Skip to main content

GOP off to a bad start for 2016

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
April 8, 2013 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Two contenders for 2016: Sens. Rand Paul, left, and Marco Rubio speak at the CPAC convention last month.
Two contenders for 2016: Sens. Rand Paul, left, and Marco Rubio speak at the CPAC convention last month.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Democrats could pick 2008 also-ran Hillary Clinton for 2016
  • He says Republican front-runners seem unlikely to measure up
  • Despite losses, GOP could pick long shots such as Marco Rubio or Rand Paul, he says
  • Frum: One candidate who appeals across party lines is Chris Christie

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

Washington (CNN) -- Democrats acting like Republicans. Republicans acting like Democrats. The 2016 presidential contest is shaping up to be the political equivalent of gender-bending.

Democrats are coalescing early around a front-runner who certainly will be lavishly funded, Hillary Clinton. She's campaigning on the familiar GOP platform: "Next in line."

Meanwhile, a twice-beaten Republican Party finds itself doing as Democrats often did in the Reagan era, surveying a field of little-knowns and hoping for magic. The Republican field is led by two freshman senators: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, plus a member of the House and the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan.

David Frum
David Frum

Three things are immediately striking about the top of the Republican field:

1) It's not only Washington-based, but it's all congressionally based. There is no governor in the top three, no general, no former Cabinet secretary, nobody with any notable private-sector accomplishment.

2) It's light on accomplishment. Ryan has to date been the most productive of the top three, but none of his famous budgets have been passed into law. Paul can cite no legislative accomplishments at all, only a stunt filibuster against the entirely imaginary menace of drone strikes against American citizens on American soil. Rubio has taken a lead role in immigration reform but must make some tough decisions about whether his future is best secured by negotiating a deal or scuttling one. None of the three Republican front-runners has any administrative experience to speak of.

3) It's intensely doctrinaire. Ryan was the author of much of the Republican Party's post-2009 tea party program. Rubio has to date shown himself an undeviating follower of that program. Paul dissents from some aspects of that program but in the direction of even greater extremism.

Rubio: No special pathway to citizenship

A party rebuilding from back-to-back presidential defeats has to face the possibility that the problem may be bigger than its candidate, bigger than its campaign tactics. There are a couple of obvious ways to address that possibility:

The party might look for an outsider nominee, a candidate so attractive in his or her own right as to offset the party's own unpopularity. This is what Republicans did by nominating Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 after five consecutive defeats by New Deal Democrats.

Or the party might allow an insider some latitude to edge back toward the political center. This is what Democrats did in 1992 when they nominated a pro-death penalty, pro-welfare reform, pro-free trade governor of Arkansas after losses under the party-line liberals, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In 2016, however, Republicans as yet show no inclination to try either remedy. No independent superstar; no deviation from party line orthodoxy. The one Republican with the highest cross-partisan appeal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has been consigned to fourth place.

As the saying goes, the first step toward recovery is to acknowledge the problem.

The problem in 2012 -- as in 2008, as in the near-death experience of 2004, as in the popular vote loss of 2000, as in the loss of 1996, as in the loss of 1992 -- was the GOP's failure to offer an economic program relevant to the problems of middle-class Americans. The party's present three front-runners would not only repeat that failure, but double down on that failure.

The Republican Party desperately needs renewal, its early presidential front-runners are characterized by their rejection of change.

At a time when voters reject generic Republicanism, Republicans themselves are rallying to two of the most generic Republicans in the party -- and a third, Paul, who diverges from generic Republicanism only by offering voters even more of what they most dislike about today's GOP.

The party talks about learning from its mistakes. Thus far, the main thing the party seems to have learned from those mistakes is how to repeat them.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT