The Upside of GOP Despair

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Mitt Romney is damaged goods. Tim Pawlenty is a snooze. Newt Gingrich is a mess. And Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul are unelectable. It's no surprise that Republicans are responding to their 2012 choices with "a range of emotions running from disappointment to panic," as National Review editor Rich Lowry quipped in a recent column.

But the GOP's short-term dismay should be tempered with something like long-term relief. Why? Because the very conundrum that's currently vexing conservatives—an unsatisfying crop of 2012 contenders—is setting them up to reap a far more important reward four years from now: a standard-bearer they can actually be proud of, running in a race that he or she stands a better chance of winning.

Consider the party's 2016 farm team. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is young, conservative, and a minority. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal boasts some of the same qualities, with the added bonus of actual policy chops. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is already a conservative folk hero; by 2015 he might have some real accomplishments under his belt. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, meanwhile, is flirting with a 2012 run, but as a moderate, his plan may have less to do with winning over this year's hyperpartisan base than with laying the groundwork for 2016. And then there's Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, along with other lesser-known names.

Not only are these rising Republican politicians some of the most intriguing in recent memory, they're also shaping up to be very well suited to the likely demands of the 2016 presidential campaign. After eight years of young, cosmopolitan Obama, the GOP will probably want to field a candidate who strikes voters as fresh and new—especially because people tend to get elected president (or vice president) only within 14 years of first winning major elective office, as journalist Jonathan Rauch has noted. By 2016 only Ryan will have passed his sell-by date, and he's unlikely to seem stale, given his relative youth. The rest of the class of 2016 either has a short résumé or minority roots. Rubio, Jindal, and Haley have both. Freshness won't be an issue.

But the strongest selling point for Rubio & Co. is that most of them have developed their political personae during the age of Obama. The perils of being a pre-Obama Republican in a post-Obama world are on full display right now, as Romney, Gingrich, and Pawlenty struggle to explain their support for policies (individual mandates, cap-and-trade) that were considered conservative before Obama came along, but now constitute apostasy simply because he has endorsed them. In contrast, Republicans such as Rubio, Jindal, Haley, McDonnell, and Christie, who were elected between 2008 and 2010, have had the luxury of defining themselves in clear opposition to Obama. Even Huntsman, whose governorship preceded Obama's presidency, has an opening here: after serving as the administration's ambassador to China, he can argue with some authority that his boss was wrong on trade, and deficits, and so forth. With so much talent in the pipeline, Republicans may be tempted to call for a class-of-2016er to take the plunge in 2012. But the GOP would be wise to recognize the risks of jumping the gun. The class of 2016 is impressive, but no one has a better shot than, say, Pawlenty of defeating Obama next November: some are too green to contend against a sitting president; others are too moderate for today's GOP base. By running now, they would risk revealing their inexperience or tying themselves in too many Tea Party knots for future audiences.

But 2016 is a better bet. By running a solid, staid T. Paw type against 2012's formidable incumbent, Republicans are keeping their most explosive powder dry for the more winnable battle ahead. In 2016 Democrats won't have Obama at the top of the ticket—or even his vice president, Joe Biden. Instead, they'll have someone who's subsisted on rare slivers of spotlight to shine through the president's vast shadow: a Mark Warner, perhaps, or one of the few Democratic pols elected in the previous six years. The Republican candidate, on the other hand, will be someone whose star has been rising, in opposition, since 2011. The important thing is that he or she doesn't go kamikaze this time around. The GOP has other, blander candidates to handle that job.