The party of the next guy has no next guy.
For more than two generations, the Republican presidential nominating process has had an immutable internal logic to it: The next guy in line gets the nomination. That’s how every Republican president of the post-Eisenhower era has won his party’s nomination, and how just about every GOP presidential nominee since Thomas E. Dewey (1944 and 1948) got to the top of the ticket.
But just as the Republican Party is going through one of its periodic struggles for identity, the party finds itself without a next guy.
The only figure with possible claims to the title is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee. But he is more interested in becoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and realizing his dream of rewriting the tax code.
Mr. Ryan is by far the most highly regarded Republican in the House, which today is the only redoubt of the party’s power in the capital. He is more respected among Republicans on Capitol Hill than he is in national circles.
He’s keeping his options open, as so many political figures do at this stage of the election cycle, but knowledgeable Republicans do not consider him even a faint possibility as a presidential contender.
In ordinary times, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida might be considered the next guy up. But his prospects are complicated by his brother, a two-term president who left the White House with low approval ratings and who remains a punching bag not only for Democrats, but also for Republicans who consider him a spendthrift who was too eager to bail out big companies.
The result is that there are no next guys — natural, plausible, believable Republican presidential candidates with a touch of the fairy dust of inevitability about them. There are, instead, a lot of natural, plausible, believable vice presidential candidates.
That is the natural order in the Democratic Party, which has no tradition of political primogeniture and has selected nominees such as Jimmy Carter, who was nobody’s idea of the next guy.
The irony is that in this campaign where the Republicans have no next guy, the Democrats have one, proving that the term “next guy” is gender neutral: Hillary Clinton.
That is not to say that there are no Republicans maneuvering for advantage in a race that is probably about three months from beginning in earnest. Three leading ones are senators: Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida.
That alone is a departure from the Republican norm, which tends to favor governors. That is natural for a business-oriented party that reveres competence in executive management and that, for a generation at least, has tried to move power from the federal government to the states.
For that reason, the Republicans have tended to choose nominees with that sort of profile or with management experience in other spheres (General Eisenhower in the military, George H.W. Bush in diplomacy and intelligence), and not political figures in the Senate. Indeed, no Republican senator since Warren Harding has become president, and only three — Barry Goldwater, Robert Dole, and John McCain — have won the GOP nomination in modern times.
It is remarkable to note that besides them, the only other senators to make plausible runs for president in the GOP since 1944 were Howard Baker of Tennessee, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Republican senators just don’t ordinarily run for president.
By the same token, hardly anyone can conceive of Messrs. Mr. Cruz, Mr. Paul, and Mr. Rubio digging in for multiterm careers in the Senate, which each seems to consider a stepping stone to something else.
Meanwhile, there is a band of Republican governors, but all of them seem primed for brief presidential runs and then Cabinet positions if a Republican were to win the White House in 2016. Among them are John Kasich of Ohio, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mike Pence of Indiana, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is in a tight race for re-election and could always run again for governor in 2018.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey also are toying with presidential runs, but both are big personalities, difficult to imagine in a Cabinet meeting.
No rule of politics is immutable — except one. Once Mr. Cruz or Mr. Pence or one of the others wins the nomination, stands before a national convention and, amid confetti and cheers, sets out to fight a general-election campaign, he or she becomes a giant, with the potential of winning the White House.
It will happen again in 2016. It always does.
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