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.
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.
Among libertarian circles, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is like royalty. On the one hand, being the son of long-time libertarian icon Ron Paul, the senator has the feeling of an heir apparent; on the other hand, having been swept into office by the Tea Party wave of 2010, Rand Paul has also radiated the sort of rebellious insurgency that can electrify a crowd on the campaign trail. Despite his relatively short time on the national stage, Sen. Paul has become a widely-recognized politician, and one of the top tier potential candidates for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016. According to a recent RealClearPolitics polling average, Paul is in third place in the Republican presidential horse race, behind only New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. This is perhaps the ideal political position for the Kentucky senator; he doesn’t have the target on his back that a frontrunner would, while the current frontrunners in the GOP race have significant liabilities, like “Bridgegate” and the Bush family name. And Sen. Paul doesn’t seem content to rely only on his father’s base at the far-flung fringes of the Republican Party; Politico wrote that Paul “has made a concerted move from the political fringes over the past year; now he’s on a mission to remake his party, too.”
And yet, it’s this very “move from the political fringes” that may prove politically problematic for Sen. Paul. In 2010, he won office in part due to an unwavering commitment to “principles,” and now, Paul’s observers are noting changes in the senator’s political positions that are more than just slight. In 2012 GOP primary, eventual nominee Mitt Romney faced criticism for what many perceived as “flip-flopping”; is Rand Paul setting himself up for similar problems?