Conservative Reaction To Election ’12, Part IV: New Leaders

One thing on which pretty much everyone in both parties who was not on the payroll of a candidate pretty much agreed: the 2012 GOP candidate field was a poor one. At one point or another in the nomination contest cycle, the leader among Republicans in at least some national polls was Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Partly that was because potentially more formidable candidates declined to run for one reason or another (the difficultly of taking on the Romney and Perry money machines was an under-discussed factor), including the “unseasoned” nature of several relatively new elected officials.

So looking forward, Republicans have every reason to assume an improvement in the 2016 candidate field. And moreover, the dominant “movement conservative” faction has a special incentive to unite behind a single candidate, having failed to do so this year. Indeed, partly for that reason, and partly to deny the less-than-scintillating congressional leaders Bohner and McConnell the role of party spokesmen, we could well see an aggressive effort to promote a small group of potential 2016ers as the faces and voices of the party.

In terms of who makes that short list in what order, I think there’s an understandable tendency at this particular moment, within and beyond the ranks of GOP activists, to overreact a bit to the party’s “Latino problem,” to the benefit of Marco Rubio and perhaps his original patron Jeb Bush. Rubio has a history of questionable associations and financial irregularies (both reflected in his close friendship with about-to-be-former congressman David Rivera, who was trounced Tuesday night amidst escalating inquiries into his business dealings). And there’s never been much evidence that he’s popular with Latinos beyond his corner of the Cuban-American community. Jeb Bush, of course, must deal with the undertow of his last name, to which he added with some unhelpful comments about Republican tax ideology during the current cycle.

And Jebbie’s not the only one who’s hurt his own stock; most notably, Chris Christie (and to a lesser extent Bob McDonnell) sowed a lot of bitter seeds with his praise for Obama’s handling of Sandy, which Dick Morris (among others) blamed for destroying Mitt-mentum at the end of the campaign.

I won’t go through the whole list of 2016 possibles (Huckabee and Santorum from campaigns past; Susana Martinez for those who think demographics are everything; Bobby Jindal, if he can overcome his “exorcism” problem; Nikki Haley, who has her own extensive personal and political baggage; Rand Paul, whose instant national following is offset by the intense controversy aroused by his foreign policy views; Mike Pence, the grim ideologue who is now governor of Indiana; and on an on).

But the real question is whether Paul Ryan can nail down the Titular Leader of the Republican Party role that absolutely no one wants the soon-to-be-forgotten Mitt Romney assume. Nobody is blaming Ryan for any aspect of the 2012 loss. He remains wildly popular among quasi-libertarians, fiscal hawks, and social conservatives. He looks, at least, like someone who could help appeal to the younger voters who are tilting heavily against the GOP, and is accustomed to talking to the midwestern downscale white voters the party will continue to need in presidential elections. The biggest asset and potentially the biggest problem for him is his position in Congress, which could make him the focal point of opposition to Obama over the next two or three years or a “traitor to the Cause” complicit in fiscal deals. He certainly managed during Obama’s first term to make himself simultaneously a conservative-movement matinee idol while inspiring goo-goo eyed admiration from the MSM as a constructive figure in Congress, so maybe he can keep pulling it off; if he’d just become fluent in Spanish, he might even run away with the 2016 nomination.

The less Republicans want to change their ideology, the more they’ll talk about “new leaders.” Ryan still qualifies, but he’d be wise to quickly show it was the Romney campaign that made him hide his conservative light under a bushel during the general election campaign. Given his high visibility in Congress, that’s bad news for anyone hoping against hope for a new GOP willingness to compromise.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.