GOP Presidential Contenders Are All Out of Office and as a Result Out of Touch
Office holders have dominated presidential elections for a generation—bad news for today’s GOP candidates.
Recent history shows that none of the three Republican frontrunners–not Mitt Romney, not Rick Santorum, and certainly not Newt Gingrich—can possibly win the GOP nomination, let alone defeat Barack Obama in November.
Because none of them are current office-holders, holding day-jobs that put them in touch with the realities of governance. None of them function in the real world of political give-and-take and daily compromise. They’re all retired politicos trolling for activist votes in low-turnout primaries, or hoping to get well-paid speaking gigs after inevitable defeat, by appealing to the most adamant and ideological elements in the conservative coalition.
For a generation, every presidential nominee, of both political parties, has been a sitting senator, governor, vice president or president. Last time, John McCain was the only major GOP contender who actually held public office at the time of his campaign (and still does, proudly), making daily decisions that not only impact politics but influence policy—on taxes, spending, foreign affairs, and social issues. In 2008, McCain’s principal opponents were former governors (Romney and Mike Huckabee), or a former mayor (Rudy Giuliani) and a former senator (Fred Thompson). It’s not surprising that McCain—in far closer touch with the beating heart of the actual, functioning political system won the nomination in 2008, as did prior GOP nominees over the last seven election cycles.
George W. Bush prevailed as a recently re-elected governor of Texas in 2000, as his father won as the incumbent vice president in 1988. Bob Dole earned selection as his party’s standard bearer in 1996 as reigning Senate majority leader, though he made the mistake of resigning his post in June, after he had locked up the nomination.
Among Democrats, their nominees Michael Dukakis (1988) and Bill Clinton (1992) were popular current governors, while John Kerry (2004) and Barack Obama (2008) were still-serving senators. Al Gore ran as the incumbent vice president, after holding elective office for 24 uninterrupted years since the age of 28.
It’s more than a coincidence that the only people to actually win presidential nominations of either party since 1984 (when former veep Walter Mondale was the hapless Democratic candidate) have been working office holders who still drew salaries from either state or federal government for representing the people who selected them. Holding office—facing regular decisions about spending bills and budgets, public works projects, policy planning, and even executing killers impels any candidate toward pragmatism, common sense, and the American mainstream. In the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign, Governor Bill Clinton made a point of personally overseeing the execution of convicted cop killer Ricky Ray Rector, which helped Slick Willy establish credibility as a moderate while distancing himself from the soft-on-crime, anti-death-penalty image of the prior Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis.
The current GOP field, by contrast, finds itself hindered by detachment—even alienation—from the quotidian details of governance. Gingrich resigned from Congress and the speakership 13 years ago after losing the confidence of his colleagues. Romney decided to abandon the Massachusetts governor’s office in 2006 in order to concentrate on his presidential ambitions and in the same year Santorum lost a senatorial re-election bid in a landslide of historic proportions.
Is it any wonder that when frustrated Republicans dream of some new, fresh-face candidate to rescue the party from its current doldrums, all of the individuals who figure prominently in their fantasies happen to be current office-holders, deftly handling the challenges of their ongoing responsibilities—Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey or Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Look at what the GOP in the House is doing right now: extending the payroll tax holiday in order to avoid another government shutdown crisis or a sharp increase in tax obligations for every American. This may not endear the likes of John Boehner and Eric Cantor to the Tea Party base, but it should reassure the broader public that will decide the election and that will—GOP leaders hope—return a Republican majority to the House of Representatives.
The current candidates rail endlessly against a mythical “out-of-touch GOP establishment.” But the only establishment that really means anything is the establishment of currently empowered officeholders, led by congressmen and senators and governors who are actually far more in touch with the opinions of the constituents who regularly re-elect them than are presidential candidates who have been years away from meaningful electoral accountability. While the White House contenders focus exclusively on appealing to the small minority of Republicans who actually bother voting in party primaries (where turnout has declined decisively and disastrously), governors and members of Congress need to worry about the additional opinions of independents and even wavering Democrats who will help to fire or re-hire them in an impending election. Those same independents and dubious Dems will make the final decision on either renewing or terminating Barack Obama’s contract in November.
In a nation where we like to flatter our successful politicians as “public servants,” there’s nothing dishonorable about elected leaders who actually commit themselves to serving—and pleasing–the public that pays their salaries. In the midst of an intra-party power struggle that looks increasingly remote from the concerns of everyday Americans, the foundering crop of current contenders could benefit enormously from refocusing or replicating the real-world perspective on daily decision-making that current office holders most reliably provide.