Really Weird and Intense Gaming Out of the 2016 Republican Field

PoliticsElectionsRepublican PartyPaul RyanMarco RubioMitt Romney2012 U.S. Presidential Election

The best part about the end of the presidential election other than the end of a presidential election is speculating about who will run in the next presidential election. In the wake of their sound defeat at the polls, the Republicans are especially interesting because everyone who will likely run is already running. The dynamics are just too interesting to not get into it, and I warn you, this little game I’m about to play is going to be intense and weird.

By 2016—in all likelihood—a popular two-term Democratic president will be retiring, and conservatives will be hungry for a candidate who can take back the White House. Other than Franklin Roosevelt winning four terms, recent history gives us only one example of a party holding onto the executive branch for three consecutive terms: George H.W. Bush following on Reagan’s heels.

So history tells us the Republicans have a good shot, yet as 2012 demonstrated, all the demographic trends are moving in the other direction. The electorate is getting more racially diverse, more liberal, and the Electoral College map now heavily favors Democrats who can contest more states. Meanwhile, the Republican electorate is moving farther to the right, which should make for an intense primary. Poor economic circumstances could certainly aid the GOP, but in all likelihood the top contenders will not be able to run as far to the right as Mitt Romney did in 2012 and expect to have a chance in the general. Here’s what I’m thinking:

• Rick Santorum is for sure running. I know this because after I spoke with him in Michigan while I was tripping on mushrooms, I ended up on his mailing list. This guy spent basically all of 2012 in Iowa. He hasn’t left Iowa since the end of the election. He’s writing op-eds on everything. Trust me, the dude’s running. He also has no chance in hell of actually winning. The Republican Party has a crazy, cracker-ass base, but it also has a strong establishment, and as in 2012, that establishment knows it will have an electoral bloodbath on its hands if Santorum is the nominee. Young women just helped deliver a resounding victory to the Democrats and Santorum makes Mitt “Binders Full of Women” Romney look like Betty f***ing Friedan.

• With Ron Paul claiming 2012 was his last rodeo, many are predicting Kentucky senator Rand Paul will take up the libertarian mantle. I could hardly care less. Rand will fail for the same reason Ron did, which is that a crucial part of the Republican Party’s tent includes the military-industrial complex, which has no interest in his isolationist positions. Maybe he can get the same crew of pot-smoking “Atlas Shrugged” fans to show up and heckle.

• Paul Ryan will benefit from the GOP’s tendency to nominate “the next guy in line.” The party has highly hierarchical tendencies, which is basically how Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, H.W., W., John McCain, and Romney all got their nominations. Now Ryan fills that role, and of the non-dark-horse candidates, he’s clearly the front-runner. He’ll still be young and will immediately raise a boatload of money. His right-wing politics are generally hidden beneath an affable enough demeanor and excellent communication (read: obfuscation) skills. On the other hand, there are plenty within the party who were underwhelmed by his performance in 2012. Unlike Sarah Palin, he came out with no rabid following. He’s never won a statewide contest and even had an uncomfortable margin of victory in his congressional district this November. He also suffers from whiteness. You can take it to the bank that the GOP will extract the wrong lesson of 2012 and attempt to appeal to minorities with superficial tokenism rather than, you know, addressing problems that affect their communities. Ryan is really, really white. Like Son of Romney white. No one’s stock fell farther than Ryan’s in 2012, but he has four years to make repairs.

• Let’s dispense with all the dark horses here: Indiana Governor Mike Pence, South Dakota Senator John Thune, Virginia governor Bob McConnell, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman all suffer from whiteness, and like I said, the heavy-hitting white guy will already be Ryan. At best, one might be able to make a case for getting on the ticket as VP.

• The name of the game will be diversity, which is why both Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal will most likely get pushed into the race even if it’s just to stand on debate stages. Haley gets double-points for being of Indian descent and also the most high-profile elected woman in the party. Her polls are crap in South Carolina right now, but it’s hard to see a Democrat knocking her off in 2014. Unlike Sarah Palin, she’s no dunce, and could conceivably be the darling of a few talking heads. The problem is the Republican Party is still a patriarchal beast. No woman has ever come even remotely close to being a serious contender in the primaries. Jindal also gets diversity points, but his sauce is of the highly weak variety. He’s less a conservative Barack Obama than a brown-skinned Tim Pawlenty. Hard to see him generating even an iota of real excitement in the excitable ranks of the base.

• The clear front-runner for the hey-we’re-not-all-white-guys ploy, and, I think, the odds-on favorite to win the nomination is Marco Rubio. Had Romney picked Rubio, he likely would have won Florida (which is why I wrote a column saying Rubio would get the VP nod). Even though there’s not a lot of evidence that Rubio appeals to Hispanics other than Cubans, he probably could have shaved off a point or two here and there and possibly won Romney Colorado or Nevada. Why Romney didn’t consider him is either a mystery or it isn’t: maybe Rubio saw the writing on the wall and wanted his own clean shot at the nomination in 2016. Whatever the case, Rubio has a lot going for him: Tea Party credibility, Florida’s must-have electoral votes in his back pocket, youth, excitement, etc. He’s Paul Ryan but with “broader demographic appeal,” let’s say.

• Now for white guys who could potentially challenge Ryan for the role of token white guy: first, forget about Chris Christie, who has always been a pipe dream. His embrace of Obama following Hurricane Sandy will not be forgotten by the vindictive conservative net roots; he’s way moderate on a host of social issues; and he’s a very, very obese man. Do not underestimate how important that will be in the 24-hour coverage. Every sweat he breaks, every donut or deep-fried butter stick at an Iowa fair he’s caught eating will go instant-meme in America’s most intense reality show.

• The other wild card is Jeb Bush. Count me as a massive skeptic on this one, but people seem to think it’s for real. He’ll have Bush money at his disposal, instant name recognition, and Florida’s electoral votes (in case you didn’t notice, the Republicans have absolutely no way to win a presidential election without winning Florida). If he runs, he’ll be a force in the primary. However, Bush has three major defects that make his nomination an uphill climb. First of all, though his wife’s Hispanic, she’s also notoriously media shy and has struggled with addiction, which doesn’t really work when your husband is running for president. Second, Jeb is now way to the left of the modern Republican Party, the base will distrust him, and he’ll get pilloried by all the revisionist historians who saw the major problem of his brother’s administration as “spending” rather than “lying us into a military quagmire.” Finally, as I just alluded to, Jeb’s last name is “Bush,” which reminds Americans about his older brother, who, in a weird coincidence, happens to be the worst president of modern American history (tough break!). He’d spend his entire campaign dodging questions about W.’s eight years.

My guess is that four years from now we’ll see a Ryan-Rubio shootout with Rubio emerging the victor partly because he will not have the taint of Election 2012’s route and partly because the GOP will be desperate to attract Hispanic voters. One wildcard: the Obama administration will almost certainly attempt immigration reform in the next four years. If Rubio gets out and champions it because he’s correctly thinking “General Election 2016” but the hard-right in the House torpedoes a deal with the Democrats, Ryan could be on the “torpedo” side of that debate. In the still heavily white GOP primary, this is the one wedge issue that could allow Ryan to outflank Rubio with the base.

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