In fact, the group of Republicans running for president is almost everything the Republican Party itself is not: it’s demographically diverse, it’s less wealthy than you might expect, and it’s extremely young. The question is whether voters will look at them and say that the GOP really has changed.
By my count, the GOP field is all but certain to contain twelve candidates: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz have already entered, in addition to Fiorina, Carson, and Huckabee; then add Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker. There are a few others who might enter: Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, George Pataki, and Donald Trump. Among this group we have one woman, two Latinos, one African-American, and one Indian-American. Three (Rubio, Cruz and Jindal) are sons of immigrants. It might be an exaggeration to say it looks like America (the male-to-female ratio could do with some improvement), but it’s a much more diverse field than either party has ever put forward.
There are also an unusual number of young candidates. Four are in their forties (Jindal, Cruz, Rubio and Walker), and another two are in their early fifties (Paul and Christie). This fact can be explained by the ascendance of Barack Obama: when he was elected at age 47 with only four years experience in the Senate, it taught ambitious politicians like Paul, Cruz, and Rubio that you didn’t have to wait your turn or compile a record of legislative accomplishment in order to make a run for the White House.
Then there’s the matter of wealth, which the candidates are trying particularly hard to draw attention to. Scott Walker can’t stop talking about the deals he gets at Kohl’s, while Marco Rubio never fails to mention that his father was a bartender and his mother a maid; Rick Perry will regale you with tales of his youth in Paint Creek, Texas, with no indoor plumbing. While all the candidates are doing just fine now, most of them grew up middle class or even poor.
This new face of the GOP is something that Republicans will surely be touting in the months to come. What they’re less likely to bring up is the fact that young or old, rich or not, black, white or brown, they all believe pretty much the same things.
If we’re supposed to care about something like a candidate’s childhood deprivation or their national origin, it’s only because that might make some kind of difference in what their priorities are and how they’d govern. And this diverse GOP field looks awfully homogeneous when it comes to policy.
They all want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes, reduce regulations on corporations, increase military spending, and do essentially nothing about climate change. There may be some differences here and there — Rand Paul is a little less eager for foreign military adventures than most of the other candidates, for instance — but the disagreements that exist aren’t connected to those demographic differences in any way. The two Latino candidates say the same thing about immigration (secure the border first!) as everyone else. Scott Walker may love shopping at Kohl’s, but he cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations as governor, just like Jeb Bush did. Carly Fiorina is no more in favor of women’s reproductive rights than her male counterparts.
There’s no doubt that symbolism is important. Let’s say Rubio becomes the nominee; will he be able to pull some votes from Latinos and young people that more traditional old-white-guy Republican wouldn’t? It’s entirely possible (and he couldn’t do much worse with either group than his party’s last two nominees did). But the field’s message to voters is essentially, “Look at who we are, not at what we’d do.”
We can give the GOP some credit for increasing the diversity of its candidates. but the GOP is still the party of white people, and its agenda is still focused on the interests of those at the top.