Why do the potential Republican presidential candidates (with one exception) seem so old, dull, and uninteresting? There are a few simple answers. Most of the candidates are a generation older than most of the new Republican luminaries, compared with whom they are indeed duller and less interesting. At the moment they’re not where the political action is either. They’re not quite irrelevant, but close.
Ask yourself these questions: Would it be more illuminating to talk to Mitt Romney, age 63, or Representative Paul Ryan, 40, about cutting spending and reforming entitlements? Would it be more interesting to chat with Haley Barbour, 63, or Bobby Jindal, 39, about maximizing the power of states? Would it be more stimulating to meet with Marco Rubio, 39, than with any of the presidential candidates?
The answers are obvious. In 2010, Ryan, Jindal, and Rubio emerged as Republican stars. Ryan updated the Roadmap for saving America from fiscal and economic collapse that he’d introduced in 2008. It not only survived Democratic attacks in the midterm elections but now is gathering bipartisan support—parts of it are, anyway. Jindal went toe-to-toe with President Obama during the Gulf oil spill and came out well ahead. And after defeating Florida governor Charlie Crist, Rubio arrives in Washington as the most exciting new senator since John F. Kennedy in 1952.
Those three aren’t the only Republicans who are overshadowing the presidential candidates, just the youngest. The most sought-after speaker at Republican events anywhere in the country is Governor Chris Christie, 48, who has mounted a popular assault on New Jersey’s tax-and-spend culture. The governor whose state has fared the best over the past decade is Rick Perry of Texas, 60, elected to a third term on November 2. The era of Texas as America’s most prosperous and influential state has begun, social critic Joel Kotkin wrote recently, replacing the era of California. It happened on Perry’s watch.
One thing Ryan, Jindal, Rubio, Christie, and Perry have in common is they’re not running for president. I asked Jindal, who’s already announced for reelection as governor of Louisiana in 2011, if he has any intention of seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. He gave a one word answer: “No.”
Among possible presidential candidates, the lone exception to being eclipsed is Sarah Palin, 46. Whatever she does or says or writes attracts lavish media attention. Unlike the others, she has a large and enthusiastic following. Palin is the biggest star in the Republican firmament. Though she wasn’t on the ballot, 2010 was a great year for her.
It was an even greater year for Ryan. His Roadmap began the year as an obscure plan to reform federal spending, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the tax code, and health care, and became the most important statement of Republican aspirations in Washington. At the seven-hour White House summit on health care in February, Ryan took apart Obamacare in a six-minute speech that quickly went viral on the Internet. Obama said he would respond to Ryan at the summit, then didn’t, and never has.
Democrats were certain the Roadmap would be an albatross for Republican candidates. It wasn’t. After the election, the leaders of the president’s debt commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, issued a plan that included parts of the Roadmap, especially its version of Social Security reform. And two weeks ago, Alice Rivlin, former budget director for President Clinton, backed Ryan’s ideas for reining in Medicare and Medicaid. Ryan, as chairman of the budget committee, will draft the House budget for next year.
Jindal sparred with the Obama administration and with the president himself over the slow pace of their effort to contain the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On Meet the Press last week, he said Obama was more interested in his reputation than in cleaning up the Gulf. Obama urged him, Jindal said, not to go on TV “to criticize me.” But “the frustration was actually getting a response [from the administration], actually getting them to move the assets on the ground,” he said. “Time and time again, they wouldn’t listen to local fishermen, … to people who lived down there, who know the waters like the back of their hands.”
Jindal, by the way, is doubtful Obama will move away from his liberal positions, despite being rebuked in the 2010 elections. “For the good of the country, I hope he changes direction,” Jindal told me. “But I would not hold my breath.”
Few freshman senators have been as eagerly awaited in Washington as Rubio. His life story as the son of poor Cuban immigrants, his leadership in the Florida legislature, his defiance of the anointing of Crist in the Senate race by the Republican establishment in Washington, his 19-point victory in the election—these are important.
But what makes Rubio stand out are his power as a speaker and what he speaks about. His speeches during the campaign emphasized his belief in American exceptionalism, about which he differs sharply with Obama. Rubio’s first Senate speech is bound to attract full press coverage.
In Palin’s case, the media treat her every wink and nod as newsworthy. Reporters and columnists are obsessed with her. And some Republicans fear she could lead their party to defeat in 2012. What this assumes is amazing: that she can sail through the primaries and win the nomination. That’s quite an assumption.
Palin is making the most of her prominence. Her criticism of the Federal Reserve’s printing of more money was sensible and well ahead of the curve. And she instantly defended Juan Williams when he was canned by NPR, noting that, like her, he’d gone “rogue.” Palin looks increasingly formidable.
At this time four years ago, the presidential race was about to take off. But the center of gravity in politics and government has shifted. The big play is now in Congress with Republicans in control of the House and in the statehouses with governors like Jindal, Christie, Perry, and a slew of newcomers like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Scott in Florida. The presidential contest will have to wait.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.