Direction, Anyone?

2012 GOP - Romney, Palin, Huckabee and Gingrich AP / CBS

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review.

Republicans are looking for a leader. Go to any right-leaning gathering, and at some point the conversation will turn to the party's potential presidential nominee in 2012. Republicans were less consumed by that question in 1993, the first year of the last Democratic presidency. Even when Republicans aren't talking about the 2012 race, they are debating who speaks for the party - sometimes explicitly, as when Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele feuded this spring. Or they are wondering who will form the next generation of Republican leaders: Eric Cantor? Paul Ryan?

The present-day question can be answered simply: The Republican party has no leader. Nobody should be surprised by this fact. A party without the White House and without either chamber of Congress is unlikely to generate an unquestioned leader. To the extent Newt Gingrich overcame those odds in 1993-94, it was because of highly unusual circumstances. He had led the fight against the previous Republican president's tax increase in 1990, that president had lost his reelection campaign, and the party had concluded both that the tax increase was the most important mistake that had led to the defeat and that it was connected to all the other mistakes.

Ronald Reagan was to some extent the leader of the party after Gerald Ford's 1976 defeat, although we tend to forget how tough a primary campaign Reagan had to fight in 1980. But he would not have earned that status if he had not challenged Ford in a two-man primary and Ford had not then lost the general election.

The present circumstance offers no parallel to either previous set of wilderness years for the Republicans. Nobody ran against Bush in the 2004 primaries, he was reelected, and no single piece of legislation became the organizing principle for an intra-party opposition that ultimately saw its interpretation of events adopted by the party as a whole. Nor did any Republican go mano-a-mano against McCain in 2008.

The search for a leader of the party is therefore destined to be fruitless. The party will not have a leader until it has a presidential nominee or has taken control of a chamber of Congress. The good news is that the party doesn't really need leadership. The bad news is that it also doesn't have what it does need: entrepreneurship.

The situation was quite different in the late 1970s. In today's highly structured, hierarchical GOP it is hard to believe that a congressman who wasn't in the party's leadership, and wasn't even on the House Ways and Means Committee, could become its chief spokesman on economic policy. Yet Jack Kemp came to fill that role even while rejecting many of the party's existing economic tenets - and even though most of the supply-siders around him lacked formal credentials as economists.

Even as late as 1993, the party did not put too much stock in its titular leadership. Bob Michel was, officially, the House minority leader and Bob Dole his Senate counterpart. But it was of course Gingrich who truly led the House Republicans, and such senators as Phil Gramm and Paul Coverdell did more to defeat the Clinton administration's health-care plan than Dole.

The current congressional leaders - Mitch McConnell in the Senate, John Boehner in the House - are more aggressive, and probably more capable, than Dole and Michel. Partly as a result, though, backbench Republicans take fewer actions independent of their leaders. Not much seems to happen among House Republicans, for example, that hasn't been coordinated with Boehner's staff.

So Republicans have a high degree of unity these days, which has been very helpful in opposing liberal initiatives such as the stimulus and the Democrats' health-care legislation. The downside of that unity is that it is less helpful in generating new ideas, some of which the party will probably need to retake power and will certainly need to exercise it productively. Understandably given their role, the leaders will not embrace an idea unless it has the support of the vast bulk of their followers, or at least does not offend them or compete with their own ideas. But no new idea can pass that test until it gets a thorough airing. Backbenchers can promote those ideas - but only if they are not waiting for someone else to give them direction or, worse, a script.

So opportunities for entrepreneurship abound, unseized. There is no shortage of potentially popular conservative causes. But where is the backbench congressman who will devote himself to publicizing our elite universities' shameful treatment of ROTC programs? Who has the moxie to try to revolutionize the party's economic platform by offering a pro-family tax reform? What congressman was willing not only to oppose the bailout of Detroit but to advocate that our carmakers instead be released from fuel-economy regulations? Republicans have pounced on the many signs that the Obama administration is distancing itself from Israel. But one could make the case that it has systematically been devaluing our alliances, including our old ones with Britain and Japan and our new one with India. Will anyone make that case?

Among the possible explanations for the decline in entrepreneurship, four stand out. The first has to do with the general tendency of a party to fall in line behind a president who belongs to it. For eight years, the congressional party's agenda was whatever President Bush said it was. That wasn't the case in 1993, since a lot of congressmen had stopped identifying with the first President Bush even before he left office; and it wasn't the case in the late 1970s, since the long-out-of-power congressional GOP had no agenda and wasn't expected to have one. This time there is a habit that has to be unlearnt.

The second is that changes in the way campaigns are financed have changed the psychology of politicians. It has often been observed that Reagan's campaign for governor of California in 1966, and Eugene McCarthy's for president in 1968, would have been impossible under the current campaign-finance laws. A small number of rich people who believed passionately in something had the power to shake up politics; perhaps that ability has been sacrificed to a spurious equality.

The increasing sophistication of gerrymandering may also be partly to blame. (That's my third culprit, if you're counting.) In conversation, Bill Kristol recently described Republican congressmen as exhibiting "a curious mix of dogmatism and timidity." The districts most of them represent encourage both traits. They are packed with conservatives, thus simultaneously reducing conservatives' influence in other districts and relieving the congressmen of any need to learn how to appeal to non-conservatives in order to win and keep their seats. This latter effect could be expected to yield a certain lockstep conformity rather than creativity.

Conservatives have generally resisted the idea of letting nonpartisan commissions draw district lines according to some formula, thinking it a close cousin to campaign-finance regulation and, even more, fearing that it would reduce the number of hard-core conservative congressmen. There are limits to what such a reform could achieve, given that liberals and conservatives over the last generation have tended to move to different neighborhoods and states. But perhaps conservatives should rethink their position on the policy question.

On the other hand, the Republican governors, who provided the party with many of its most successful policy initiatives in the 1990s, do not seem to be brimming with ideas either, with a few exceptions. Gerrymandering cannot explain their passivity.

A final possibility is that the supply of entrepreneurship has fallen because the demand has. Most conservatives have concluded that Republicans fell from power because they fell from grace. Rightworld these days places a considerably higher priority on the maintenance of principles than on finding new ways to apply them. The example of the reigning Democrats, who regained power without coming up with any new ideas, strengthens this inclination.

So we have come to this sorry pass: The party that gives political expression to America's entrepreneurial class has within its number few political entrepreneurs. What Republicans celebrate they do not, alas, exemplify.



By Ramesh Ponnuro
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
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