by Michael Hawley | Republicans who can lead a resurgence in 2012.
As is often the case after a devastating defeat, the Republican Party is undergoing an identity crisis. President Bush has irreparably damaged the current Republican brand. As this year’s presidential nominee, John McCain already had his chance to remake the party in his own image and failed. With new political challenges and rapidly changing demographics, the Republican Party must adapt. However, due to a vacuum of established leadership, the nature of the new party still remains undecided. Already, many aspiring leaders are jockeying for the chance to control the direction this Republican evolution will take. Michael Steele, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, and Bobby Jindal, among others, are both collaborating and competing with each other to form a renewed Republican Party.
Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan’s political standing suffered grievously after he presided over the general Republican rout this election cycle. Though he has not yet indicated a willingness to leave his post, calls for his replacement abound. The most persistent rumors concerning his replacement revolve around Michael Steele and Newt Gingrich. Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and state party chairman, has already made his ambitions clear. As a young African-American in a party that seems to get older and whiter every year, Steele’s ascent would be a clear symbol of the Republican commitment to diversify its base. However, if the party aspires to something more than symbolic gestures, Steele might not be the best selection. His last foray into public life consisted of a failed bid for a US Senate seat from Maryland, and the Republican Party in that state has not been particularly vibrant since Steele took over the reins. Therefore it seems his organizational and leadership skills are at best, mediocre.
A more interesting choice might be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who orchestrated the meteoric rise of the Republican Party in 1994 after the crushing defeat of 1992. Clearly, this man knows how to win in the face of adversity. The majorities he built in the House and Senate lasted 12 years. More recently, he has distinguished himself as a relentless critic of the Bush Administration, demanding for years that the Party return to its small government roots, and warning of disaster if his admonitions went unheeded. He understands that Republicans must take a greater focus on the environment, education, and other issues that have become more important to ordinary Americans.
At the somber and subdued meeting of the Republican Governors Association, several fairly new politicians emerged as contending leaders of the party. Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and Bobby Jindal each offered their own analysis of the immediate defeat, and thus implicitly, their prescription for a Republican recovery.
Of the three, Alaska Governor and former VP candidate Palin received the most media coverage. With her folksy mannerisms and populist rhetoric, Palin appeals to broad swaths of the conservative base. Though her femininity makes her appear superficially to represent a new direction, she champions the extreme social conservative wing of the party - nothing new, to be sure. Moreover, her glaring ignorance about major world affairs and general antipathy toward intellectualism as somehow un-American could be devastating to a party trying to recapture its status as one of competence, and to re-ground itself in some intellectual ideological tradition.
Tim Pawlenty, a successful Republican governor in a traditionally Democratic State argues that instead of appealing to an ever-shrinking evangelical base, the party needs to expand, ideologically and demographically. He suggests that the party must reflect “macro changes across the country.” Rather than enforce strict ideological litmus tests, with periodic “purges” of more moderate members, a Pawlenty-led Republican Party would again become the “big tent party,” where social conservatives, foreign policy hawks, low-tax libertarians, and moderates could co-exist comfortably under an over-arching banner.
The youngest of all these contenders, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, offers perhaps the best synthesis of the competing factions in the party. A 37-year-old son of Indian immigrants, a convert to Catholicism, and a Rhodes Scholar, Jindal clearly indicates a departure from the stereotypical conservative biography. But, unlike some other candidates, Jindal’s character makes him more than a superficial symbol. A graduate of Brown University, Jindal is perfectly comfortable with intellectualism, and he lacks the discomfort with proper English that has marked many high-profile Republicans. He has a record of pragmatic problem-solving, competence and conviction. For someone so young, his resume is quite impressive, and he is already arguably more accomplished than our president-elect. Though clearly a conservative on issues such as guns, abortion, taxes, and government efficiency, he has shown an ability to work across the aisle to enlist Democrats in his efforts toward ethics-reform. With a major speech to the Family Policy Center in Iowa this month, Jindal seems to be testing the waters for a presidential run. Should he take up the challenge, he could be uniter of the Republican Party, and a dangerous challenger to Barack Obama in 2012.
As yet, the Republican bloodletting has barely begun. Some of the current frontrunners for control will certainly fall by the wayside, and others may rise to take their place. It is nevertheless certain that the Republican Party cannot stay where it is, nor go back to where it was. But, what direction forward it will now take remains to be seen.
Mr. Hawley is a sophomore who has not yet declared a major.