As the Republican Party looks to rebuild in the aftermath of its crushing defeat this past November, party activists and elders have been looking for a figure capable of leading them out of the political desert and onto victory in 2016. Already, media speculation has identified a few possible frontrunners. The first and currently most […]
As the Republican Party looks to rebuild in the aftermath of its crushing defeat this past November, party activists and elders have been looking for a figure capable of leading them out of the political desert and onto victory in 2016. Already, media speculation has identified a few possible frontrunners. The first and currently most prominent conservative politician that is being fitted for Moses’ robes is Florida’s Latin sensation, Marco Rubio – the sunshine state’s junior Republican Senator who was recently fêted with a Time cover story that heralded his advent as the GOP messiah.
In many respects a Rubio candidacy would tick all the important boxes that a wounded Republican Party is looking to fill. His Cuban heritage in theory makes him appealing to Hispanics – though woe to the politician who commits the sin of confusing Cubans with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans or the host of other nationalities that make up the vast, growing Hispanic voting bloc. He is also young, thereby making him theoretically appealing to younger voters, and, as “crown prince” of the Tea Party, he has the seal of approval of many radical conservatives in that faction of the GOP. So sure of Rubio’s future are party insiders that the good Senator was slated to give the official Republican response to President Obama’s Feb. 11 State of the Union address.
In many respects, this would make him a shoo-in as the GOP nominee. There are, however, a few niggling details. The first is his obvious youth and inexperience. While this was no deterrent to Obama’s election, the Republican base, being older, tends to favor older candidates that have served their time making their way up the party ladder. Republicans take their turn and fall in line – insurgent campaigns by upstart youngsters tend not to succeed amongst conservative voters who are, after all, conservative.
Another potential problem with a Rubio candidacy is the same reason many seem him as a Republican frontrunner – his potential amenability to immigration reform and thus to Hispanic voters. The coming debate over this issue, which President Obama has highlighted as a key goal of his second term in office, is sure to set the Republican moderates against hardline conservatives who see any compromise on this issue as treason to country and party. Any move Rubio makes on immigration reform, therefore, may create a backlash against him by this faction that could derail, or fatally damage, his Presidential ambitions.
Finally, the third strike against Rubio is his close association with the Tea Party movement that propelled him into office during in 2010. Tea Party voters may be enough to win a Senate seat in an off-presidential-year election, and it may be enough to win the nomination, but 2016, like all presidential elections, will feature a different electorate than the midterms and encompass a much broader portion of the electorate. Since the Tea Party has proven itself to be poison to the great majority of moderate voters, it remains to be seen how Rubio can transform himself into something other than a creature of the movement that created him in the two years before the beginning of the next presidential election cycle.
If Tea-Party baggage poses a significant obstacle to winning the general election in 2016 for Marco Rubio, then the problem is exponentially more intense for libertarian dauphin Rand Paul. Paul, who also rode to victory in 2010 on the power of the Tea Party movement, is the junior Republican senator from Kentucky and son of libertarian gadfly Ron Paul. As heir – both literally and figuratively – to the Texas Republican’s following amongst libertarian activists, the Kentucky senator has a built-in base willing to work hard, long hours in a Quixotic quest to see him elected president. Unfortunately for Senator Paul, however, the limited appeal of Paulite Republicanism to the rest of the Conservative movement, let alone centrist voters, means that the son will mostly likely, just like the father, only play a spoiling role in any future GOP nomination contest.
This leaves a third possibility – Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has several advantages going into 2016 that could make him a viable contender. He is a relatively popular Republican governor in a solid-blue presidential-election state who has broad appeal to a large swathe of the electorate. Governors are famously more likely to win the White House than senators, and his executive experience will do doubt be on voters’ minds if he should choose to run. As part of this experience, Governor Christie has shown a willingness to work with Democrats in the New Jersey statehouse, and, importantly, he demonstrated an impressive degree of poise, strength and leadership during Hurricane Sandy.
Second, Christie has displayed a willingness to buck his party’s leadership and levy criticism on its most extreme wing. This was most clearly manifest in the aftermath of Sandy when he offered a withering denunciation of the Republican-held House of Representatives when that body failed to approve hurricane relief funds in the run-up to the New Year’s negotiations over the fiscal cliff. Christie also recently criticized the NRA over their handling of the Sandy Hook massacre, calling out the gun-rights group’s ad featuring President Obama’s daughters as reprehensible – a move which garnered criticism from his putative rival for the nomination, Rand Paul.
Christie is therefore a man whom, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s quip about Gorbachev, Democrats could do business with. If you throw in his obvious charisma and self-effacing sense of humor, then you have a potentially fearsome candidate on the 2016 general election trail. If Romney’s ultimate fault was that he was an inauthentic elitist who was out of touch with average Americans, then the entertaining, pragmatic and bulbously gregarious Governor Christie is the anti-Romney. He’s a man who knows his mind and isn’t, unlike Romney, afraid to speak it to voters within earshot.
Unfortunately, this makes it unlikely that the New Jersey Governor will be able to parlay his current popularity into a viable run at the White House. To be sure, Christie could compete well in a general election, but to face whomever the Democrats choose in 2016 Christie would first have to win his party’s nomination – which is no sure thing. As a Northeast Republican he simply does not have the same attachment to God, guns and know-nothing rural populism that has increasingly come to define the Republican brand. Christie may be popular, but it his popularity among just the “wrong sorts” that would make him look like just another establishment pick foisted upon the conservative rank-and-file. To these true believers, Christie might simply be seen as another Romney, albeit a more human and likable one.
This is a shame, for a Christie nomination might do much to reinvigorate a political party that has calcified under unyielding ideological dogma that pits a shrinking core of Thurmond Conservatives against everyone else. Mitt Romney’s candidacy, if it had been successful, might have broken this fever, but he was ultimately too afraid of losing his party’s radicalized base to shuck off their dogma in order to appeal to the broad middle of the American electorate. Christie’s independence and devil-may-care opinions could very well do so, but it also ironically makes him unacceptable to the intractable fanatics who form the Republican Party’s activist base.
So, if not Rubio, Paul, or Christie, who then? The yawning abyss that is the GOP’s crop of up-and-coming national-level politicians suggests that, aside from the odd fool or crackpot – like recently-elected Texas Senator Ted Cruz – there is no one else. A Paul Ryan candidacy would be a joke. A Huckabee, Santorum or Perry run would merely reboot earlier failures and do little to save a party already too firmly mired in the politics of the past. The Republican Party desperately needs a candidate that can simultaneously unite its warring factions while appealing to a generation of voters to whom the word conservative has come to mean reactionary, backwards, bigoted and ignorant. Christie may be such a candidate – but only if his party lets him.