Whether it was Mitt Romney formally bowing out or the Koch Brothers informally diving in, something has quite suddenly cranked up the long-simmering 2016 campaign to a frothy boil. From Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's Sunday morning showdown over Syria to the back-and-forth (and sideways) debate over vaccinations, culminating in a triumphant subtweet from Hillary Clinton, the first week of February 2015 has been a weird and wild one for the likely presidential contenders.
Here's a deeper look at some of the most surprising and instructive things we've learned in the past seven days:
1. Chris Christie's temper still gets the best of him, and that's a huge problem.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's three-day trip to the U.K. lasted about two days too long. After arriving early Sunday and enjoying a soccer match in North London that afternoon, Christie got down to business Monday morning, popping in on a British pharmaceutical manufacturer. But whatever he meant to achieve with the visit was quickly overshadowed by an uncharacteristically vague response to a question about the anti-vaccination movement.
After stating that his own kids has been immunized and that he and his wife viewed it as "an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health," Christie paused and delivered his now infamous hedge:
"I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well," he said, "so that's the balance that the government has to decide."
Exactly four hours after MSNBC's Kasie Hunt tweeted his words, Team Christie began backtracking.
The blustering governor had "gone wobbly." For a day, at least. By Tuesday, a now-cranky Christie told reporters he was done talking. When the Washington Post's Philip Rucker asked about "ISIS and his U.K. meetings," the governor brushed him off, asking back, "Is there something you don't understand about 'no questions'?"
What Christie apparently doesn't understand about running for president is that the added scrutiny of the campaign season can easily transform his boisterous brand of politicking into a severe liability. In this case, his cynically cautious response to the vaccine question was very easily contrasted with his cynically proactive October decision to forcibly quarantine a nurse who had worked with Ebola patients in West Africa.
For voters and still-unattached big-money donors concerned about Christie's ability to manage his emotions on the big stage, his mini-meltdown in London delivered one very clear message: Keep being worried.
2. Hillary Clinton is basically running as an incumbent.
As long as progressive darling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sticks to her word and steers clear of a run of her own, Clinton seems content to quietly build a team and put off any official declarations until the spring or summer. And why not? Why steal any attention from a Republican field happily pounding itself into fine dust?
Clinton's contribution to the Great Vaccine Debate of 2015 was pitch perfect. Brief, funny (for a politician, at least) and cutting, she picked off Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) from her digital perch:
It's easy to drop the mic when there's no one in your face asking for a follow-up question or clarification. And while there is a whole cottage industry dedicated to analyzing Clinton's every word, normal politically engaged human beings probably didn't care to read much past her tweet. In this case, and on this issue, Clinton schooled the less-seasoned opposition.
3. Young people are really, really "ready for Hillary."
While the pundits were lumbering through lists of hypothetical campaign headquarters for Clinton 2016 —Brooklyn! Queens! No one cares! — Fusion released a new poll showing the former secretary of state with a commanding lead among likely voters between the ages of 18 and 34. (The survey was conducted by Clinton's newly hired pollster's own firm, but the numbers fall in line with most of the reputable figures we've seen.)
According to Fusion, Clinton is currently pulling in 57% of the liberal millennial vote, even with 19% still undecided. That's nearly 6 in 10 young Democrats who are ready to commit their support right now. And with no one like a young Barack Obama, for example, threatening to join the contest, that number is more likely to grow than sag.
By contrast, no one in the current Republican field has surpassed 16% support, still another sign that the GOP is in for a very long, very tough primary fight.
The bottom line: Hillary Clinton is hugely popular with Democrats. She has an early leg-up on the Republican field, which will spend the next year battering itself. And young supporters are excited about actually getting out the door and voting for her. That's not a bad place to start.
4. Scott Walker is getting lots of love, but he's also got lots to learn.
Candidates like to blame media outlets for creating false narratives about who they are or what they believe. Except, of course, when the narrative is a flattering one. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is, at the onset of the campaign, happily riding a wave of stories declaring him the preferred "conservative alternative" to mainstream hopefuls like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bolstered by strong early support in Iowa, which will host the first presidential caucus in less than a year, Walker struck a confident pose during a one-on-one interview with ABC's "chief global affairs correspondent" and former presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz this past Sunday. But when she pressed the governor to elaborate on his "big, bold" foreign policy plan for Syria, he seemed bizarrely unprepared.
Here's their exchange:
Raddatz: What is your big, bold idea in Syria?
Walker: I think aggressively, we need to take the fight to ISIS and any other radical Islamic terrorist in and around the world, because it's not a matter of when they attempt an attack on American soil, or not if I should say, it's when, and we need leadership that says clearly, not only among the United States but among our allies, that we're willing to take appropriate action. I think it should be surgical.
Raddatz: You don't think 2,000 air strikes is taking it to ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
Walker: I think we need to have an aggressive strategy anywhere around the world. I think it's a mistake to —
Raddatz: But what does that mean? I don't know what aggressive strategy means. If we're bombing and we've done 2,000 air strikes, what does an aggressive strategy mean in foreign policy?
