This is Memorial Day weekend. Fourteen weeks from now is Labor Day weekend. In those 14 weeks — a period roughly one and a half times longer than the general election season next year — the Republicans have a lot of work to do.
In perhaps no time in three-quarters of a century — since the fight for the 1936 Republican nomination — has either party fielded as weak a field of presidential candidates as the Republicans present today. In no time in nearly a half-century — since the Democratic upheaval of 1968 — has a major party seemed so confused about its future and divided about its vision.
No one can convincingly argue that the Republicans’ survival as a major force in American political life is in jeopardy. In fact, it is plausible to argue that the Republicans’ prospects are brighter today than at any time since 1981, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated and had a formidable cast of supporting actors in the Senate, led by Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas, both of whom would appear on almost any credible list of the greatest 25 senators of the 20th century.
Indeed, the last party to seem in danger of slipping from competitiveness was the Democratic Party in the early summer of 1992, when its candidate was running third in the polls, prompting GOP lawyers to examine a legal strategy to prove that it no longer was a legitimate political party and therefore was ineligible for federal matching campaign funds.
The fact that Bill Clinton roared back to win the 1992 election is a reminder of how swiftly a major party can rebound. But for the Republicans to rebound in presidential politics by the general election of 2012 they will have to use the next 14 weeks profitably and to answer several difficult questions that get at the conundrum of the season, which is how a party with such a strong congressional wing can have a presidential wing that is so weak:
• Is what you see what you get?
The Republicans, like parties often do, seem to be presenting a slate of candidates in several categories.
There’s a top tier, which consists of three former governors, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, though it is a miracle of nature how Huntsman, with about 15 minutes as a presidential candidate and name recognition likely recorded in fractions rather than integers, maneuvered himself there.
Then there’s a tier of known names with no known reason for hope, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and a third tier, including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, appealing to the emotional wing of a party that, with presidents including William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Richard M. Nixon, was not until now much swayed by emotion. And, of course, there’s former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
There probably are a few others, but forgive me for forgetting who they are and for not being able to name the pizza guy if my life depended on it and even if a fistful of polls, like Zogby International’s last week, say he’s the Republicans’ top choice.
“Of the two parties, they’re supposed to be the disciplined one,” says former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. “What you’re seeing now is not what you’ll see later.”
• What might we see later?
The latest CNN-WMUR Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire shows that more than four in 10 potential New Hampshire primary voters aren’t satisfied with the GOP field. Dodd thinks former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida will be in the race before the autumn is out. By many measures, he is the most politically gifted Bush of them all, including George H.W. Bush (reviled when he left office in 1993 but transformed in recent years into a beloved figure and, two weeks from now, the recipient of an honorary degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire) and George W. Bush (whose acolytes say that the Obama years have been the best thing to happen to W’s reputation). The passing of four years since his older brother’s valedictory may be enough for a third Bush to run for president.
Then there is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman who is a poster boy on the left for Republican perfidy and on the right for Republican courage. So far, Ryan, focused on the House and on the kids in his own household, has resisted entreaties to run.
• Will the field stay so diffuse or will the disciplined party focus itself by Labor Day?
That depends in large measure on money and party pressure, which in the old Republican Party used to be the same thing.
Romney has gobs of money, enough already probably to finance a campaign in 2016, too. Others are not so well equipped for a long fight.
Many Republicans want Gingrich out of the race, believing that his running up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to buy jewelry isn’t even half the problem with his candidacy. They feel about Gingrich the way Winston Churchill once described Charles de Gaulle: “Why, he’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the center of the universe.” Churchill then added, to Harold Nicolson, the parliamentary secretary, “You’re right, he’s a great man!” Hardly anyone adds that last sentence about Gingrich, brilliant as a tactician and thinker but not as a popular political figure.
“They have got to settle on two candidates by the fall and get rid of the silly stuff that is a distraction,” says Gary Orren, professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of a book on the New Hampshire primary. “In the end, Americans are serious about choosing a president.”
But the challenge for the Republicans is that the party lacks a guiding core that can help give shape to the race. The leading GOP figure is House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. His Republican caucus is so fractured that he cannot possibly turn his attention away from Capitol Hill, especially with debt and debt-ceiling issues looming. Like so many others, he’s on the sidelines, watching.