On any given news day, the term “wide open” is the most overused phrase to describe the 2016 GOP presidential field. After last weekend’s Iowa Freedom Summit, the first event to showcase a field of potential Republican candidates numbering in double digits, the phrase is now totally exhausted.
But reviewing this “competitive” bench of “strong” and “experienced” candidates makes me want to scream, “But who can win in 2016?”
Republican leaders who are psyched about the 20-name list of presidential wannabes remind me of the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” If you recall, the emperor is proudly parading around in his newest “finery” after he was duped by two charlatans into believing that anyone who couldn’t see his suit was irredeemably stupid, or at least unfit to serve in his entourage. All his loyal subjects were swooning over his (invisible) royal suit until a child cried out, “But the Emperor has no clothes on!”
That tale is analogous to all the happy talk promulgated by party professionals and Republican-leaning pundits as they put a positive spin on this “wide open field” of 2016 contenders.
The hard truth about “wide open” is that it’s a semantic softener used to cushion the painful reality of a fractured and polarized party in search of its next leader.
The term masks the great schism that exists between the party establishment and the right-leaning base in the forthcoming war over who is worthy to wear the nomination crown.
In this battle, conservatives are going to be uncompromising, because they passionately believe that presidential candidates such as Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012 lost the White House because they were “not conservative enough.” Therefore, in 2016, a “real conservative” must be the party’s standard-bearer or defeat is certain. This scenario began to play out in Iowa last weekend, when the speeches not given by Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush — both of whom chose not to attend the event — were deafening.
Conversely, the establishment considers electability a key factor, believing that the nominee must appeal to Republicans, independents, and perhaps even disgruntled Democrats.
In the meantime, here is some conventional wisdom about the “wide open field” that is used daily to comfort all factions.
“Obama has screwed things up so badly that any GOP candidate can win.”
“We have so many experienced two-term governors!”
“We have such a vibrant field of young leaders!”
“It is rare that our nation will elect a candidate from the same party as an incumbent two-term president.” (This is partially true. The last time was in 1988, when Republican Vice President George H. W. Bush was elected to succeed Republican President Ronald Reagan. Before that it was 1908, when Republican William Howard Taft was elected to succeed Republican Teddy Roosevelt.)
And the most comforting of all: “Hillary is so vulnerable.”
This last one should be of great concern to all the Republican candidates, considering that the leading Democratic candidate is in the midst of building an enormous national campaign infrastructure while the GOP is fighting over which brand of shovel to use for digging the foundation.
As an active Republican since 1975, I see a vast disconnect between a fractured, leaderless party at the level of presidential contenders and the party that has recently achieved historic levels of political power. Truly, it is astounding when one considers that the GOP now controls both chambers of Congress and 69 of 99 state legislative chambers; that 31 of the nation’s 50 governors are Republicans; and that in 23 states the entire legislature and the governor’s mansion fly the Republican flag.
Given such success, one would think that every Republican leader would be singing the popular 1986 song “The Future’s So Bright I’ve Gotta Wear Shades,” as a unified national party comes together to prepare for total domination in 2016.
But instead, minivansful of GOP candidates will be wearing shades only to hide the bruises they receive during the 2015–16 debate and primary season, which will be shorter than the 2011–12 season but probably even more brutal.
And that raises two questions. First: Why is this successful national party having so much difficulty coalescing around one, two, or even three top candidates? Second: Why are there no Republican candidates who poll well against the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton?
Republicans in general shy away from those questions. Instead, the mantra is how this election cycle is “highly unusual” because there is no “heir apparent.” But no one ever discusses why there is no heir apparent. Perhaps that question is too painful?
One of my favorite hobbies is to ask nonpolitical Republican friends, “Which of our presidential candidates can defeat Hillary?” Usually the answer is, “Any of them.”
That response scares me because it was the same one I heard in 2012 when the field was crowded but Romney was always considered the front-runner.
Last week, after seeing the fragmented results from an unscientific reader poll his publication conducted concerning the GOP presidential field, Weekly Standardeditor Bill Kristol wrote: “Not only isn’t there a clear front-runner, there’s not even a clear handful of front-runners.”
Any Republican who thinks that bodes well for winning the White House in 2016 is applauding the Emperor’s new clothes.
Cross-posted at National Review Online