Washington “Tea party” darling Marco Rubio raised the roof. Presidential aspirants Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty tested campaign themes. Dick Cheney and John Boehner had their say, too, at this week’s big gathering of conservatives. Not to mention TV’s Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter.
Some other GOP stars, including 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and radio personality Rush Limbaugh, didn’t attend the Conservative Political Action Conference — but no one doubts their words carry considerable weight in the Republican Party.
Among the cacophony of voices, just who speaks for the GOP?
That’s the question Republicans are asking.
“It’s a good one. And I don’t think there’s an answer yet,” says Frank Thomas, 64, a Republican from Nashville, Tenn., who stopped by the tea party convention there last weekend.
“There are a lot of Republicans who talk about the philosophies of the party,” he adds. “Ultimately, it will be the person who runs for president and wins the Republican nomination. But we’re not there yet, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that no one speaks for the party.”
‘We lost our way’
These days, everyone seems to be the GOP’s spokesman, intentionally or not.
There’s a vacuum that’s existed since George W. Bush, the head of the party for eight years, left the White House, and since 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s brief — and rocky — tenure at the top.
The result is a leaderless party, and a mishmash of people offering a mishmash of messages to the public heading into critical midterm elections this fall.
This is not really unusual.
Republicans are experiencing growing pains and undergoing an identity crisis somewhat typical for an out-of-power party trying to find its footing after devastating national elections. The GOP lost control of both the White House and Congress in just two years, and the party was seemingly in tatters.
“We lost our way,” the Washington gathering was told by Mike Pence, an Indiana congressman who is beloved on the right and eying a possible presidential run. Now, he said, “Republicans are back in the fight!”
Indeed, an energized GOP is rallying against President Barack Obama, and Republicans are poised for gains in Congress; it’s the Democrats who now are on their heels.
The contrast Friday was striking: Obama was in Henderson, Nev., campaigning for vulnerable Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as thousands of cheering conservatives packed a Washington hotel ballroom to hear from such favorites as Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Also on tap during the three-day conference: Newt Gingrich, Michael Steele and a slew of others.
When it comes to a leader, the GOP finds itself in a somewhat similar situation to the Democrats during the Bush era, and, particularly, after Sen. John Kerry lost the presidential election in 2004.
Back then, there was no shortage of Democratic heavyweights weighing in on the state of the party. Howard Dean was the outspoken party chairman. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was considered the presidential front-runner. And there was a new senator named Obama who was getting a lot of attention.
It wasn’t until Obama became the Democratic nominee — and the party embraced his message of hope and change — that he assumed the role as the Democrats’ chief spokesman.
Finding a leader
Today, it’s the GOP facing questions about its future leader: Should the party embrace a person favored by the antiestablishment tea party coalition? A more mainstream conservative? An old-guard establishment type?
There were plenty of people at this week’s annual gathering of conservatives offering their takes on how to bring the GOP back to lasting prominence, particularly those Republicans positioning for possible 2012 presidential runs.
“Government is not the solution to all our problems,” declared Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He laid out three pillars of a traditional conservative agenda: “strengthen the economy, strengthen our security and strengthen our families.”
It may be a while before the GOP’s next leader emerges; Republicans don’t choose their 2012 nominee for another two years.
For now at least, Republicans seem to be taking some comfort in the size of the chorus. As Thomas, the Republican from Nashville, put it: “A lot of voices are better than none!”