Romney the GOP placeholder
TAMPA, Fla. -- Ask the rising stars of the GOP about their party's future and two names repeatedly come up.
One of them, Ronald Reagan, was born in 1911; the other, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, in 1970. Neither Romney, born in 1947, or the once politically ascendant Baby Boomers he represents are central to the conversation about what direction the party takes in the years ahead, even as the former Massachusetts governor receives the GOP nomination here this week. Romney seems more a placeholder than he does heralding any sort of new political movement.
The next generation of Republican leaders, most of them born in the 1970s, see themselves as the heirs to an upbeat, Reagan-style conservatism and believe Ryan's free-market orthodoxy is the platform upon which they'll return to national majority status.
In interviews with the 30- and 40-somethings, questions about what's next for the GOP and what Romney stands for often prompt answers that gloss past their 2012 standard bearer and inevitably reveal a determination to return Republicans to their perceived roots in a more ideologically muscular future.
The two bookends, Reagan and Ryan, represent a party that is unmistakably moving from George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism to a new Republicanism that sounds a lot like the old-time religion but with fresher packaging. To use the language of their youth, these children of the 80s want to dispense for good with New Coke and return to Coca-Cola Classic.
"Sometimes we may think we're being compassionate by creating a new program or agency but in fact we're getting in the way," said 41-year-old Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
The irony is that by tapping Ryan, Romney himself, long mistrusted among conservatives, hastened the transition to the new guard and may have ensured that his own legacy draws from his ticketmate's ideas.
"There's no doubt that by doing that, win or lose, Paul Ryan's ideas will lead the party," said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker of Romney tapping the House Budget Chairman and Wednesday's featured convention speaker.
"I think that by picking Paul Ryan the ticket now very much represents a new generation of leadership," said Texas GOP Senate nominee Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite who thrashed the establishment pick in his runoff this summer.
Cruz, 41, held up "a broader trend than merely the presidential nominee."
"It's manifested across the country in new free market leaders with the same hopeful, optimistic vision that President Reagan had," the Texan said, citing Ryan, Rubio, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
What few of the up-and-comers will say publicly, but is implicit in their focus on Reagan and Ryan, is that Romney represents no new epoch in the GOP. Reaganism and compassionate conservatism were clearly defining, as was Bill Clinton's "Third Way" push of his party to the political middle. It's unclear what exactly Romneyism represents. When the question is posed to Republicans it typically is met with some mention of the GOP nominee's pragmatic, business-like approach or, in lieu of a description of Romney's principles, just a denunciation of President Barack Obama.
"He's a fix-it guy, he's not necessarily an ideological guy," said Walker, 44.
He's also, Republicans acknowledge, a bridge between the baby boomers who've dominated politics for the past two decades and the Reagan-inspired youth.
"Romney makes an ideal segue," said Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a 38-year-old freshman who's likely to seek statewide office in the near term. Gardner noted that Romney did for Ryan what the former Bain CEO had done in his corporate life. "His whole career has been about bringing new people, young people into his operation and really that's exactly the role he's playing now."
What most GOP officials will only say privately is that Romney isn't likely to put his own imprint on the party because he's only a temporary banner carrier before the new guard takes full control.
"He's a transitional figure," said one of the most powerful 40-something GOP leaders.
His presence atop the ticket is partly explained by the 2012 Republican primary field. Unlike with Obama in 2008, none of the new guard Republicans dared to run early in their careers. So Romney's chief intraparty competition was from a trio of politicians who made their names decades earlier: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
In explaining the state of the party, more than one of the young Republicans pointed to the influential Charles Krauthammer's column on the Ryan pick earlier this month.
"[W]hile Romney is the present, Ryan is the future," wrote Krauthammer. "Romney's fate will be determined on Nov. 6. Ryan's presence, assuming he acquits himself well in the campaign, will extend for decades."
That presence is likely to usher in a period of more reform-oriented, and politically risky, Republicanism.
The consensus among the next-generation Republicans is that they must adhere to a small-government, federalist approach -- not just taking the throttle down on spending but actively limiting Washington's role. That means ending government programs and, in the fashion of Ryan's "Roadmap," moving treasured but pricey entitlements like Social Security and Medicare into the market.
"When you looked to the Republicans of old, they weren't for controlling the size of government but just slowing its growth," said Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican Whip.
McCarthy, 47, said Romney's selection of Ryan elevated the hard-charging agenda of the House GOP and presaged the direction of a party that exit polls show is increasingly reliant on working-class voters.
"It's not the establishment, it's not the country club, it's a more a grass roots, small business and free enterprise-oriented party," said McCarthy, pointing to the composition of the junior members of his caucus: "The House reflects everything faster. We are a microcosm."
Even establishment-oriented politicians believe the GOP needs to take a more aggressive posture when it comes to fighting the capital's status quo, saying that such an approach will leave bruises but also send a message to voters that they're serious about reform.
"We have to fight to change Washington," said Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), a 44-year-old former national GOP operative eyeing a Senate run. "There's going to be friction."
