It’s been a few months since Republicans regained control of Congress in a series of truly impressive midterm victories across the country. With President Obama’s second term passing the half-way mark, all eyes are turned toward the impending presidential election in 2016, and Republicans have a golden opportunity to transition their recent successes–as well as Obama’s recent failures–into a viable bid for the White House. Although it can be done, the GOP’s track record of chaos and spectacle during recent election cycles doesn’t provide much support for such wishful thinking.
A quick Google search of “GOP presidential candidates for 2016” yields this handy table of 18 potential candidates, including some big names like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker. The GOP website, however, has a straw poll with a whopping 33 politicians listed, and that also doesn’t account for the number of other, less-noteworthy Republicans who may reveal their presidential aspirations in the coming months. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has dominated the conversation for the Democrats, with Elizabeth Warren being the only other potential blue candidate receiving any significant attention from the media.
Although it’s not exactly unexpected to have this many names being considered in the preliminary stages of an election cycle (especially with events like CPAC coming up later this month), the charade of the Republican nomination process represents a fundamental characteristic–and, I would argue, a destructive flaw–of the GOP that wholly distinguishes it from its Democratic counterpart.
This sort of circus isn’t new. Thinking back to the last two elections, I can recall hearing about a long list of potential candidates for the GOP in both 2008 and 2012, while significantly fewer politicians comprised the pool of potential Democratic candidates. By all indications, the 2016 race is shaping up to be no different, and that does not bode well for the GOP, which lost both the presidency as well as a number of Congressional seats in the past two contests. If this trend is any indicator, the hordes of Republican hopefuls battling it out for the nomination do absolutely nothing to help the GOP win elections.
Given the prevalence of self-promotion among these potential candidates, it’s hard to discern whether Republican politicians view presidential races as an actual chance to improve the state of the union, or rather as an excellent PR opportunity they can exploit for their personal careers. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter, known for her abrasive and snarky style, outlines this issue in her book, Never Trust a Liberal Over 3–Especially a Republican. As she explains, the extensive media coverage allotted to the race provides powerful incentives for conservative congressmen and businessmen to involve themselves in the contest, even when they clearly won’t win. Indeed, the publicity seems almost too good to pass up, as many past contenders have walked away from the action with TV shows, radio gigs, and bestselling books. Former 2008 candidate Mike Huckabee, for instance, just ended his 6 year-old show Huckabee on Fox News to prepare for another presidential run in 2016. Although former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin hasn’t run for president (yet), she’s appeared on radio and television talk shows countless times, written several books, and starred in two of her own reality TV shows since her rise to notoriety in the 2008 election. Many of the thirty-three prospects for 2016 have also at least appeared on television in some capacity, and some have also written a book or two about their political lives and philosophies.
Having inexperienced congressmen and businessmen even attend preliminary events, which typically provide a platform for more substantial candidates, can seriously harm Republican efforts. This past month, for instance, conservative politicians flocked to the Iowa Freedom Summit, a “grassroots” event hosted by Representative Steve King, to make speeches and rally voters in preparation for 2016. Which individuals got the most attention? Resident GOP punching-bag Sarah Palin of course, who was lambasted by the liberal media once again after she gave an incoherent speech, and the infamous Donald Trump, who lectured Republicans on which candidates to avoid while simultaneously promoting his own presidential ambitions. The extent to which the news media ignored the other speakers at the Summit was such that I would be genuinely surprised if the average news-watcher knew that anyone else was there.
Having people like Palin and Trump present at GOP events is annoying at best, and crippling for the Republicans at worst. Such individuals only distract from the more viable contenders who can have a more impactful and compelling role in garnering Republican support for the presidential election. Everything Palin does immediately provokes ruthless mockery from the liberal media, whether justified or not, and I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who can stomach Donald Trump’s extraordinary narcissism. Even entertaining the aspirations of more serious contenders whose chances are still slim-to-none ends up hurting the Republican Party, as such individuals take time, attention, and other resources away from more feasible candidates. Examples include Jeb Bush, who can’t win simply by virtue of his last name, as well as Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum, all of whom are far too polarizing to capture the party nomination. Even Ben Carson, who is popular, level-headed, and very intelligent, hardly stands a chance due to his utter lack of experience in government.
The large number of candidates will inevitably hurt the GOP’s image going into the final election. Because there is such a large number of possible candidates, the media will cover the GOP’s nomination process more extensively than it will the Democrats’. If there are as few Republican hopefuls as there will (presumably) be for the Democrats, however, the media could more evenly divide its time to criticize candidates on both sides of the aisle. Furthermore, once we hit primary season, Republicans will run into trouble when the massive number of candidates battles it out amongst themselves, pointing out each other’s flaws and mistakes in order to make themselves look better. It’ll be easy for Democrats and the media to then take that ammunition and use it against the eventual GOP nominee, who’ll have to deflect criticism from not only the other side, but also from members of his or her own party. With this in mind, the rule of thumb for the GOP should be the fewer the candidates, the better.
Indeed, mismanagement by the GOP isn’t unique to presidential elections, and has resulted in many careers ruined as well as many Congressional seats lost. Whether it’s when a Republican congressman lets slip an ignorant comment about rape, or when ridiculous myths like “Tea Party extremism” and “the GOP war on women” proliferate unchallenged in the media, the GOP’s ineptitude in marketing candidates and controlling the party base quickly becomes obvious. Such unnecessary mistakes can very easily wound Republicans during big presidential elections, where every last ounce of voter support is crucial.
The goal of elections is to win. This is something the Democrats understand: they’ve been doing a better job in recent years of winning Presidential elections, especially ones in which their defeat should have been easy. If the Republican Party wants a victory in 2016, it needs to double-down with a zero-tolerance policy for self-serving politicians, frivolous attention-seekers, and sensational spectacles of incompetence by would-be party leaders. The era of Obama is almost at an end, and the GOP cannot let the selfish aspirations of a few sabotage this pivotal opportunity to rectify the mistakes of the last six years.