Last Wednesday, I sat in my hotel room in Cleveland, Ohio with great anticipation to watch the third Republican Party debate. To my dismay, the debate hosted by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, signified the larger problems surfacing within the party, as candidates stumbled over one another to deliver substantive answers, moderators fostered a highly partisan dialogue and the aftermath of the debate resulted in a great schism between the Republican Party and the media.
I came to the conclusion that, let’s face it, the Republican Party is a rudderless boat with too many chief officers and no captain. As the boat circles and the officers argue, not one appears ready (to this voter) to take control.
Why do I frequently write about the Republican Party? As a Republican, I am fascinated (albeit unnerved) by the uncharted waters the party has entered over the last few years. After 2008, the party featured no true successor to inherit its mantle. Indeed, Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney rose to become the party nominees in 2008 and 2012, respectively, but neither individual captivated the hearts and minds of Republicans to ensure a role in steering the party forward (or winning a presidential contest, for that matter).
Read what you may into the suggestions that Romney could return as the “dark horse” savior candidate in 2016, but I guarantee you that will not happen — why do you think newly minted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan finally took the job? (He knew his heart could never truly be in the role…)
In addition to the administration of President George W. Bush not producing a rightful heir to the party mantle, the party is now under heavy influence from “outsider” candidates, or candidates who have never held prior political office. When combined — between businessman Donald Trump, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — these candidates account for more than 50 percent of prospective voter preferences.
Simply put, over half of prospective Republican voters favor a non-politician nominee. The dominating narrative of “establishment versus outsider” has quickly filled the party discourse as a result.
This leads to perhaps one of the greatest surprises of the 2016 Republican Party primary cycle to date: the baffling campaign performance of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. A post-debate “reboot” continues to highlight the anemic status of Bush’s campaign, as the former governor recently reduced staffing and budget and witnessed the departure of his COO Christine Ciccone.
As Bush has attempted to rebrand his leadership as that of doing and not debating (enter the #JebCanFixIt hashtag) and struggled to frame his campaign as the adult in the room, voter reception remains lackluster. New York Times Columnist David Brooks even went so far as to strangely suggest that Bush offer himself as the safe and “boring” alternative.
Meanwhile, the candidates’ joint dissatisfaction with the Oct. 28 CNBC-hosted debate has erupted into a full-out war between the Republican National Committee, campaigns and the media. The first casualty occurred with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus announcing that the party will not participate in the Feb. 26 debate hosted by NBC News in partnership with National Review and Telemundo — a move lauded by all the major candidates.
Swept up in the momentum of perhaps this first strong-armed move from the RNC in a while, veteran Republican Party attorney Ben Ginsburg drafted a letter received by each campaign — more or less a list of demands from the party to ensure more control in the debate formatting process. The letter did include a number of valid concerns, including candidate-to-candidate questioning, lightning rounds, the quality and quantity of moderators, room temperature and ticket allocation to ensure audience composition is fair and balanced.
In true fashion of the current state of the Republican Party, the draft letter has already resulted in a kerfuffle. As of press time, the Trump, Fiorina, Kasich and Christie campaigns had all publicly declined to sign on to the letter. Trump even went so far as to say he would negotiate personally with the television networks to determine debate format and conditions. While the CNBC debate seemingly unified the candidates through dissatisfaction, personal preference has once again trounced any centralization of authority with the RNC.
As the Iowa caucuses are now less than 90 days out, this Republican honestly cannot predict what is going to happen next. As the CNBC debate did elevate the candidacy of Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, it remains to be seen whether either candidate can chip away at the behemoth that is the bloc of voters aligned with Trump, Carson and Fiorina — for the transition here is largely principled between aligning with an “establishment” candidate or an “outsider.”
Even if either senator gains traction in the polls, however, are we not just looking at another chief officer on a captainless ship? My greatest fear is that the 2016 nominee will leave the party in the same place as the last two nominees: without an heir to the Republican mantle.
As a Republican, this is an extremely frustrating quandary. Who would be the best leader? A pure outsider carries the risk of approaching government functions with a jaded view (politics is an art form of its own).
Career politicians offer the opposite approach in that government is the best venue to address a litany of issues, and disruptive behavior is unacceptable or too alien for preference. A candidate who rides the revolving door between the public and private sectors too often is drawn to the siren’s call of lobbying and develops sticky allegiances in the process.
The Republican Party needs a charismatic and wonky yet practical leader — a leader who refrains from being dazzled by all the junkets accompanying the national spotlight, not limited to the classic book tour, media appearances, the play of (too much) golf and the use of the office to establish a celebrity status.
At present, the candidates divide the party, and only a true diplomat at this point can sew the pieces together. Only with an individual who understands the merits of government, admires the efficiency of the private sector and delivers a degree of trust, vision and compassion can the Republican Party come together. While the party continues to look back to Ronald Reagan, we will never be able to look forward to our next leader. Without a captain, the Republicans will continue to sail without direction or confidence.
Who wants to bet Hillary Clinton is smiling somewhere right now?
Ian Kenyon GS is a public affairs candidate with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. He is also a leaderless conservative and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.