Why the GOP 2016 Candidates Are Racing to the Right

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The Republican presidential candidates are aggressively staking out positions on the political right in the early stages of the 2016 race, reflecting both their own conservatism and that of the Republican activists they are trying to court.

Coming off resounding victories in the 2014 elections and deeply angry about President Barack Obama’s policies, key figures in the GOP are determined to pick a nominee who is electable but also an unabashed conservative who will seek to reverse as many of Obama’s achievements as possible once in office.

So the Republican candidates -- particularly Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who have held more liberal positions in the past on issues like immigration -- are modifying their stances to align with their party’s right. These policy announcements by candidates like Walker, Jeb Bush and the other current or former governors in the race are particularly significant, as these candidates are for the first time voicing their views on federal issues that were not a focus of their gubernatorial tenures.

Walker, for example, has suggested the U.S. should consider using ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq. He announced earlier this month his opposition to granting a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants, openly acknowledging he had reversed from his previous support of that idea. And he now says that abortions should be banned after the 20th week of a pregnancy; during his 2014 re-election campaign, he highlighted that he had signed legislation that “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.”

As they jockey for position, Republicans have also embraced deeply conservative fiscal policies. Rubio early this month unveiled a plan that would provide a new tax credit for parents but also slash the corporate tax rate and eliminate all taxes on income that comes from dividends and capital gains. Those provisions will help Rubio court party activists who are committing to drastically reducing tax rates for the wealthy and corporations because they think those policies will spur economic growth.

Critics note the provisions will drastically increase the federal budget deficit, since Rubio has not laid out any specific ideas to cut federal spending.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has said he will soon propose “the largest tax cut in American history.”

Jeb Bush has been cast as the moderate in the race, in part because back in December he said he would avoid taking stances in the Republican primary that would make him unable to win the general election. But the former Florida governor is now publicly rejecting that moderate label, emphasizing he too is a strong conservative. He has joined the other candidates in urging the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and declaring he believes marriage is only between a man and a woman.

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Bush, Paul, Rubio and Walker are the candidates who are most trying to emphasize they are not only conservative but also viable in a general election. The other GOP candidates, less focused on showing their electability, are taking even more conservative stands. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, has voiced support for eliminating the IRS in favor of a flat tax.

Conservative activists are excited with how the candidates are approaching these issues.

“Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have come up with the most pro-growth tax reform since Calvin Coolidge's presidency,” raved influential conservative writer and policy expert Ramesh Ponnuru about the tax plan Rubio co-wrote with his Utah colleague.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that works to pass anti-abortion policies both in states and nationally, was similarly pleased with Walker. She said he had taken “the best first step for a pro-life candidate.”

But Rupert Murdoch, the conservative-leaning media mogul, is wary of how the GOP candidates are talking about immigration. Murdoch, whose companies operate both Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

"Republicans talking immigration nonsense on strengthening the border while no net inflow from Mexico for long time," he said in a Twitter message on Sunday night. "Get real!"

It’s fairly typical that politicians appeal to their party’s bases during the primary, then broaden out in the general election. But these promises by the GOP candidates are striking for two reasons. First, presidents, as political science data has shown, do tend to follow through on the pledges they make in the campaign. If a repeal of Obamacare is passed through both houses of Congress in 2017 and one of these candidates is elected, he is almost certain to sign it, even though such a move would be deeply controversial.

Second, the candidates’ approach illustrates that the Republican Party is not looking to move to the political left on most issues, despite being badly defeated in the last two presidential elections.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is interviewed at the Reuters Health Summit 2014 in Washington April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH BUSINESS POLITICS) - RTR3JIILGary Cameron / Reuters, file

Whether these stands will hurt the eventual GOP nominee politically is unclear. Polling shows that views on most of these issues track along partisan lines, so most voters who disagree are Democrats who wouldn’t consider voting for a Republican presidential candidate anyway.

Also, while Bush and other Republicans are maintaining their opposition to gay marriage, which polls show the majority of the public supports, they are not putting that issue at the forefront of their campaigns.

But the early moves in the GOP primary suggest that if one of these candidates is elected president, 2017 could look a lot like much of the last decade in Washington: an intense partisan divide. Congressional Democrats are firmly opposed to repealing Obamacare and want to leave in place Obama’s executive action to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.

Democrats also want to raise, not cut, taxes on dividends and other investment income, which disproportionately goes to wealthy Americans.

Standing somewhat to the left of his opponents, Bush has taken two stances against party orthodoxy. He is supporting the idea of legalization of some undocumented immigrants, implying he would seek to get congressional approval for the kind of deportation relief Obama did through executive action.

Bush is also refusing to sign a pledge from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform stating that he will commit to never raising marginal tax rates if he is elected. Most of the other GOP candidates, unlike Bush, signed the pledge when running for governor or senator and are expected to so again.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers his remarks at the morning plenary session of the Values Voter Summit in Washington September 26, 2014.GARY CAMERON / Reuters file

There is no sign that Bush, who repeatedly cut taxes in Florida, would actually raise them nationally. Nonetheless, conservatives want him to make that promise now.

“I've always supported Grover's pledge. Bush should sign it,” said Larry Kudlow, a former Reagan administration official who is helping organize a series of dinners with conservative activists and the GOP candidates. (Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.)

Along with courting conservatives, most Republican candidates are taking few steps to broaden their political appeal to new voting blocs. Obama won the last two elections in part because he received overwhelming support from blacks and Latinos.

Rubio, like Walker, is backing away from his previous support of a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, even though Latinos are a growing part of the electorate. (Bush and Rubio have spoken Spanish during some of their recent appearances when talking to Latino press and voters.)

Similarly, there is little outreach to African-Americans, another large bloc of voters the GOP candidates will want to appeal to in the general election. None of the likely GOP candidates appeared in Selma last weekend for the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches there, although Paul is continuing to make appearances at historically black colleges and advocate for criminal justice reform.