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.
The McCain-Palin ticket was a good example, hailing from Arizona and Alaska. Before that there were Bush and Cheney, from deep-red Texas and Wyoming. Still earlier was Bob Dole of Kansas (although his VP, Jack Kemp, was the exception, coming from blue New York), and before that George H.W. Bush of Texas and Dan Quayle of Indiana.
Contrast this with the current crop. Romney, who of course isn’t a member of the up-and-coming group but who is the nominee, is from Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the U.S. in terms of its voting record in presidential elections during the last two decades. In addition to Ryan, Scott Walker, another up-and-comer, also is from Wisconsin, a state that has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988. Chris Christie’s New Jersey is almost as blue as Massachusetts, Marco Rubio and Allan West’s Florida has a slight Democratic edge, and Susana Martinez’s New Mexico is bluish. Nikki Haley is an exception in being from a very red state, South Carolina, and Bobby Jindal (governor of Louisiana who was slated to appear at the convention but had to cancel because of the hurricane) is from a slightly red one.
Traditionally, conservatives have distrusted Republicans from blue states. The usual path to election for a blue-state Republican has been the RINO road. It seemed to make sense, too, for candidates to think that the way to appeal to the Democrats and independents necessary to win an election in a blue state would be to position oneself only somewhat to the right of the left.
Ronald Reagan, who came from a state that had been seesawing between Republican and Democratic governors at the time he was elected (his term was sandwiched between a Democrat father-and-son team, Pat and Jerry Brown), was unique in many ways. One important element of his specialness was that he presented himself as a conservative rather than a moderate, and yet was able to attract Democrats and moderates. Reagan appealed to voters in his state, and later very successfully at the national level, by being personally compelling while at the same time articulating his conservative beliefs in a clear and convincing manner. That combination was remarkably persuasive.
Reagan was not young when he achieved national prominence. But still, he had no immediate heirs. George H.W. Bush, his vice president, was personally and ideologically quite different. So it is not insignificant that the current crop of conservative leaders-in-the-making were children or young adults during the Reagan years. Unlike those who cut their political teeth before Reagan was president, they didn’t think moderation was necessary for success. They saw for themselves that it was possible to stick to conservative principles and yet remain a viable candidate in a state that was not fundamentally conservative, and then to succeed at the national level. In a metaphoric sense, they are Reagan’s children.
A conservative who has managed to get elected in a blue state or district has a distinct advantage over others who have followed the more traditional red-state route to Republican prominence. In a more Darwinian struggle for political existence, only the most charismatic, nimble, and appealing minds and personalities among conservatives would be able to win, swimming against such a strong tide without sinking. This background is exactly what a conservative would seem to need in order to prevail on the national level in a country that features slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans, as well as a growing number of independents.
Reagan’s children have grown up, and they are exciting to watch. Perhaps one of Romney’s greatest strengths as a candidate is to have sensed what an advantage it might be to give one of them the chance to show what he can do on a national stage as the vanguard of a revitalized conservatism.