Now that the mid-term elections are over, the political class is pivoting its attention to 2016. Most Americans aren't yet focused on electing our next president, but make no mistake: the potential candidates are already heavily engaged in running for that job.
One sign of the early activity is that the "Evangelical Primary" is already in full swing. According to network exit polls in 2012, self-identified evangelical Christians comprised 51 percent of all the votes cast in Republican presidential preference primaries and caucuses. So no one seeking the GOP nomination in 2016 can afford to ignore this vital and dynamic constituency. There is simply no viable road to the presidency for a Republican candidate who fails to win strong support from voters of faith.
The 2014-midterm elections confirmed the persistent and enduring potency of the evangelical constituency in American politics. According to a post-election survey by Public Opinion Strategies, Christian conservatives and Evangelicals comprised 32 percent of the electorate, voting 86 percent Republican and 12 percent for Democratic candidates. They were the largest and most vibrant single voting bloc in the midterm electorate, larger than the African-American vote, Hispanic vote, union vote, and "gay" vote combined.
For that reason, Republicans eyeing the White House are actively courting Evangelical Christian leaders and grassroots activists and have been for months. They know Evangelicals dominate the vote in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and South Carolina. Thus, a candidate in 2016 that can win over and hold the trust and enthusiastic support of the bulk of Evangelicals would likely win those states, and much of the South and Midwest, and have a clear shot at the Republican nomination.
Evangelicals, therefore, must choose wisely. We have a unique opportunity to help preserve our nation's liberty and prosperity for future generations by choosing the right nominee and turning out en masse at the polls. But who and what are we looking for exactly? Space does not permit a comprehensive list here, but we believe it is important right up front to set forth some basic principles that should guide our selection process.
It has been said that a great leader, in addition to having solid moral character and being above reproach, has two essential tools: a compass, and a magnet. We wholeheartedly agree.
Great leaders have a clear sense of direction. They know where to go, and they are going to the right place. They understand the enormous challenges that lie ahead. They also have both a broad vision and a carefully thought-through plan to achieve it.
Yet great leaders do not merely have a compass. They also have a magnet, a winsome capacity to draw people onto their team, persuade them to follow, and inspire them to play their part in implementing the plan. Such leaders can connect with factory workers and business owners, with young people and seniors, singles, couples and parents, people of faith and those for whom faith is not a central part of their lives. Indeed, we would argue that this intangible quality of empathy and the ability to connect with voters is essential not only to winning elections, but to governing. It's not enough to have thoughtful positions on key issues if the majority of voters don't believe you care for them and have their best interests at heart.
Now more than ever, our ship of state needs a great leader at the helm who has the wisdom, experience, and deep personal resolve to steer our nation back to greatness.
A recent CBS News poll found 65 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is on the wrong track. A mere 29 percent believe we are on the right track. The reasons are clear enough. At home, Americans see millions unemployed or underemployed. They see stagnant wages, factories closing, and jobs moving overseas. They see families disintegrating, a plague of violent crime and drugs, a relentless assault against faith and traditional values, a $17 trillion-plus national debt that is rapidly climbing with no apparent end in sight, and a culture of scandal, ineptitude, and incompetence in Washington. No wonder average Americans feel abandoned and exasperated.
Abroad, Americans see respect for our country evaporating. Our enemies don't fear us. Our friends don't trust us. Americans are deeply concerned about the rising threats from Russia, China and Radical Islam, as well as a porous — and dangerous — southern border. With a shrinking military and a weak and indecisive president in the White House, Americans see our enemies moving aggressively into a vacuum of Washington's own making, putting our own security and that of our friends and allies in grave danger. And if this were not enough, they fear the future of their children will not be nearly as bright as it was for them.
There is no question that America is in a state of decline. But the situation is actually more serious than that. The United States faces outright collapse if we do not soon make fundamental and serious changes at home and abroad.
There are several reasons, but consider just one: our fiscal situation. As 80 million-plus Baby Boomers begin to retire, we face upwards of $55 trillion in unfunded entitlement liabilities on top of the nearly $20 trillion national debt. When it comes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the politicians in Washington have made the American people promises regarding retirement income and benefits they simply do not have the money to pay for unless they impose massive tax increases and borrow unprecedented amounts of money from foreign governments. Yet such actions would destroy jobs, suffocate our economy, and undermine our national sovereignty. And when those bills come due, how will we also pay for a strong American military or maintain any of the federal government's other essential services?
That said, most Evangelicals understand that not all of our daunting challenges can — or should — be solved by Washington. Some important matters need to be handled at the state and local level. Others can best be solved by businesses, churches, families, and other civic institutions.
Above all, America needs the help of Divine Providence. We have faced enormously difficult times in the past. Yet, by the grace of Almighty God, we have also seen Great Awakenings in American history. The first game-changing series of spiritual revivals occurred in the U.S. in the 1700s. Another took place in the 1800s. During these eras, Americans who had been drifting from spiritual matters and thus seeing increases in alcoholism, crime, and other social troubles, suddenly turned back to a deep faith in Jesus Christ and returned to church in massive numbers. They once again became passionate about raising healthy families, educating their children, caring for the needy and vulnerable among them, and building strong, vibrant, healthy communities without an over-dependence on government. They realized afresh that a self-governing society needs to be made up of self-governing individuals and families. And in the wake of these Great Awakenings came the greatest era of business entrepreneurship, technological innovation, economic growth, social reform, military might, and religious devotion the world has ever seen.