Walker: I think anywhere and everywhere, we have to be — go beyond just aggressive air strikes. We have to look at other surgical methods. And ultimately, we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that's what it takes, because I think, you know —
Raddatz: Boots on the ground in Syria? U.S. boots on the ground in Syria?
Walker: I don't think that is an immediate plan, but I think anywhere in the world —
Raddatz: But you would not rule that out.
Walker: I wouldn't rule anything out.
It's one thing to give a rousing speech to a roomful of conservative Iowa Republicans and quite another to deliver a succinct plan on how to defeat Islamic State militants operating in the fallout of a years-long civil war in Syria to an appropriately skeptical (and experienced) interviewer.
So does Walker really think it's a good idea to put American soldiers on the ground in Syria to fight ISIS? Again, it's really hard to tell. But for political opponents working to appeal to sane Americans who don't want U.S. troops dropped into the Syrian hellhole, this interview was pure gold. Walker will need to be more nimble — building on his handful of neat talking points would help — if he's going to challenge the better-known party favorites.
5. Jeb Bush is talking, but who's listening?
Actually, the question should really be: "Jeb Bush is talking, but is there anyone listening apart from a small group of paid professionals?" Because nearly eight weeks after announcing that he would "actively explore" a presidential bid, there is little evidence that the brother of former president George W. Bush and son of former president George H.W. Bush has done anything to win over skeptical conservatives.
As Bush said in early December 2014, the GOP needs a candidate who is willing to "lose the primary to win the general." In plainer English, Bush was stating his belief that the usual pandering to the right-wing in Iowa and South Carolina (another early state) has cost Republicans with the broader electorate. In launching his own campaign, he's promised not to fall into that trap.
But also implicit in that statement is the fact that, yeah, Bush really is willing to lose the primary. And If it were held today, he would. He would lose badly. Luckily for the establishment favorite, there is still a year to go (and millions and millions to spend) before the first votes are counted. But the question is out there: How long can the "front-runner" wait to earn his title?
6. If you were worried about Rand Paul being a bit wacky, keep being worried.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has by most accounts assembled a crack team of campaign consultants and digital outreach professionals. But all their good advice and smart planning can be crushed in an instant by scenes like the one on replay right here.
What you are watching above is the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky shushing CNBC anchor Kelly Evans as she questions him about an arcane detail in his bipartisan plan to bring home new tax revenue from American companies bundling their cash overseas. It's not exactly the kind of thing people would spend much time discussing if not for Paul's thin-skinned and shockingly condescending reaction. And yet, here we are. For Republicans concerned with not getting hammered again by Democrats on women's issues in the coming presidential race, this is not a comforting image.
Even more discomforting were the actual words Paul said just a few minutes before his CNBC interview to right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham. Asked about the vaccine debate, the senator told Ingraham he'd "heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." If Christie had been uncharacteristically wishy-washy in his response to a similar question, then Paul — a doctor! — was playing right to type when he took his kooky detour.
Paul is the most prominent voice in the libertarian wing of the GOP, so his comments were likely rooted in an unwavering dedication to the concept of "personal choice" — that while "vaccines are a good thing," he still believes "the parents should have some input," as he told Ingraham. This might help explain how he got into peddling the dangerous and discredited arguments preferred by "anti-vaxxers."
Whatever his reasoning, unpredictability like we saw Monday makes people (especially the kind Paul will soon be asking for large sums of campaign money) very nervous. And nervous donors can sink a campaign before voters get a chance to have their say.
7. Marco Rubio is looking smarter every day.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) has seen his stock with tea partiers steadily diminish over the past two years. His willingness to put his name on a bipartisan Senate bill for comprehensive immigration reform (only to see it quickly and mercilessly defeated by House Republicans) was, depending on your point of view, either brave or magnificently naive. In the aftermath, Rubio has become a staunch opponent of President Barack Obama's immigration actions.
When the White House moved to protect up to 5 million people in the country without paperwork from being deported, Rubio, speaking to the Miami Herald, called the constitutional implications "horrifying." He now advocates for a piecemeal approach roundly rejected by Democrats and immigration activists as unreasonably harsh and, even then, unlikely to be passed by a Republican-dominated Congress.
But when it came time to play campaign small-ball, it was Rubio who looked like the conservative Republican with his finger on the pulse. Speaking to a large group of reporters after he chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Cuba, the senator was unequivocal: "Absolutely, all children in America should be vaccinated," he said.
By waiting and then delivering a clear, crisp and scientifically sound response to the silliness around him, Rubio managed to escape this wild and often ridiculous week looking like a responsible adult. That's more than you can say for a number of his potential rivals.
The trail ahead: It's tempting to dismiss the likely candidates' early comments and gaffes as inconsequential. After all, relatively few voters are paying attention 21 months out from Election Day 2016. But the men and women you see now are fully formed political creatures. They have time to experiment, adjust and overcome mistakes, but that doesn't mean we can't find out important things about who they are by examining how they've responded to this first blush of campaign madness.