Washington Matters


GOP Leadership Vacuum Won't Last Forever


Conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party has hit bottom, is leaderless and rudderless, off message, shoots itself in the foot regularly, is unable to appeal much beyond its very conservative southern base, and is now battling infidelity-syndrome jokes. It's all mostly true, but it won't last forever. There'll be a regrouping, even a resurgence, at some point.  

But the GOP has little choice but to exist without a powerhouse at the top for a while yet, possibly until after next year's congressional and gubernatorial elections and until the set-up for the 2012 presidential election cycle.

The party still has much soul-searching to do, especially to figure out how to appeal to moderates and independents. It is not due to a shortage of issues that could help them if handled effectively -- the deficit, unpopular bailouts, job losses, the potential for an unwieldy, partisan and hugely expensive health care plan being pushed, plus North Korea and Iran flouting all manner of U.S. warnings.

The time is still not right, though -- or the players are just not there -- for a party resurgence. It's almost as if the GOP is still in the first inning of a nine-inning comeback effort, and its leadership bench isn't all that deep.

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Some say call up the radio celebrity and conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh to the plate. I'm sure some Republicans would like that. But it's silly. He's a commentator/entertainer who relishes the freedom of not being held accountable and getting paid many, many millions for it. He's happily staying put. 

For now, anyhow, neither of the congressional minority leaders - Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or Rep. John Boehner of Ohio -- is a rabble rouser that can stir national party passion. Both are cautious, deliberative men, more inclined to focus on the tactics of legislative jousting, and even that is hard for them with their small minority caucus.

Others have a long way to go or will go nowhere, save an occasional headline. 

Gov. Sarah Palin, Alaska, is aiming to be a player, for sure, and she'll probably not seek reelection next year so she can focus fully on the national stage and avoid criticism that she's skipping work. She'll continue to draw crowds, appeal well to many women and have a huge book tour next year. But she also has family issues that are the stuff of tabloids, is unliked by several party insiders and has to learn much about domestic and foreign policy  before being taken more seriously outside the cable talking fest.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is on a single-theme mission to critique President Obama's conduct of the continuing war on terrorism. He'll continue to make news and drive some measure of party opinion, but he's more about defending the past policies of the Bush administration than charting any course ahead for the party.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, LA, has had a rocky roll out on the national stage. He'll suffer the "not ready for prime time" label for a good while yet. He's also curiously absent in the national debate on health care policy, one of his top areas earlier.

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, and a frequent commentator, is more of a political philosopher-historian than a governing expert. He's also a little shopworn, and the glory days of his 1994 Republican Revolution are long past and times. Still, he'll stoke worthwhile debate and discussion in the party.

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, will be in the political picture for sure and will draw crowds, etc. He's tasted front-runner status before and wants it again. But for now he's far from calling the shots on party policy or message. The little bit of temporary magic he had in the 2008 presidential primary race may be hard to get back.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minn., is worth keeping an eye on. He's term limited from running again. He was on most everyone's very short list to be John McCain's running mate at one point, and he scores points for being a public policy expert who also has a knack for appealing to the work-a-day types over the pinstripes. He'll wait awhile before trying to raise his profile, though. Far too early yet. 

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, merits a look and could be the subject of a national draft-Bush campaign at some point. He seems to be less interested in politics after having left office, although he was popular and was long considered presidential timber before his brother was. But Bush-fatigue and family dynasty questions could factor against him.   

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, R, is also worth watching. A former national party chairman, Barbour knows just about everybody of influence, including all the big fundraiser stars, and has done loads of service helping Republicans get elected. He skipped a 2008 presidential run to focus on continued recovery in the state from Hurricane Katrina. Like Pawlenty, Barbour will wait awhile before stepping fully into national party politics.

Also, worth keeping an eye on are two women who could be party powerhouses in a couple years. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas, an expert on defense and national security issues, appears nearly committed to running for governor next year and is expected to do well against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry in a GOP primary. She'd be a fresh executive face for the GOP in a huge state if she wins. Also, Meg Whitman, former chief executive of eBay with a long senior executive business resume, is exploring a bid for governor of California. Whitman was also a close runner up to be McCain's veep choice.

It could be that the next major and indisputable leader of the party is someone barely known as of yet. After all, it was only five years ago that President Obama was a state legislator in Illinois.

If you'd like, let us know of some other names you think we should keep watching as future leaders of the GOP. 




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