Thursday, December 30, 2010



Left, Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press; David Goldman/Associated Press

Mitt Romney, left, and Newt Gingrich both have Republican insider credentials.

You can see this dynamic playing out now in the race for national party chairman, a highly un-Republican melee that seems likely to end in theouster of Michael S. Steele. More to the point, the chaos is only going to intensify, which is why the presidential season ahead is likely to feature the most unruly and flat-out fascinating contest Republicans have staged in 35 years.WASHINGTON — A year ago, Republicans here were shut out of governing but could console themselves with having retained their hold on the party apparatus. This week, they will celebrate the new year having come roaring back to regain the House, and yet they have no semblance of control over the direction of their party and the conservative activists who seem to be steering it.

We tend to think of Republican presidential campaigns as pretty prim, predictable affairs. A lot of younger voters weren’t even alive the last time Republicans really tore themselves apart trying to choose a nominee.

Most often, as pundits are forever pointing out, the party has embraced the candidate who qualified as “next in line,” or who (like George W. Bush) emerged as a consensus candidate of the Republican elite. The last time Republicans tried to unseat an incumbent president, for instance, in 1996, they turned to Bob Dole, a 73-year-old Senate majority leader who had already run twice for president and once for vice president. It’s hard to get more establishment than that.

Such preordained candidates are often tested but never lose the nomination. John McCain made it interesting for a while in 2008 by essentially blowing up his front-runner status before the first primary votes were cast. But then he righted himself in New Hampshire, proving yet again that Republican voters have a knee-bending weakness for the aging and the ornery.

It wasn’t always this way, though, as any Goldwater Girl (Hillary Rodham Clinton was one) could tell you. The most recent Republican race that really qualified as a thriller took place in 1976, when the unelected president, Gerald R. Ford, barely held off a challenge from Ronald Reagan.

Already a conservative icon at the time, Mr. Reagan was sort of the Sarah Palin of the day, except that he used celebrity as a catapult into politics and not the other way around. The loss made him the quintessential next guy up, and he won a resounding victory four years later.

In some ways, that Republican moment was similar to the one we’re now approaching. Mr. Reagan channeled a grass roots movement that was still reeling from what it saw as the ideological betrayal and humiliating corruption of the Nixon era, just as today’s Tea Party members are smoldering over the party’s record during the Bush years. But this time, absent a Ford, the Republican establishment seems powerless to marshal its resources around a default candidate.

For one thing, there just isn’t any obvious choice to rally around. Washington wisdom holds that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is now the next guy in the queue, but this is like saying that the Rangers are next up to win the World Series because they managed to eke out one victory this year against the Giants.

Mr. Romney won a few heavily contested primaries and caucuses in 2008, but he accumulated fewer delegates than Mike Huckabee and lost out on the vice-presidential nomination to Ms. Palin. This hardly makes him a Reagan, or even a Dole.

And even if Mr. Romney or some other candidate were to emerge as the consensus choice of the establishment, this year’s Congressional primaries pretty much showed that the days of anointing are probably over. This isn’t so much a Republican phenomenon as it is the function of an evolving, Web-based society, where your average voter of a certain age isn’t inclined to let his employer or even his church, much less his political party, make his choices for him.

Without any odds-on favorite, then, Republican voters will spend most of next year sorting through some difficult and divisive questions about where the party is headed, in a way they haven’t really had to do in decades. How conservative can a nominee be, in the post-Bush era, and still be electable? Does the party choose an insider with Washington credentials, like a Senator John Thune of South Dakota, or an outsider like Ms. Palin, who trades governing gravitas for searing populism?

Most significant, perhaps, is the issue of whether Republicans will have to turn a generational corner in order to match up with President Obama. This, and not just regionalism and race, was the undercurrent in the controversy last week over Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who, in an interview with Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard, seemed to play down any racial tension in his hometown during the 1960s.

The comment, in its full context, wasn’t especially offensive. It just sounded oddly nostalgic for an America that feels, to a lot of us, as relevant now as the Whiskey Rebellion.

Do Republicans need a kindly granddad like Mr. Barbour — or even a stern headmaster type like Newt Gingrich — to reassure a jittery electorate who may fear we’ve lost our way? Or do they need to nominate someone who embodies the post-boomer ethos in the same that Mr. Obama does — maybe a governor like Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota or Mitch Daniels of Indiana?

In the prelude to 1996, against a weakened Bill Clinton, party leaders opted for insidery, mainstream and old. This time out, they won’t be the ones deciding.