In the past, Republican presidential primaries have been fairly orderly, especially in contrast to the Democrats’. GOP nomination fights have frequently come down to the “insider” candidate versus the “outsider” candidate. Sometimes the insider choice was more conservative (see, for example, Bush vs. McCain in 2000); other times they were seen as more moderate (see McCain vs. Romney in 2008). This, however, has generally been the dynamic; it even applied in 2012, albeit with a rotating cast trying to claim the “outsider” mantle.
This cycle, however, would appear to be different. Indeed, the insider-outsider dynamic is much more applicable to the Democratic side, where the central question of the race is whether Hillary Clinton will face any credible opponents. For the GOP, there is no clear establishment choice; there is no definitive front runner. In years past, that mantle has often been carried by previous, unsuccessful candidates — as when John McCain and Mitt Romney both won the nomination on their second attempt.
This year, the few potential candidates who have run for president before don’t seem to have quite the same stature. While Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum both have a solid base of support, neither has the same broad appeal that McCain and Romney did. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry had such a disastrous campaign in 2012 that he’d prefer we all forget about it rather than run again on that basis.
Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, meanwhile, both have familial experience with national campaigns even though they haven’t run before themselves. For both, that experience will come with as many potential pitfalls as advantages. Other candidates, like Scott Walker, Chris Christie (don’t write him off yet) or Marco Rubio may yet emerge to lay claim to either label as well.
All of this adds up to a muddled field for the Republicans. Rather than just the “outsider” label rotating around, as in 2012, both labels might shift as the race evolves. With so many different options, this could lead to a lengthy and convoluted campaign. This campaign will be more than a clash of personalities; it may be a true turning point for the party as a whole.
The rise of the more libertarian wing of the GOP represents a potential ideological realignment that offers both opportunities and dangers. We have the opportunity to nominate a candidate who truly believes in small government and applies those principles consistently. Though this might seem like a given, all too often Republicans have nominated candidates who just want different, rather than smaller, government. We need a debate not just about what kinds of programs we ought to have, but a real discussion about the size, scope, and role of the government — at all levels.
This debate ought to be the central question of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. Instead of just arguing about who is best politically positioned as an opponent for Hillary Clinton, Republicans need to have a true discussion about ideas. The candidate who wins that debate in the primary will be the strongest in the general election regardless of whom the Democrats nominate.
Rather than try to stifle this discussion, Republicans should welcome it with open arms. Though this sort of debate might seem chaotic, if conducted properly it will strengthen our party and our eventual nominee, rather than harm him. This kind of discussion is normal and healthy for any political party. If, however, the GOP continues to stick its head in the sand and refuse to have this debate, we are only sowing the seeds of our own destruction as a viable national party.