Also representative of the forward-leaning Republican new guard are its young governors, many of whom are getting far more attention in Tampa than the party's two older congressional leaders, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"The Republican Party is in the middle of a resurgence and renaissance," said Jindal, pointing to the recent crop of GOP governors and the pension and education reforms they've pushed in recent years.
The Republican chief executives have quietly rebelled against No Child Left Behind, Bush's signature effort to increase the role of the federal government in education, seeking waivers from the national standards set forth in the law.
GOP governors like Jindal, 41, have instead enacted their own school reforms, contending that programs like education vouchers are a way for the party to broaden its reach.
"They tend to benefit families that up until now have not had the resources to send their kids to private schools or better public schools," said the Louisianan.
The desire to embrace a brand of unapologetic conservatism, but do so in a way that appeals to nontraditional Republicans, has its roots in the new guard's memories of Reagan, which are more of the sunny true believer than the pragmatist who cut deals with the Democratic Congress.
Cruz likened his generation's political identity to the Democrats who grew up in FDR's day and sought to imitate his jaunty optimism.
"This new generation of leaders stepping forward all came of age with Reagan in the White House and we saw him defend conservative principles but do so in a way that wasn't divisive but positive, [optimistic] and unifying," said the Texan. "And that same thread runs through all these new leaders."
Added Walker: "It's not just some candidate attaching their name to Reagan because he's popular. Other than my parents I don't think anybody had more influence on my thinking."
Yet while the Gipper was able, largely through his sheer talent as a communicator, to hold together broad support from his band of Republicans and Reagan Democrats, the GOP's ability to build a durable majority among disparate constituencies will be tested in the years ahead.
As their voting coalition becomes more downscale, the GOP is still chiefly funded by the corporate business elite. In this sense, Republicans are looking more like the Democrats of old: seeded by a wealthy donor class but carried at the polls by working-class voters.
Such a divergent group will inevitably lead to tensions and there are two looming on the horizon.
The first can be seen in the Todd Akin episode. The Republicans who want him out of the Missouri Senate race are genuinely dismayed by his comments about rape, but the subtext to their irritation illustrates the divide within the party: many party elites don't want to be talking about such cultural issues as abortion at all. Yet many within the GOP's worker-bee base are driven almost entirely by a desire to preserve traditional social values. Just see former Arkansas Gov Mike Huckabee's scathing email to get a sense of the base backlash toward the establishment's heavy-handedness toward Akin.
"Is this what the party really thinks of principled pro-life advocates?" Huckabee wrote.
Looking forward, the economic and cultural wings of the party will inevitably clash if the all-consuming fiscal focus continues with Ryan and, particularly, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul taking their place atop the GOP. And the fight won't just be over how much attention to focus on abortion. While Republicans are likely to broadly remain an anti-abortion party, there will almost certainly be an internal battle in the next decade over whether they must bow to the country's rapidly shifting views of gay marriage.
"The social conservatives are getting squeezed," said one of the party's most well-known former governors. "You notice how little attention their issues are getting now and just wait when the economic intellectuals embodied by Ryan and the libertarians who love [Ron] Paul take over."
The other coming divide will be over how the white-dominated GOP should go about becoming a majority party in a country that's growing less white with each passing year.
Immigration is the issue stand-in for this debate and there are leading Republican figures who believe that they can't reach Hispanics on more favorable policy terrain without first finding a resolution on how to treat the illegal immigrants and their children who are already in the country.
"There's no doubt it's a gateway issue," said Rubio, adding: "If they think you're 'anti-them' it's very difficult to get them to listen to anything else you have to say."
But the grass-roots conservative opposition to anything that resembles "amnesty" is fierce and it's an article of faith that Republicans got shellacked in the first place because they had strayed from principles.
What many in the party's next generation quietly hope for is a chance to get some sort of compromise passed on immigration so that they can deprive the Democrats of the issue.
Republicans are proud of their recent, incremental efforts to add more diversity to their ranks, noting that they have Hispanic and Indian-American governors, black House members and, after Cruz is elected, two Hispanic senators.
"We're not your crusty old white guy party anymore," boasted Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who at 31 is at the tail end of the Reagan generation.
Schock and other Republicans believe it'll be easier for the party to attract minority voters if such Americans see more diverse representatives among GOP officialdom and if candidates aggressively campaign in minority communities.
The high-profile former governor, speaking on background, called it "conservatism with a contemporary face."
Pointing out that the past two GOP nominees, John McCain and Romney, have been out of step with the preferences of the party base, this governor predicted the party's next nominee, whether in 2016 or 2020, would be: "More of a movement conservative but somebody not so scary-appearing that they can't also raise the money necessary."
Alex Castellanos, the veteran GOP consultant who made his bones professionally in the Reagan era, has been focused on getting his party to become what he calls "New Republicans" since penning a lengthy National Review piece in early 2010. It's not the mirror of Clinton's 90s-era New Democrats with requisite ideological moves to the middle, but rather an acknowledgment of the need for a bottom-up, individual-empowering style of governance in the digital age.
"Paul Ryan could be the first New Republican," Castellanos said. "So Mitt Romney could be the father of the New Republicans. That may be his legacy coming out of this election, win or lose: the beginning of what's next."