Home/Daniel Larison/Why the Out-Party’s “Bench” Always Seems Stronger Than It Is

Why the Out-Party’s “Bench” Always Seems Stronger Than It Is

Jonathan Martin writes about a “looming GOP civil war” regardless of the election’s outcome, and says this at one point:

A cadre of young and diverse Republican officials took the stage to speak before Romney. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte each made the case for their nominee and offered a reminder of the strength of the GOP’s bench [bold mine-DL].

The assumption that he GOP has a very strong “bench” of rising talent is a widely shared one, and it’s one that Republicans and movement conservatives are happy to promote, but I’m not sure that it’s correct. There needs to be a distinction made between the number of Republican politicians that conservative media builds up as possible national candidates on the one hand and the number of Republican politicians that could be plausible national candidates on the other. The first number is probably four or five times larger than the second.

The Republicans do have a lot of new office-holders in the classes of 2009 and 2010, and some of them could be plausible national contenders in a few years. However, there are very few that will be prepared to compete for the presidential nomination, which is mostly what we’re talking about when discussing the strength of a party’s “bench” of political talent. As I’ve said before, the depth of the Republican “bench” has been routinely exaggerated by several things. First, movement conservative activists and conservative media outlets are constantly engaged in the process of building up and promoting new Republican politicians. Activists adopt certain politicians, cheer them on, and help make them into rising stars within the party, and other media outlets pick up on this phenomenon and start speculating about their potential for higher office. The dearth of viable Republican candidates in the 2008 and 2012 presidential fields ought to demonstrate just how weak the Republican bench actually is, but instead it makes the politicians still sitting on the “bench” look much more capable and competitive than they are.

Equally important is the relatively low standard in the GOP for what it takes for be considered a potential national candidate these days. A Republican politician can be in office for all of a few months, he can have no accomplishments to his name, and he will nonetheless become the subject of speculation about his prospects as a vice presidential or presidential candidate. This speculation will often begin by the end of his first or second year in office. As we’ve seen in the case of Marco Rubio, it can begin as soon as he is sworn in. Longer-serving politicians that have been unable to get any major legislation passed will be feted as “leaders” in their party because they happen to say the right things. When that is what it takes to become a “leader,” it shouldn’t be a surprise if the party seems to be filled with them.

Other Republican politicians can be completely unremarkable, but somehow their names will be circulated by conservative pundits as possible presidential candidates for no apparent reason. When even John Thune can regularly make the list of possible presidential candidates, the party’s “bench” is bound to appear extremely deep because the standards are so watered down that anyone can qualify. Of course, activists and pundits frequently use presidential speculation as a way to express approval or disapproval of politicians in their party, and they are often just using the politicians as proxies for arguments they’re having with other people in the party. For some reason, this speculation often becomes the basis for serious consideration of presidential campaigns and can even lead to the launching of ill-fated presidential campaigns. There is no other good way to account for the existence of the Rick Perry campaign.

Finally, the Republican “bench” appears strong now because the GOP hasn’t controlled the White House in four years. When either party controls the Presidency, a lot of that party’s political talent gets pulled into working in the administration, and the rest are overshadowed by the sitting President. The latter can’t emerge as major leaders in the party because the incumbent remains the center of attention, and they usually have to defer to him. If an administration suffers political setbacks or becomes extremely unpopular, that tends to thin out the ranks of the party’s rising talent in Congress and at the state level, and it can discourage some from seeking re-election all together.

Once a party loses control of the White House, it benefits from the same process that hurt it while it was in power, but that means that a lot of the new politicians that won election under very favorable circumstances are not as competitive or viable as they first appeared to be. This is why there appears to be a profusion of Republican political talent at the moment, and if Romney loses it will probably appear to increase, but most of that talent has been and will continued be overrated. Come 2016, we will find that the party’s “bench” isn’t nearly as deep or strong as it seemed.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles