Right, then? Where now for the Republican Party?

2012 is no more the end for the Republican Party than 2004 was for the Democrats

The bubble hasn't burst just yet
Dr. James Boys
On 12 December 2012 13:37

As you may be aware there was a presidential election recently in the United States. It worked out rather well for Barack Obama, but not so much for his opponent, whom many people have already forgotten. Mitt…somebody?

As a result, many are asking the logical question: What now for the Republican Party? After all, if it failed to win an election with the economy in its current state, with unemployment stubbornly hovering around 8 percent, with the national debt increasing daily and now in excess of $16 trillion, and with a president who was far from beloved even by many in his own party, when could it ever win? 

Is the end really nigh for the Republican Party as some suggest? Are there really not enough angry white males to elect a GOP president anymore? The answer is clearly ‘no’, but to understand why this is the case, one must consider the past before preparing for the future.

The 2012 election threw up some interesting facts. Obama was re-elected, but with a reduced majority. However, this was the first time since the 1820s that three sitting presidents have been re-elected to successive terms (Clinton 92/96, Bush 00/04 and Obama 08/12). It’s only happened once before and the fact that the presidents involved were Thomas Jefferson (1804/08), James Madison (1808/12) and James Monroe (1816/20) gives you some indication as to how rare an event this is.

What can we glean from this? Are Americans becoming more change-averse? Possibly. More important, however, is the increasing power of the incumbency and the ability of the sitting president to control their party. It is revealing that incumbents who avoid a challenge from within their own party for their nomination go on to win re-election, whilst those who have to fight a rearguard action for the right to be the nominee (Carter, Bush) go on to defeat.

In this regard, the true victory for Clinton, W., and Obama came not in the general elections of 1996, 2004 or 2012 respectively, but rather in ensuring that no one challenged them in the preceding primaries, allowing them to raise funds and present a united front against a divided opposition. This is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the incumbency.

So too is perception, for it impacts who will challenge the incumbent. A sitting president can only run against whomever the other party nominates, and some presidents are very lucky. Arguably Obama was lucky to run against a multi-millionaire at a time of national and international austerity, but then he has been lucky throughout his career, going right back to Jack Ryan’s implosion as a candidate in the 2004 Illinois Senate race.

Potential challengers will often look at the incumbent and decide that he can’t be beaten and that they will have a greater chance of victory in four years’ time. These decisions are not made lightly or shortly before the start of the primary season. To be a serious candidate for the presidency involves a great deal of time and money and the planning of a race two-three years ahead of the election. It is, therefore, a leap of faith.

In 1990, senior Democrats believed the George H.W. Bush was unassailable following the Gulf War, ensuring that only minor candidates ran. When Bill Clinton emerged from this weak field as the candidate, he benefited initially from the lack of serious challengers and subsequently from Bush’s declining popularity.

2012 saw a weak field of Republican challengers, including no-hopers, first-timers, non-politicians, and those whose time had long since past. Romney, therefore, was the permanent front-runner in a weak field. If the Republicans were serious about beating Obama, where were their heavy hitters? Simply put, they all stayed home, having calculated early on that Obama, with his initial popularity, historic administration, and incumbency, could not be beaten; better to let someone take the fall against him in 2012 and run in 2016.

This, therefore, is no more the end for the Republican Party than the 2004 result was the end for the Democrats. It is simply a predictable pattern of American politics and why Republicans should be optimistic about 2016. Whilst Joe Biden has made noises about running, he will not be the incumbent and vice-presidents have a poor record at winning elections in their own right. (George H.W. Bush was the first sitting VP elected to the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836 and, as Al Gore will testify, no VP has won since 1988).

Joe Biden will be forced to enter the primary season and so both the Democrats and the Republicans will have an equal shot at the title. This will ensure that the likes of Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio will all have the chance to demonstrate their abilities in what appears to be a very strong Republican field.

Their most potent opponent remains Hillary Clinton, which speaks volumes as to the potential weakness in the Democratic Party. By Election Day 2016, Hillary will be 69 and will have been in the national spotlight for over 25 years. To secure victory in 2016, the Republican Party would be advised to work to neutralise her potential candidacy now, before it can emerge.

If she does run, Republicans will need to run a positive, upbeat campaign, looking forward, not backward and stressing youthful vitality in contrast to what will be an aging Democratic front-runner. They appear to be well placed to do so.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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