but lose its own soul?"
To him, panels, committees, and reviews are hopeless because they look outward and not inward. They're about making a party more popular, but not more pure.
That's the beauty of Santorum. He is genuinely Rick Santorum, and if you can't cheer him for his positions, you can certainly cheer him for his political person.
The weirdness of it is that I think Santorum genuinely thinks he can win a general election. He might have a great grasp on some of America's problems, but he doesn't have a great one on his electoral potential, and it's sometimes maddening to think that he thinks he can win, say, Colorado in a general election.
But to the speech...
By most standards, he claimed, Americans are better off today than ever before. We live longer, we have more "material health", and even the poor are less poor.
In fact, in nearly every way, you could say that society is advancing, yet we're actually falling backwards. Liberals, he argued, want a government program to fix every pain, yet it can't, and it hasn't.
Because there's no "why" to the country anymore.
"What is the why of America?" he kept asking and then went about trying to answer. The why is the "set of values and principles" adorning the country's founding documents and given to us by God.
"America, in its essence, is a moral enterprise -- a moral enterprise centered on the dignity of each human."
For the country to thrive, it doesn't need "more stuff," he claimed. It needs a purpose.
Of course, the entire speech was based on the assumption that America has been and is regressing, and that's a debatable notion.
When Santorum talks about a return to an earlier, better time, it's easy to forget that civil rights were detestably thin back then, that corruption and greed were just as pervasive, and that America has advanced on many scores.
But there has been deterioration, and Santorum is particularly good at pointing it out. We're losing our spirituality, our families, and our sense of connectedness (I say that, even as a happy introvert!).
I'm not sure Rick Santorum gets Reince Priebus to do cartwheels of happiness, but there is a time and place for Santorum, and that was today.
GRADE = A
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
He started off with some jokes -- jokes that were retreads from the Gridiron Speech he gave earlier this month (click here to read them).
In and of itself, that shouldn't have been a problem since most in the audience hadn't heard the jokes, but his delivery was flat and the audience completely dead.
When he finished with the quips, he zoned in and said it was time for a "candid discussion", which included some philosophy but also some strategy.
Republicans, he claimed, should stop talking about the war for control of Washington and start focusing on local communities and the battles therein (Btw, he's a governor, and probably wouldn't be so casual about Washington's wars if he were a congressman).
Then he seemed to take direct aim at congressional Republicans and Paul Ryan.
"Today's conservatism is in love with zeros. We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping.... We somehow think if we could just unite behind a proposal to cut the deficit and debt, if we could just put together a spreadsheet, then all will be well."
In other words: Paul Ryan and his Merry Band of Budgeteers don't have the answer.
Jindal has made that basic argument before, but never on such a public stage -- one that Ryan had just occupied a few hours earlier.
"Government number-crunching, even conservative number-crunching, is not the answer to our nation's problems."
But numbers have to be crunched, right? You can't live in a world where numbers don't have meaning. There's always a Higgs boson lurking around the corner, no?
I think he was trying to say that numbers don't produce growth or opportunity. You could argue about the semantics of that forever, but his essential point, I think, is this: Republicans aren't going to win if they're known as the party of numbers, and Paul Ryan sort of parties every Friday night with numbers.
Then he got to his most important point, which he literally called his "most important point."
"We must not become the party of austerity, we must become the party of growth."
Again, those aren't mutually exclusive things.
Austerity can either lead to or inhibit growth (depending on your political point of view), but you can certainly position yourself as the party of austerity and growth, and talk about how the two are related.
Having said that, from a political point of view, he's headed down a stronger path than Ryan.
Growth > austerity in the hearts and imaginations of voters.
It's much easier to say "There'll be more for everyone!" than "Let's sacrifice, and maybe you don't need a phone that knows when you want to pee, Samsung."
That's why Jindal's speech was more strategic than anything else, and that's the role he's increasingly been playing since the 2012 election.
Finally, he had a warning on party branding, which is an important one.
"We have to be comfortable with the fact that our liberal critics in the media will say that we haven't changed anything unless we endorse abortion and socialism."
(It's kind of true -- for the most part, the media will only give the GOP a "Yup, you're relevant" card if one of their candidates shifts on abortion or gay marriage).
GRADE = B-
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte
You can understand Kelly Ayotte by using three P's.
There's Kelly Ayotte on Paper, Kelly Ayotte the Person, and Kelly Ayotte as presidential contender.
Ayotte on Paper: She's the rarest of political species -- a conservative, pro-life, Northeastern female, who has immediately become a major GOP voice on national security.
