The party of the next guy has no next guy.
For more than two generations, the Republican presidential nominating process has had an immutable internal logic to it: The next guy in line gets the nomination. That’s how every Republican president of the post-Eisenhower era has won his party’s nomination and how just about every GOP presidential nominee since Thomas E. Dewey (1944 and 1948) got to the top of the ticket. It’s certainly how Barack Obama’s two opponents, Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney, were nominated.
But just as the Republican Party is going through one of its periodic struggles for identity — earlier such battles were fought in 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1980 and 1992 — the party finds itself without a “next guy.”
The only political figure with possible claims to the title is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee. But he is more interested in becoming chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and realizing his dream, perhaps as difficult to attain as winning a presidential nomination, of rewriting the federal tax code.
Mr. Ryan is by far the most highly regarded Republican in the House, which today is the only redoubt of the party’s power in the capital. He is more respected among, and works more effortlessly with, Republicans on Capitol Hill than he is in national circles. He’s keeping his options open, as so many political figures do at this stage of the election cycle, but knowledgeable Republicans do not consider him even a faint possibility as a presidential contender.
In ordinary times, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida might be considered the next guy up, but his prospects are complicated by the last guy up (twice removed), who was his brother, a two-term president who left the White House with low approval ratings and who remains a rhetorical punching bag not only for Democrats, who blame him for the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also for Republicans, who consider him a spendthrift too eager to bail out big companies.
The result is that there are no next guys — natural, plausible, believable Republican presidential candidates with a touch of the fairy dust of inevitability about them. There are, instead, a lot of natural, plausible, believable vice presidential candidates — a remarkable bench with no apparent leader.
That is the natural order of things in the Democratic Party, which has no tradition of political primogeniture and has selected nominees such as Jimmy Carter, who in 1975 was nobody’s idea of the next guy, or even as any guy. And the irony is that in this campaign where the Republicans have no next guy, the Democrats have one, proving that the term “next guy” is gender neutral. She is Hillary Rodham Clinton, and to make things even more bizarre, she was once a Goldwater Girl.
That is not to say that there are no Republicans maneuvering for advantage in a nomination race that is probably about three months from beginning in earnest. The three leading ones are senators: Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.
That alone is a departure from the Republican norm, which tends to favor governors (Alf Landon, Mr. Dewey, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush). That is natural for a business-oriented party that reveres competence in executive management and that, for a generation at least, has tried to devolve power away from the federal government to the states.
For that reason, the Republicans have tended to choose nominees with that sort of executive profile or with management experience in other spheres (Herbert Hoover and Wendell Willkie in business, Gen. Eisenhower in the military, George H.W. Bush in diplomacy and intelligence) and not political figures rooted in the Senate. Indeed, no Republican senator since Warren Harding has become president, and only three — Barry Goldwater, Robert J. Dole and Mr. McCain — have won the GOP nomination in modern times.
It is remarkable to note that, besides them, the only other senators to make plausible runs for president in the GOP since 1944 were Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Fred Thompson of Tennessee. None of them broke 6 percent in the New Hampshire primary except for Mr. Baker, who withdrew right after that primary in 1980. Republican senators just don’t ordinarily run for president, which is why the current crop of contenders is so unusual.
By the same token, hardly anyone can conceive of Messrs. Cruz, Paul or Rubio digging in for multi-term careers in the Senate, which each of them seems to consider a stepping stone to something else. It is, of course, always possible that one of them will emerge as a potential Senate majority leader or chairman of an important committee like Foreign Relations or Finance, but that is a stretch — kind of like imagining John F. Kennedy with gray hair standing at the majority leader’s desk calling for a quorum call in a half-empty Senate chamber.
Indeed, the members of this Republican presidential triumvirate are a matter of wonder and conjecture on Capitol Hill. They comprise a new wave, a different kind of Republican senator, and Republican congressional insiders don’t know quite what to make of them.
Meanwhile, there is a band of Republican governors, but all of them seem primed for brief presidential runs and then Cabinet positions if a Republican were to win the White House in 2016. Among them are Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mike Pence of Indiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is in a tight race for reelection and could always run again for governor in 2018. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey also are toying with presidential campaigns, but both are big personalities difficult to imagine in a Cabinet meeting.
No rule of politics is immutable — except one. Once Mr. Cruz or Mr. Pence or one of the others wins the nomination, stands before a national convention and, amid confetti and cheers, sets out to fight a general-election campaign, he or she becomes a giant, with the potential of winning the White House. It will happen again in 2016. It always does.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).