Another New Year has arrived, and with it the requisite resolutions for improvement in the coming twelve months. Many of us promise to eat right and exercise more. Most of us probably plan to exercise more spending discipline, too, although that hasn’t translated into political efforts over the last several decades.
One has to wonder what the Republican Party’s New Year resolutions might be. The GOP had a bad 2012, losing the presidential election against an incumbent who looked vulnerable – and who garnered less support in his re-election than in 2008. Republicans lost seats in the Senate, even though they had a numerical advantage from the Democrats’ 2006 gains. They kept the House, but Republicans lost ground despite an advantage from the reapportionment and redistricting that took place between their midterm victory in 2010 and the 2012 election. In all, 2012 was not quite as bad as 2008, but still a year whose passing Republicans will hardly lament.
In all three cases, specific causes and candidate issues contributed to the national defeat, but the issue goes deeper as well. It goes to the identity of the party, and the agenda it represents. To some extent, both major political parties have this problem; tension between factions comes naturally with big tents in politics. Republicans seemed especially incoherent between the Tea Party midterms and the presidential cycle, however.
The man chosen to lead the GOP in 2012, Mitt Romney, had many good qualities, but he hardly represented the kind of grassroots conservatism that prevailed in 2010. Senate candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost winnable races when they proved unable to effectively articulate their social-conservative positions. Many in the GOP debated whether the focus should remain on those issues at all while the nation heads off a series of fiscal cliffs over the next few years.
In order to be effective in 2014 and in 2016, the Republican Party needs to find a new voice and direction. Those won’t come from the current class of establishment GOP figures in Washington, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. This isn’t meant as a criticism as much as a nod to reality. As establishment figures in the 2012 failures, neither will have the kind of influence on Republican activists needed to clarify the mission and the message. Also, neither operates on a clear philosophical basis, which would be difficult for any Congressional leader to do on an extended basis. Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi were exceptions to the rule; most Congressional leaders have to compromise and cut deals too often to provide that kind of leadership to the national party.
Who will rise within the GOP to provide unity of purpose and direction and return Republicans to a competitive position? There are five Republicans to watch for their potential to lead, and what their success might mean for the direction of the GOP in the next two cycles.
Chris Christie – The jokes about the governor of New Jersey’s girth are easy to make, but he’s a political heavyweight who doesn’t mind throwing some weight around Washington DC. In the past couple of weeks, he nearly undid Boehner’s speakership after blasting him for holding up votes on Hurricane Sandy aid. Christie’s blunt talk and media bashing attract conservatives who like action, while his more moderate positions on social issues help attract independents. Christie hasn’t been bashful about his presidential ambitions, either. If Christie ends up seizing the mantle of party leadership this year – and his expected easy bid for re-election will give him an opportunity to dominate – the GOP will focus more towards a fiscal-discipline approach, marginalizing social conservatives. Watch especially for Christie’s handling of the gun-control debate, where his initial response produced immediate pushback. If he manages his tongue better, he might not suffer for it.
See how Gov. Chris Christie handles Charlie Rose
Rick Perry – Don’t expect the Texan to disappear from national politics. Despite his stumbles in the debates in 2011, Perry has the ability to seize attention for conservative economic policies and federalism. His feuds with the Obama administration are likely to continue, especially with the EPA, which will provide him with plenty of media coverage – even if it’s not always complimentary. After remaining quiet during the last few months, Perry has already begun to clear his throat in 2013. Plenty of conservatives lamented the failure of his campaign. If Perry ascends, the GOP message will focus on federalism and states’ rights.
Rand Paul – The son of longtime libertarian gadfly Ron Paul brings his father’s significant following with him, which has not exactly lined up with the GOP as a whole. Republicans hope that Rand can bridge the gap between Ron Paul’s libertarian, non-interventionist faction and the more traditional Republican agenda. The size of the Paul movement makes Rand a player no matter what; if he can keep his credibility with his father’s supporters and build support within traditional GOP grassroots activists, Paul fils could end up wielding the kind of influence on national politics of which Paul pere could only dream. Rand’s emergence as the party leader would signal a return to traditional paleo-conservative foreign policy and drastic reform of federal entitlement programs, a combination that could prove explosive depending on the direction of Congressional action in both areas over the next year.
Bobby Jindal – Republicans dismissed Jindal initially after a weak State of the Union response speech in 2009, but that’s now ancient history. Jindal came out immediately after the election to push a middle-class approach to conservative economics, blasting Romney for blaming the election loss on entitlement “gifts” given by Obama. Jindal has a solid record of educational and government reform in Louisiana, and success in dealing with disaster through private-sector support in the BP oil spill that confounded the Obama administration. If Jindal succeeds in seizing the moment, the GOP will shift focus from Wall Street to Main Street, which some Republicans will cheer given Wall Street support for Obama in the last two presidential elections, as well as becoming champions of systemic reforms.
Marco Rubio – Of 2013’s potential leaders, none bridges the gap between the Tea Party and traditional Republican values better than Senator Rubio. He was easily the most talented of the class of 2010, both politically and rhetorically. His speech at the Republican convention last year was both the emotional and political high point of the week for the GOP. Of the five Republicans to watch, Rubio has the talent to provide the most unity in the short term. He has offered broad support for a strong military, social conservatism, and significant fiscal reform without alienating other factions in the party. His leadership would also allow for a public image of the Republican Party that moves away in some degree from the perception of a party of old, white men – and could lift Ted Cruz and Susana Martinez, among others, to higher profiles to bolster the shift. Furthermore, Rubio has the pole position in this leadership change, thanks to his efforts in the last two years in outreach and media strategy.
Much could happen this year, and other potential leaders could arise. These five will determine just how much room there will be for that to happen, though, and their competition will define the Republican Party for the next four years.