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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT