This is Memorial Day weekend. Fourteen weeks from now is Labor Day weekend. In those 14 weeks — a period roughly 1½ times longer than the general election season next year — the Republicans have a lot of work to do.
At perhaps no other time since the fight for the 1936 Republican nomination has either party fielded as weak an array of presidential candidates as the Republicans present today. At no other time since the Democratic upheaval of 1968 has a major party seemed so confused about its future and divided about its vision.
No one can convincingly argue that the Republicans’ survival as a major force in American political life is in jeopardy. The fact that Bill Clinton roared back from adversity to win the 1992 election is a reminder of how swiftly a major party can rebound.
But for the Republicans to rebound in presidential politics by the general election of 2012, they will have to use the next 14 weeks profitably and answer several difficult questions that get at the conundrum of the season: How can a party with such a strong congressional wing have such a weak presidential wing?
Is what you see what you get?
The Republicans, as parties often do, seem to be presenting a slate of candidates in several categories.
There’s a top tier, which consists of former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Jon Huntsman of Utah, though it is a miracle of nature how Mr. Huntsman, with about 15 minutes as a presidential candidate, maneuvered himself there.
Then there’s a tier of known names with no known reason for hope, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The third tier includes former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who appeal to the emotional wing of a party that was not until now much swayed by emotion. And, of course, there’s former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
“Of the two parties, they’re supposed to be the disciplined one,” says former Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. “What you’re seeing now is not what you’ll see later.”
What might we see later?
Mr. Dodd thinks former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida will be in the race before the autumn is out. By many measures, he’s the most politically gifted Bush, including George H.W. Bush, who was reviled when he left office in 1993 but transformed in recent years into a beloved figure, and George W. Bush, whose acolytes say that the Obama years have been the best thing to happen to his reputation. The passage of four years since his older brother’s valedictory may be enough for a third Bush to run for president.
Then there is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman who is a poster boy on the left for Republican perfidy and on the right for Republican courage. So far, Mr. Ryan, focused on the House and on the kids in his household, has resisted entreaties to run.
Will the field stay so diffuse, or will the disciplined party focus itself by Labor Day?
That depends in large measure on money and party pressure, which in the old Republican Party used to be the same thing.
Mr. Romney has gobs of money, probably enough already to finance a campaign in 2016, too. Others are not so well equipped for a long fight.
Many Republicans want Mr. Gingrich out of the race. They believe that his hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewelry debt isn’t even half the problem with his candidacy.
They feel about Mr. Gingrich the way Winston Churchill once described Charles de Gaulle: “Why, he’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the center of the universe.” Churchill then added, to Harold Nicolson, the parliamentary secretary: “You’re right, he’s a great man!” Hardly anyone adds that last sentence about Mr. Gingrich.
“They have got to settle on two candidates by the fall and get rid of the silly stuff that is a distraction,” says Gary Orren, professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and author of a book on the New Hampshire primary. “In the end, Americans are serious about choosing a president.”
But the challenge for the Republicans is that the party lacks a guiding core that can help give shape to the race. The leading GOP figure is House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. His Republican caucus is so fractured that he cannot possibly turn his attention away from Capitol Hill, especially with debt and debt-ceiling issues looming. Like so many others, he’s on the sidelines, watching.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org