Today, we need a new Great Awakening. To truly get America back on the right course, we urgently need to humble ourselves and pray — faithfully and consistently — for God to give our country a series of spiritual, social and sweeping national revivals that will truly transform individuals, families and our culture. The challenges we face as a nation are simply too great to be solved by our own efforts. We need God's help.
In the meantime, we must faithfully do our part. There are vital matters that leaders in Washington — and particularly the American president — are uniquely called upon to handle in our constitutional form of government. Thus, the process of choosing our next leaders is all the more important, and we must approach the process with the utmost care and sobriety.
For one thing, given such high stakes, we cannot afford another inexperienced, untested president. We simply do not have the luxury of choosing someone who gives great speeches but has little or no record of solid leadership and proven results.
Rather, at this moment in history, we need a president with broad national and international experience, a leader who:
Truly understands and can explain the increasingly precarious position in which America finds itself;
- Will lay out a bold but realistic set of reforms at the federal level to lead American renewal at home and abroad;
- Will focus Washington like a laser on the urgent priorities for which the federal government has clear Constitutional authority, and entrust the rest to the States and the American people in keeping with the 10th Amendment;
- Will set aside petty partisanship and politics-as-usual sniping and bring the people, Congress, and the States together behind honest, principled, commonsense solutions;
- Can inspire and encourage the American people through the long and challenging process of reform, and simultaneously rebuild trust with our friends and allies around the world;
- Truly understands that America was built with the help of Divine Providence, needs God's help to rebuild and revive this "shining city on a hill," and will not be afraid to speak to the importance of religious faith and freedom in the history of the American Experiment.
Specifically, Evangelicals will be evaluating each candidate for president on at least seven critical sets of issues:
1. LIFE — What position does the candidate hold on the issue of protecting innocent human life, in the area of abortion as well as euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and the rationing of care to the elderly, disabled, and infirm? Does he or she agree with the signers of the Declaration that the right to life comes before the right to liberty, and that these rights are endowed to us by our Creator, not by the state? Does he or she have proven, consistent experience championing the rights of the unborn? And will he or she continue to champion a culture that respects the sanctity of innocent human life, from conception to natural death?
2. MARRIAGE — What position does the candidate hold on the vital social and enculturating institution of marriage? Does he or she have proven, consistent experience defending and promoting marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman? And as president, how will he or she not only defend but esteem and encourage the institution of healthy, lasting, natural marriages going forward? Does the candidate understand that poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and a host of social pathologies are to a great extent a reflection of the decline in marriage and the disintegration of the family?
3. RELIGIOUS LIBERTY — Does the candidate truly understand why the issue of religious liberty was so important to our Founding Fathers and the future of the country? Does he or she have proven, consistent experience defending religious freedom? As president, how will he or she advance this issue in light of current and growing assaults?
4. NATIONAL SECURITY — Does the candidate have demonstrated wisdom and proven experience on defense and foreign policy issues? What does he or she believe constitutes America's most vital national interests, those essential to protect and defend? Does he or she truly believe in a policy of "Peace Through Strength" and have a credible plan to rebuild the military, and a plan to protect our borders and national sovereignty? Does he or she have a solid team of qualified, seasoned advisors, especially on matters related to the defense, the Middle East, Russia, Asia, and energy?
5. ISRAEL AND RADICAL ISLAM — Does the candidate have a clear and coherent view of U.S. vital interests in the Middle East, including a demonstrated, consistent, long-standing support for Israel and a solid understanding of why Israel matters to the U.S.? Does the candidate have a clear understanding of the urgency of the threats posed by Iran, ISIS, and Radical Islam more broadly, and a serious approach towards dealing with such threats? Does he or she have proven wisdom and experience in dealing with the Middle East issues, or is the candidate too new to the foreign policy arena?
6. ECONOMIC GROWTH — Does the candidate have a realistic vision of how to revive the growth of the American economy and family incomes by unleashing free market forces and job growth? Does he or she have a bold, yet carefully thought-through tax reform plan? Has the candidate and his team subjected their plan to economic modeling and truly understand the implications of what they are proposing? At the same time, does the candidate have a plan for America to achieve energy independence; a serious approach to reforming and strengthening Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; a credible plan to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, balance the federal budget and stop borrowing from foreign countries; and a principled plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it with family-and-freedom-friendly health care reforms?
7. THE RULE OF LAW — Can we trust this candidate to truly govern according to the entire U.S. Constitution? Does he or she have a deep understanding of the importance, in particular, of the First and Second Amendments? Does he or she have a deep and convincing commitment to clean up the scandals in Washington and restore the rule of law in America, based upon the U.S. Constitution? Can we trust this candidate to appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court and the federal courts, and to urgently reform the IRS, the Justice Department, Homeland Security, and the Secret Service to ensure justice and domestic tranquility, according to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
To be clear: it won't be enough this time around for a candidate to simply have the "right position" on issues that matter to Evangelicals. We will need to see longstanding leadership on these issues. And we will need to see specific reform proposals.
