Commentary Magazine


GOP Identity: It’s Not Just 2016 Contenders

There has been, and will continue to be, buzz around certain young conservative politicians who are expected to be in consideration for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. These young stars, such as Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and others, have their every statement and every vote examined for its relevance to the 2016 nomination battle.

One reason for this is that the GOP seems to have finally shed its allegiance to next-in-linism, the practice of nominating last cycle’s runner-up or someone with the right pedigree, or even someone viewed as having paid his dues. The party that does not hold the White House is usually in search of an identity. But this is even more the case with regard to the current Republican Party, which has no obvious nominee waiting in the wings, and as such, no obvious leader. But the party’s identity going forward is going to be shaped as much by up-and-coming politicians who aren’t vying for the 2016 nomination as those who are.

Last week, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed as his two “counsels” Senators Kelly Ayotte and Bob Corker. New Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been a conservative favorite from the moment he declared his Senate candidacy, and is garnering profiles from publications left and right. And today Mike Allen’s Politico “Playbook” carries part of his interview with Washington State Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who had a prominent place at the GOP’s convention in the fall and who has now become the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House.

Aside from the fiscal conservative nature of today’s congressional GOP, this group gives us a few hints as to the identity of the party post-2012.

1. The Republican Party is not a “regional” party, as so many on the left would have us believe. McMorris Rodgers represents a northwestern state; Cruz is from Texas, at this point virtually its own region of the country; Corker is from Tennessee; Ayotte is from New Hampshire. When you combine this with the classic GOP strongholds in the Midwest and Republican statehouse success in places like Michigan–not to mention the unignorable Chris Christie in New Jersey–and young officeholders like Susana Martinez in New Mexico, you have a national party, full stop.

2. The GOP’s lack of clarity and focus on foreign policy is likely to be (very) temporary. As the Washington Post story on Ayotte and Corker notes:

Ayotte has also struck up a friendship with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who along with former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) were often dubbed the “three amigos” for their frequent globe-trotting and general agreement on foreign policy. With Lieberman’s departure, he deemed Ayotte as his capable — and more attractive — successor in the trio.

Leaving aside the comment on Ayotte’s looks, Lieberman’s approval of Ayotte on foreign policy is significant, and she could scarcely have chosen a better mentor.

Corker, meanwhile, is now the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (John McCain is joining the committee, but has said he won’t challenge Corker for leadership.)

McMorris Rodgers, in her interview with Allen, alluded to the issue of immigration, perhaps the issue on which the younger generation of conservative politicians is most clearly separating itself from party elders. (Though it should be noted that McCain and Lindsey Graham are both notably pro-immigration.) Immigration is no longer simply about domestic policy. In a globalized world, understanding cultures abroad is increasingly essential to domestic politics, and it’s encouraging that the GOP seems to finally recognize this.

3. Republicans love to tease the left that the Tea Party is far more diverse than, say, the snow-white Occupy movement or Barack Obama’s cabinet, but aside from the political point-scoring the GOP’s diversity is a significant step forward for the party. As John Steele Gordon wrote last month, the trajectory of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s career, which included defeating Strom Thurmond’s son for his House seat and now serving in the Senate delegation in which Strom Thurmond once served, to become the Senate’s only African-American of either party, is quite a story. This, combined with Barack Obama’s reelection, will hopefully inspire the Democratic Party to free itself from its poisonous obsession with racial division. This would be good for the country, but it would also be good for the Democrats.

Cruz is the one member of this group that is a wild card, since there is already buzz about him as a possible 2016 contender. But he seems more likely to stay in the Senate to build a record and a following, for now. Questions about his eligibility would be raised–he was born in Canada to an American mother–but he is almost certainly constitutionally eligible to hold the office. Looking at the 2016 contenders is only one way to gauge the direction of the party. By the time that election rolls around, the next generation of congressional leaders may have already taken the baton.

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