Quick: what was the biggest story of the 2012 Republican National Convention?
It almost certainly wasn’t Mitt Romney’s nomination; after all, that was already a foregone conclusion. And although a person could be forgiven for thinking it was the Eastwooding of empty-chair Obama, the comedy bit that launched a thousand internet memes, in the long run the biggest story just may have been the ascendance of a new generation of conservative leaders who served notice that this is not your father’s Republican Party — or even your older brother’s.
As the 2012 presidential nominee, Romney is the de facto head of the party for now. But his mark was made primarily in private rather than public life, plus with a single term as governor of a state that seldom elects any Republicans except for the occasional moderate governor to clean up its fiscal act. Romney had long been regarded as being firmly in that moderate mold, perhaps even being the quintessential example. And he has also seemed more a pragmatic man than an ideological one.
But when he chose Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney signaled that he was reaching across the aisle — not the one that separates the two parties, but the one that has long divided the two wings of the Republican Party, the conservatives and what used to be known as “Rockefeller Republicans” (who are more or less synonymous with today’s “RINOs”).
But it wasn’t just Romney’s choice of Ryan that signaled the shift. This year’s convention went on to highlight a host of other young conservatives, many of them Tea Party favorites, demonstrating the unusual depth of the current Republican bench. This group of rookies doesn’t have all that much in common with most of its predecessors, except for party affiliation. It’s not just the obvious differences between new guard and old, such as the newcomers’ relative youth, the prevalence of women among them, and their ethnic diversity. They are also grounded in ideological conservatism, and are energetic, powerful, articulate, and bold — dare we say charismatic? — speakers.
There’s another curious trait many of these newer standouts share: a surprising percentage of them hail from blue or bluish states, including VP nominee Ryan. This marks a break from the profile of Republican nominees for the last two decades, who have had a strong tendency to come from red or reddish states.