2016 holds hope for Republicans
Looking at the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, it's no wonder many conservatives are despondent.
To call the field lacklustre is putting it politely. But using this to claim the Republican Party is in real trouble, as some have sought to do, or laying blame at the feet of the Tea Party, as others have, is wishful thinking.
There's no question that the 2012 Republican field is the weakest in some time. The closest in recent memory is 1996, when the party reluctantly agreed to nominate the boring but inoffensive Bob Dole.
Mitt Romney, quite possibly the Dole of 2012, is still the likeliest nominee. And it's not surprising that Republicans have a hard time accepting him as their standard bearer. After all, he did pioneer Barack Obama's much-loathed healthcare plan, as Governor of Massachusetts, where he made health insurance compulsory. He has shifted positions on a number of key issues, including immigration, gun control and a range of social issues. His populism on trade policy, laced with anti-Chinese rhetoric and craven support for hugely inefficient ethanol subsidies, is shameful. And his denunciation of Ronald Reagan in his 1994 campaign against then-Senator Ted Kennedy makes his current embrace of the Reagan legacy as entirely confected. But almost all published opinion polls suggest that he has the best chance of defeating Obama.
His most recent - and serious - challenger, Newt Gingrich, offers little more hope for conservatives. Sure, his current positioning is to the right of Romney, and his debate performances have conveyed an impressive grasp of issues. But he is equally if not more guilty of the flip-flopping tendencies that have bedevilled Mitt Romney's candidacy. Gingrich too supported health insurance mandates, has had a variety of positions on immigration and can't seem to make his mind up about entitlement reform. Recent revelations have showed that Gingrich took millions from the government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, regarded by Republicans as a key suspect in the housing bubble that precipitated the global financial crisis. Most famously, he recorded a bizarre ad with former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the most hated figure amongst Republicans, advocating government-led action on climate change. And Gingrich fares extremely poorly in head-to-head match-ups with Obama. But polls now show him leading by substantial margins in important early states like Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
The rest of the field is characterised by kookiness (Ron Paul), scandal (Herman Cain), and a series of contenders clearly out of their depth (Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry) or who haven't been able to register meaningfully in any polls (Gary Johnson, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty). So Republicans are entitled to feel downbeat about their 2012 field.
But it is another leap to argue that this reveals some systemic weakness in the Republican Party, or even more fancifully, that it is the fault of the Tea Party.
Presidential candidates, particularly in modern American politics, are almost always drawn from election cycles preceding the current one. They are either vice-presidents from relatively successful incumbent administrations, or prominent senators or governors who have been in office for long enough to establish a political identity, but not too long to be seen to be 'career politicians' or 'creatures of Washington'.
The 2006 and 2008 election seasons were devastating for Republicans. In 2006 they lost control over the house of representatives and the senate. In 2008 they lost the White House. In both elections they lost key governorships in major states and a slew of state houses and state senates. So it's unsurprising that the 2012 field, which would have normally have been drawn from these cycles, is a relatively weak one.
The flipside is that Republicans can look forward to two things: almost certain control of the Senate after the next election, even if they lose the presidency, and an exceptionally strong 2016 presidential field.
Because US senators serve six-year terms, roughly one third of the US senate is elected every two years. The class of 2006, up for re-election next year, was a bumper year for Democrats. Of the 33 open seats, Democrats hold 21, plus two Democrat-leaning independents. Republicans hold just 10. It would require an extremely successful year for Democrats to hold all of those seats. Just a small swing from the 2006 result will see many seats change hands, and Republicans only need to win four seats to retake control of the Senate. Barring a major surprise, Republicans also look set to retain control of the House of Representatives, which they won in 2010. This means that Obama's final term is likely to be substantially restrained by total Republican control of congress.
The list of potential 2016 presidential contenders for the Republican Party is a long and enticing one. Reformist governors like Chris Christie in New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina could all feature prominently. Entitlement-reform guru Congressman Paul Ryan is considered likely to run. And the first-term Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, is electrifying conservative activists. In different ways, each has the capacity to appeal to Americans well beyond their own political base. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, appeals to the US's fastest-growing community: Hispanic voters. Both Haley and Jindal are children of migrants from India. And Christie has shown an enviable ability to appeal to Democrats and win in the North-East - an area thought by many to be off-limits for Republicans.
And almost all owe their election to the backlash against growing government that gathered pace after the global financial crisis. Far from being held back by the Tea Party, the movement has delivered the Republican Party their best hopes of regaining the Oval Office. And if Obama is unable or unwilling to tackle the United States' growing fiscal crisis, it will fall to one of these candidates to confront it.
So while Republicans may be depressed about their prospects next year, they can look forward to 2016 with hope.
This article originally appeared on The Drum on 08/12/11 and can be accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3720472.html.