More often than not, political pundits and commentators are quick to describe any given presidential election season as being somehow “game-changing” or “paradigm-shifting.” Yet, the forces and figures at work in the presidential election of 2016 have already reshaped the American political landscape in ways that are irreversible, much more so than in previous election seasons. In many ways, this election has already defied conventional political norms in the United States, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the weakening of the two major parties in America. The presidential election of 2016 may test the limits of tolerance in the United States, but it has already tested the limits of American politicians’ loyalty to the two parties.
The 2016 presidential election season has been filled with surprises, many of them unpleasant. Countless pundits and commentators have declared their shock at real estate mogul Donald Trump’s sudden rise to the Republican nomination, even in the midst of what used to be the most crowded partisan primary in recent memory. However, even as one can hardly escape coverage of Trump’s candidacy, the endless and impassioned attempts to interpret the so-called “Trump phenomenon” can actually distract us from recognizing what was probably an equally surprising development of the 2016 race: the severe (and, in one case, politically fatal) difficulties experienced by Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. In fact, as Donald Trump continues to bring the Republican rank-and-file even closer within his orbit, the failure of the latter might prove to be instructive for understanding the potential threat to the former.
The Republican presidential primary field seems to be growing by one candidate every week, on average. Today, Scott Walker announced that he will seek his party’s nomination for the presidency, and at least two more Republicans are expected to declare their candidacies before the summer is finished. At the same time, even as so many GOP governors, congressmen, and businessmen have entered the race, there are still some Republicans whose absence from the primary field is somewhat notable. None of the four politicians who served on the party’s last two tickets are seeking the presidency this year. John McCain has remained in the Senate, continuing to strengthen his position as a leading voice in that body on issues related to foreign policy. Paul Ryan has remained in the House of Representatives, receiving the much-coveted chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, from which he is able to exert incredible influence on the fiscal management of the United States federal government. While McCain and Ryan have held on to elected office, Sarah Palin translated her charismatic, conservative brand into fundraising dynamite for Tea Party candidates in the elections of 2010 and 2012. Meanwhile, where did Mitt Romney go?
When it comes to winning national offices and having an associated positive political image, it would seem that, notwithstanding questions of ideology, the Republican Party has three major challenges: its competitive disadvantage among women voters, its struggle to craft a message of conservatism that resonates with young people and young families, and the unpopularity of the congressional wing of the party. Arguably, these factors prevented the GOP and its nominee, Mitt Romney, from winning the White House in 2012, and they threaten the Republicans’ chances of taking back the presidency in 2016. However, these troubles are not primarily ideological in nature; they are issues of messaging, presentation, and image. The question facing the Republican Party is not “is conservatism relevant to the modern political era?” Rather, the question that the GOP should be asking, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, is: “How can Republicans articulate a compelling case for conservatism in order to survive as a national party?” Now, there may be some who would take issue with this question; if Republicans are poised to expand their majority in the U.S. House and possibly win a majority in the U.S. Senate, then how can its legitimacy or relevance as a national party even be called into question? The answer to this charge is relatively simple: the Republican Party could control both chambers of Congress, but without the law-signing authority of the presidency, its ability to enact conservative policy is still limited. Therefore, we return to the challenges obstructing the GOP’s presidential prospects: disadvantages among women and young voters, and the unpopularity of the congressional wing, especially the House Republican caucus. How can the party begin to overcome these challenges? This article will suggest that what the GOP may need is a prominent, young, female conservative, who can articulate the party’s message in a way that resonates with voters who are disillusioned with Republicans. And strangely enough, that woman can be found leading a very unpopular group: the House Republican caucus. She’s the chair of the House Republican Conference, and her name is Cathy McMorris Rodgers.