There’s an interesting article in The Hill today about some early 2016 jockeying, and it shines a light on just how important this presidential campaign will be to the ongoing struggle within the GOP. Once next month’s elections are over, things are going to get very intense. Here’s an excerpt:
For the past year, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been wooing his longtime friend Jeb Bush to jump into the 2016 presidential race, even as he has shunned potential Tea Party rivals like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Boehner stepped up his lobbying efforts this week, singing the former Florida governor’s praises in a pair of media interviews.
The Speaker’s preference for yet another Bush White House run is partly political, partly personal. He sees Bush as undeniably the strongest, most viable candidate who could pull the party together after a bruising primary and take on a formidable Hillary Clinton, sources said. And the two men are aligned politically, hailing from the same centrist strand of the GOP.
The next presidential campaign will shape how we all understand the eight-year intra-Republican bloodbath that will have lasted through the Obama presidency, in a way that the 2012 election didn’t. While most of the candidates in 2012 spent plenty of time pandering to the Tea Party, none of them were birthed by the movement. All of the real contenders had been around for a long time, some for decades.
In contrast, 2016 will be the first presidential election in which some of the GOP candidates rose to prominence after Barack Obama’s election. Three potential candidates (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker) first got elected to their current positions during the revolution of 2010, and one other (Ted Cruz) two years later. Even if only Cruz among them is still considered a 100 percent pure Tea Partier, this is going to be a primary race defined by a generational split between those who rode the Tea Party to prominence and those who came to public attention before.
If you’re John Boehner, somebody like Ted Cruz getting the Republican nomination would be a terrible rebuke, not just because Cruz has personally been such a pain in Boehner’s behind (constantly encouraging conservative House members to turn against the Speaker), but also because of what it would say about this period in Republican history. If a real Tea Partier were elected, Boehner’s entire Speakership would look like nothing more than roadkill along the way — the “GOP establishment” had done nothing but resist the inevitable, by trying to keep the Tea Party in check, for too long. On the other hand, someone like Jeb Bush becoming president would mean that all the aggravation Boehner endured wasn’t futile; he held the barbarians back, prevented them from ruining the GOP, and the party came through on the other side by taking back the White House.
On the other hand, nothing would be worse for Boehner and other establishment figures than somebody like Bush getting the GOP nomination but then losing to Hillary Clinton — and short of a Tea Partier winning the presidency, nothing would be better for the base conservatives. Those conservatives could say: Look, we’ve tried nominating old, familiar, establishment Republicans three times in a row now, and all it got us was President Obama and now President Clinton. We can’t repeat the same mistake in 2020. It’ll be an awfully compelling argument to those in the party, even if the counter-argument — that nominating someone like Cruz would be a complete disaster — might be true.
It’s possible that a candidate who successfully bridges the two sides could emerge (for instance, Indiana governor Mike Pence could be that candidate). And the establishment folks are going to try to play down the idea that there’s any “battle for the soul of the Republican party” going on at all, since that’s a battle they aren’t sure they can win. But the battle is real, and its outcome, at least for the next decade or two, could be determined by what kind of Republican gets the 2016 nomination, whether he wins or loses, and more broadly, what kind of GOP we have in coming years.