For political observers, there is a lesson to be learned — and perhaps even inspiration to be drawn — from the unfolding drama of what Robert Griffin III is doing for the Washington Redskins football team. Before RGIII's arrival on the Redskins’ roster for the 2012 season, the Redskins were a fragmented, loosely organized team with some skilled players, a great history and a desperate need to win. They floundered until they were galvanized by a great talent.
I'm a discouraged, disgruntled Redskins fan who is starting to believe. RGIII is making me believe that the Skins can emerge from their long stay in the wilderness. And since just about everything makes me think of politics, I've begun to wonder, who will be the GOP's RGIII? Who will be the leader who takes the Republicans’ talent and solid foundation and coalesces the party into an winning, dominant force?
RGIII is inspirational, but for Republicans, so is Bill Clinton. Think about where Bill Clinton and the Democrats were in 1991. They’d been out of the White House for almost 12 years. The Democratic field didn’t look very strong, and with the exception of Roger Ailes and John Sununu, the Bush/GOP brain trust feared New York Gov. Mario Cuomo as George H.W. Bush’s strongest opponent, not the lesser-known Governor Clinton from Arkansas. Clinton was not an unknown — he was a familiar figure to the political elite, but few recognized his potential.
The point is, Clinton elevated his game, truly rose to the occasion and became the dominant political force of his era. Republicans need — and will likely have — their own version of Bill Clinton and RGIII to come along. But until then, the Republicans won’t have a strong leader or even much of a winning season. It doesn’t work that way when you have an incumbent president who is only challenged indirectly by House and Senate leaders who are mostly working in unflattering positions within their caucuses. Neither House Speaker Newt Gingrich nor GOP Senate Leader Trent Lott was an effective match for President Clinton. It took the end of the Clinton presidency and the arrival of George W. Bush on the scene for Republicans to regain their voice and footing.
For the next year at least, the GOP will struggle with its message and regularly be unfairly accused of being the gang who can't shoot straight. But just like Clinton was out there grooming himself for his emergence and RGIII was honing his skills at Baylor University before he walked onto the big stage, our next leader is out there. The best thing we can do for him or her is to do minimal damage to the GOP brand; offer clarity as the party of smaller, better government and less spending; and organize the party at the state and local levels.
Our RGIII is out there. We need to be ready and recognize him or her when he or she shows up.