The leaderless Republican party — and why it matters

December 5, 2012

Mitt Romney is gone -- and being quickly forgotten. George W. Bush has little to no interest in engaging in the national political dialogue. Dick Cheney is writing a book about heart health.  The 2016 wannabes remain relatively little known -- and untested on the national stage.


What's left is a Republican party without a leader, a body without a head.  And, that lack of a single individual to push the party in a specific direction is already hurting the GOP with cracks appearing in the party's approach to the fiscal cliff negotiations.

First it was Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole proposing that his party pass the tax cut extension for all but the top two percent of earners, pushing that debate over rates for the wealthiest until the next Congress.Then it was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn insisting that his preferred option would be to raise rates on the wealthy rather than cap deductions.

That fissured approach stands in stark contrast to the generally unified approach that Democrats have enjoyed thanks to President Obama's bully pulpit.

To be clear, the lack of an obvious Republican foil to President Obama isn't unique.  When a party is out of the White House, it inevitably struggles to match the incumbent president's ability to both command news cycles and enforce fealty within his party.

But, the situation for Republicans is made worse because not only is the party out of power but also none of its eminence grise are active players in the political world.

Bush, while he did step out of his self-imposed exile to urge his party to develop a sensible immigration policy this week, has been almost entirely silent since leaving office and seems largely uninterested in actively steering the Republican ship in any specific direction.

After aggressively working to define his own legacy in the immediate aftermath of the Bush years, Cheney has taken on a far lower profile in recent years. (Many Republican strategists are happy about that development since Cheney was not particularly well regarded outside of the GOP base.)

And Romney, never a creature of his party in Washington or truly a "party guy", appears perfectly content to spend his days on the West Coast -- tending his wounds after a race that he clearly expected to win.  Even if he did want to influence the debate over the future direction of his party, Romney has no natural platform to do so; unlike John McCain in 2008 or John Kerry in 2004 he is out of office and seems almost certain to never run for anything ever again.

Outside of that trio, the options are sparse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is not the most dynamic of figures and is focused -- at least in part -- on his own re-election race in 2014.  House Speaker John Boehner is probably the default choice as the leader of the GOP but he elicits very mixed reaction from the public (36 favorable/35 unfavorable in a CNN poll last month) and seems as concerned with trying to keep his fractious conference together as bolstering his national profile.

This problem  is not a new one for Republicans.  In 2009, the Pew Research Center asked an open-ended question regarding who people believed was the leader of the GOP. Here's what they got in terms of responses:

While those numbers would look a bit differently if the poll was conducted today -- Romney would likely be at the top of the list and we would guess that Grover Norquist might get some votes -- it's a near certainty that a majority of people would still not be able to name a single GOP leader.

The one obvious solution to this Republican leadership problem would be a sooner-rather-than-later announcement by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that he is planning to run for president in 2016. Bush is the one figure within the GOP who commands the respect of conservatives and moderates, politicos and policy wonks alike -- and who by sheer force of personality, brain power and national connections could take the party, point it in a specific direction and expect it to follow.

Short of that -- and we don't think Jeb will make his future plans clear for quite some time -- the battle to lead the party will be fought out among the likes of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan -- all of whom have aspirations to run for president in 2016.

Whether one of them distinguishes themselves from the pack remains to be seen. But that process won't happen any time soon -- and it won't be easy. Until then, Republicans will have to muddle through -- an army in search of a general.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza | December 5, 2012