Those of you who read regularly know that for a year I have been putting forward the pseudo-conspiracy theory that the GOP tanked this presidential election. The nomination-by-default of John McCain, the failure to pony up money for the campaign, and the almost surreally-bad Palin choice combined to create the impression that the GOP was laughing its collective ass off and daring America to vote for them. But it the mediocrity wasn't limited to the general election.
McCain won the nomination largely because the other candidates were just terrible. Tell me, please, who their nominee would have been if McCain had quit in December when his campaign appeared DOA. Huckabee? Romney? Fred Thompson? Obama might have hit 425 EV against those dipshits. These candidates and others contributed to the GOP primaries' distinctly "B" Squad feel. It was as if all the top candidates said "No way, we'll wait for an election we can actually win" and let the scrubs spend their money getting shellacked.
This all made perfect sense to me until, in light of some of the premature but always entertaining 2012 talk, I thought about who sat this race out on the GOP side. No one did. There is no "A" Squad. There was no strong candidate who decided to bide his or her time rather than run on George W. Bush's coattails. The party didn't just lose the election badly, which is a common enough occurence in our political system. Rather the election was an exhibition of how utterly bare the cupboard is for the GOP. The gaggle of amateurish bozos that competed for the nomination and of whom McCain was clearly the superior choice were the best candidates the party had in 2008. It doesn't matter that they looked less like GOP candidates than satirical caricatures of Republicans – there were no reinforcements ready to join the fray when things got ugly.
In case the party thinks the worst is over, the short-term forecast looks even more bleak.
The GOP is currently a leaderless party. Who are their notables in the Senate? Mostly ancient war horses like Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, and Dick Lugar. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could barely win his seat this year and is wildly unpopular outside of Kentucky. The House offers no potential stars, with Minority Leader John Boehner being the most visible member. Any of the Cabinet figures associated with the Bush administration are, if not lepers, close to it.
Fortunately the best presidential candidates are always popular governors, right? Surely the GOP has plenty of good, youngish Govs waiting to take the next step. Well…..not really. First of all, if the party plans to go this route it failed to use this election to introduce the public to unknowns from these ranks (although perhaps this was the plan with Palin, and good luck with her in 2012). Second, there just aren't that many attractive candidates. Two – Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty and Indiana's Mitch Daniels – are probably the two best candidates the party could run in 2012. Both could appeal well to normal, non-psychotically-religious middle class Americans. Unfortunately, by "best candidates" I mean they would probably only lose by 75 or 100 EV.
No, the question of "Who's next?" does not have an easy answer for the GOP. Of course it doesn't need to be figured out four years in advance, but the traditional pool of candidates – Governors and Senators – does not appear to offer any strong, logical choices. If the new President doesn't completely, utterly blow things in his first term, the GOP isn't going to take down an incumbent Obama with Charlie Crist, Matt Blunt, or Mitch Daniels. If anything, whatever decent candidates do emerge and establish themselves as the "A" Squad will wait until 2016 unless Obama's first term is awful. Whether or not the party finds a decent leader in the next four years, we are likely to see the same parade of retreads, nobodies, and nutjobs we saw in 2008 – without a fallback option of McCain's caliber.
That's not a compliment.