Economic conservatives like her, social conservatives like her (takes moxie to be pro-life in the Northeast), neo-conservatives love her, and tea partiers -- well, it's quite possible that she might not be in the Senate if it weren't for Sarah Palin's endorsement of her in the 2010 primary.
And she doesn't just have a set of beliefs that could unite the party, she also has a strong resume, too, buttressed by her gig as New Hampshire's Attorney General.
So, on paper, she's top-tier.
Ayotte the Person: She seems really nice, and really nice people are hard to demonize, and presidential elections are starting to boil down to which candidate seems less demonic.
Ayotte is difficult to imagine as a demon. Win for her.
Ayotte the Presidential Contender: She's not a great public speaker. Her voice has a natural quiver, and there's nothing compelling about her presentation.
This is the way TPM's Benjy Sarlin put it, as Ayotte spoke.
Kelly Ayotte has the crowd whipped into a frenzy of occasional light applause #CPAC2013
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) March 15, 2013
But here's the silver lining for Ayotte.
More than on any other issue, she's carved out a role as a national security specialist.
The good thing about that is that it confers a bit more gravity on her, since it's such a sober, global issue. If her political cause were tax cuts or education, weightiness wouldn't necessarily rub off on her. But if you've got a gravitas deficit, focusing on national security can help fill the gap a bit.
As for her CPAC speech?
She started by talking about unemployment, federal regulations, ObamaCare's effect on business, the tax code, small businesses etc, and while she doubtless has convictions on all those things, she wasn't very compelling.
"Our nation is drowning in debt.... robbing our children of the American dream."
Um, can our nation, for once, not "drown" in debt? Can't politicians come up with something different? Maybe "our nation is being tied to a tree and burnt alive by the flames of our debt."
If she'd talked about debt burning us alive and ripping the flesh from us -- our skin shedding and peeling inch by inch -- maybe we'd pay more attention.
Just a thought.
But she finally found her groove when she finally found her wheelhouse -- national security.
"This is an issue that truly keeps me up at night -- the security of our nation."
She then laid out a vision that couldn't be more different from the one Rand Paul presented a day earlier and from the more isolationist path the GOP seems to be flirting with -- at least at the grassroots level.
Kelly repeatedly slammed Obama for "leading from behind" on Syria, Libya, and Iran, and even used a few moments to hammer Hillary Clinton on Benghazi.
"How could she possibly say that she was clear-eyed when she never even reviewed the cables from our own ambassador? It's outrageous."
Just for good measure, she finished her speech with another implicit jab at Rand Paul, warning about a "temptation" to "isolate" ourselves from evil -- a temptation that's been present "in every generation."
Ayotte is frequently lumped together with McCain and Lindsey Graham. It'll be interesting to see if she's comfortable with being the new face of the old guard.
GRADE = C
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
It was an eventful week, a VERY peppy Ryan claimed as he hopped to the stage: "We got white smoke from the Vatican and we got a budget from the Senate."
"The Vatican isn't the only place blowing smoke this week."
From there, he started talking about the budget and fiscal discipline until his time was up.
To be fair, he wasn't entirely monochromatic, and like a dutiful composer, he pumped out some nice variations on a theme, thoughtfully explaining why Washington's fiscal mess affects every layer of American society.
But still -- he didn't really touch on a deeper ideal.
It wasn't as visionary a speech as Rubio's, it wasn't as philosophical as Rand's, it wasn't as strategic as Jindal's, and it wasn't as passionate as Santorum's. Instead, it was practical, and as such, felt more accessible but less grand, which is perhaps the kind of politician Ryan prefers to be.
In fact, he seemed far more interested in selling his budget than in selling his person, which is a sign that he might be growing increasingly comfortable with his current perch in Congress, doing his budget thing, while the rest of the candidates scurry about the country.
Throughout the speech, he kept coming back to the budget and fiscal discipline as key for restoring America. He didn't talk about traditional GOP social issues, except through using words like "community" and "youth groups" and even then, did it all through the lens of fiscal sanity and not some nebulous nod to something grander.
He had a nice lemon to lemonade moment when he said "We see our debt.... as an opportunity to reform government."
Great line. Not the way I'd immediately see it, but it's actually a nice point. When your house is REALLY dirty and Kei$ha-y, you have to clean the whole thing or you haven't cleaned a thing. You can't just ignore the little bit of Kei$ha behind the couch like you can when the house is relatively clean.
As a numbers guy, he's got to incorporate more catchy little maxims to make his points more digestible for the masses.
But like I said, it didn't sound like a speech from someone who wants to run the world.
When I started Prez16, it seemed more likely that Ryan would run for president than his Wisconsin bro, Scott Walker. But based on the last few months, as well as this speech, I'm guessing it's Walker we'll see in New Hampshire in 2016.
GRADE = B