With the threats facing the country so great, it is political malpractice for a candidate to present himself as a serious contender for the American presidency without having developed thoughtful, credible reform plans to protect America and lead an American Renewal. Any candidate who is considering throwing his or her hat into the ring must take the time to carefully develop their analysis of the nation's challenges and their plans for keeping our ship of state from listing or breaking up. As the campaign unfolds, voters have the right to hear the candidates lay out their reform proposals, and the responsibility to evaluate those proposals carefully.
That said, effective governance requires more than men and women with solid experience and the right ideas. It also requires men and women with the demonstrated ability to lead in three key areas:
• TEAM-BUILDING: Does the candidate have a team of political advisors, strategists, pollsters, and policy advisors who have a proven record of winning, and does he or she listen to wise counsel? Are they surrounded by seasoned and respected advisors who can help them govern the nation and oversee the implementation of these reforms if they win?
• FUND-RAISING: Is the candidate capable of assembling a team of major donors, bundlers, and grassroots supporters who can truly fund a winning national campaign? Barack Obama raised $1 billion in 2012. Anyone who hopes to win the presidency in 2016 will have to raise a similar amount.
• COMMUNICATIONS: Does the candidate have the wherewithal to earn the nation's trust to be the next president of the United States in word and deed? Does he or she have the ability to connect with voters who might not have considered voting conservative or Republican in the past? Is their rhetorical and personal style one of offering hope as opposed to pessimism? In this high-speed, high-tech media culture, does he or she consistently demonstrate the ability to truly and effectively communicate a powerful message of American Renewal at home, and American leadership abroad, or at least give evidence of the ability to grow more effective as a communicator during the course of the campaign? Can he or she learn quickly from mistakes, and make course corrections on the move? What's more, can the candidate withstand the pressure cooker environment of a national campaign, maintain message discipline and a positive approach, and not crack under pressure?
What happens if several candidates emerge that seem equally qualified and compelling based on these criteria? Then we must go deeper and examine their record and proposals on other critical issues that matter to us, from education reform, to how best to deal with immigration matters, to how to revitalize manufacturing and revive America's cities, to how best to reform welfare and give people an incentive to work, and so forth.
Given the nature of a free society and the rambunctious quality of our democracy, it is highly unlikely that Evangelicals — or any other single constituency — will line up behind a single candidate from the beginning. Reasonable people of good will often disagree, and some will have longtime personal or political relationships with candidates that impose a measure of loyalty and fidelity. This is all to the good. There is much to recommend Evangelicals having a presence and voice in more than one campaign. Indeed, attempting to "anoint" a single candidate early on without regard to the conservative issue positions, solid character, and personal faith of others may be impossible.
We should also remember that Evangelicals are not, as the Washington Post infamously labeled them some years ago, "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." They are not bleating sheep who docilely and obediently take orders from leaders. To a great extent, the "Evangelical choice" will be determined by the political marketplace, at the grassroots, driven by candidate performance and who consistently makes the most compelling case for their candidacy and their vision for the country.
Evangelicals should be prudent as well as principled. They would do well to remember the Bill Buckley rule of voting for the most conservative candidate who can actually win. We cannot wait for a perfect candidate. None exist. Thus, we must not set our standards unattainably high. Yet we must be careful not to set our standards too low, or allow ourselves to be sloppy — or too hasty — in how we vet the candidates. The white heat of a campaign has a way of helping voters see more clearly the essence of a candidate's character and ideas. So we must watch and listen carefully, and pray for wisdom and discernment. And then, when the moment is right, Evangelicals need to coalesce behind a specific candidate, and do everything we can to help him or her win the White House and get this great country back on track.
So, as we begin the search, what are Evangelicals looking for exactly?
We need a leader with unimpeachable moral character, deeply-held core principles, and both the experience and the wisdom to pursue them in the face of intense opposition and despite repeated setbacks. We need to seek a leader with a clear vision and a convincing plan. We need leaders with an outsider mentality but a clear understanding of how to govern. That is, we need someone with a good compass and a clear road map.
But we also need someone with a magnet. We need a candidate who is able to persuade people to follow, someone able to communicate effectively amidst a hostile media environment. We need someone able to recruit and build a team, keep them encouraged and motivated, funded and focused, even as the team keeps growing and growing, and even as the complexities and challenges of the team mount exponentially throughout the campaign.
Now more than ever, America needs a great leader at the helm. We need someone equipped with two essential tools: a compass and a magnet.
Let the search begin.
Penny Nance is CEO and President of Concerned Women for America (CWA), the nation's largest public policy women's organization with more than 500,000 participating members across the country.
Ralph Reed is the founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a senior advisor on multiple presidential campaigns, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and author of numerous best-selling books including, Awakening: How America Can Turn from Economic and Moral Destruction Back to Greatness.