No One at the Wheel: GOP’s Leadership Crisis
With the announcement this week that Sarah Palin will be speaking at this year’s CPAC conference, it’s more than apropos for us to sit down and talk a little bit about leadership. Lately, the state of the Republican Party has been discussed to seemingly no end, since their large margin loss in the November election. Still though, there seems to be a clear picture forming as one of the Right’s biggest issues: GOP lacks a clear and deliberate leader.
Typically, following a lost election, the losing party’s candidate becomes that party’s de facto leader. This isn’t always the case as seen by Al Gore’s departure after the 2000 selection. Other times, a party will have a couple of strong faces that can steer its direction moving forward, e.g. John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean at various times between 2004 and 2008.
These leaders are important because they very much influence the priorities of the party looking towards the next election cycle. A lot of the time, this is a matter of keeping the more, ahem, idealistic members in line. The case can be made that the apparent free-fall that the Right has found itself in lately, can be traced back to the 2000 election.
It’s February 1st, 2000 and John McCain is running for the Republican primary. McCain is seen as a “maverick,” but more importantly, as a moderate; the kind of politician that understands good policies and reasonable compromise. Just two years later, possibly his most famous piece of legislation, the McCain-Feingold Actthe Act- designed to address transparency issues in political campaigns-, will pass with wide bipartisan support. He has just won the New Hampshire primary, giving his campaign a good push against George W. Bush.
Two weeks later comes the South Carolina primary. Bush wins the state through some “creative” campaigning and is able to regain enough momentum to make it to the general election. Following the extraordinary level of defamation directed at him by the Bush campaign, no one expected McCain to be a friend of the soon-to-be President, or his agenda. Fast forward to 2004, McCain embraces Bush at a campaign event in Florida, on stage, as if they were old pals. The media analyzed that hug for weeks. It was as if the Bushes had never accused McCain’s wife of drug abuse or him of being in the closet or fathering an illegitimate, interracial child. No, it was good times on that stage between those former nemeses.
Fast forward again, this time to 2008. John McCain has just lost the presidency to Barack Obama by a mountain of a margin. This is the moment when one would expect him to become the face of the party, the name that everyone has had on their lips for the past nine months. Would John McCain, the maverick, greet the Republican party, or would the hugger? It was the latter. John McCain had reinvented himself over the course of that campaign as Bush redux. Nowhere in this new McCain was any shred of the moderate pragmatist that even many on the Left were quick to compliment. Soon, the 2010 midterm elections would usher in the reign of the Tea Party, marking the beginning of the Republican party as we currently have it.
It is now 2013, only four months removed from the last presidential election and the Right is in disarray. A colossal demographic crisis is now apparent to all but the most ideological of conservatives. There’s talk of a reinvention, a renaissance, to get the party back in line with its principles and with the country. But, once again, a leader has fizzled to the background. After losing to President Obama, a feat so many believed was more than doable, Mitt Romney returned back to the private sector, barely offering any sort of hope or reassurance for the future of the Republican Party.
The old assumption that a losing candidate would continue the party’s push over the next four years was completely ignored. It definitely didn’t help that they chose a candidate with no real convictions, and thus, no real commitment to the movement. Even the head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Preibus, seemed more interested in appeasing whatever group he was speaking to or spreading whatever talking point he was promoting than actually winning.
At a time when the party itself is in such a state of flux, with the Tea Party fighting the establishment, the Log Cabiners fighting the evangelicals, and the moderates wishing the party would move just a little to the center, the ship has no one to direct it. McCain has continued his march into extremist obscurity, with Lindsey Graham not far behind, not looking back at the centrist he was. If he hadn’t given in to the Great Shift Right, it’s very likely he could lead the party and perhaps make another run at the White House. As seen at times in the Chuck Hagel quagmire, he does sometimes have a rare moment of lucidity, such as admitting that Hagel will most likely be nominated, but he quickly regresses back into his new-found curmudgeonry.
All this brings us back to Palin being selected to speak in front of CPAC. The Republicans in power are refusing to look at the situation as it is. Palin played a colossal role in costing McCain the election in 2008, yet she is still somehow relevant, or desirable, to so many in the tent. It further illustrates the power struggle going on inside the Right. Until the tug-of-war for the future of the movement comes to an end, and a deliberate plan is put in place, the Republican Party will continue to drift along listlessly without a captain.