The straw hadn’t even settled in Ames, Iowa when Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced he would be seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Yet even Perry’s entry wasn’t enough to stop the clamor for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to throw his hat into the ring. The Ryan buzz was then swiftly followed by another round of rumors about a Chris Christie bid.
What is it that keeps Republicans searching despite a field that by some measures ought to be full? Some of it is a sense that there is something lacking in the current group of contenders, whether it be gravitas or the intangible qualities of national leadership. Others fear that no one presently running can unite the conservatives they need to win the primaries with the swing voters who will decide the general election.
But the biggest void many Republicans hope Perry, Ryan or even Christie could fill is that of consensus conservative. There are many conservatives running for the Republican nomination right now. Most of them, however, appeal only to slices of the conservative movement.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are drawing heavily from social conservatives, though Bachmann has also worked to tap into the Tea Party’s fiscal conservatism. Ron Paul’s supporters view him as the gold standard of conservatism, but many hawkish Republicans consider his foreign policy views are worthless fiat currency. Mitt Romney attracts certain business-minded conservatives and establishment Republicans, while leaving activists cold.
The distinctions between the different groups can be overstated. Christian conservatives are among the strongest fiscal conservatives in the country. Some polls have shown Tea Party supporters tend to be quite conservative on social issues as well as economics. But it is clear there has been a search for a full-spectrum conservative, a quest that predates the 2012 presidential race.
Last time around, many hoped Virginia Sen. George Allen would be the consensus conservative. Allen lost reelection to the Senate in 2006, dashing any hopes for a top-tier 2008 presidential campaign. Romney tried to position himself as the “four-legged stool” conservative, but his Massachusetts record and rhetoric made this difficult. This produced a groundswell for Fred Thompson, who entered and then underwhelmed.
The problem goes back even further. Since the beginning of modern American conservatism during the Cold War, only two Republican candidates — Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — have united the movement. Apart from Goldwater and Reagan, conservatives have tended split their support among various candidates. The eventual Republican nominee is normally the establishment candidate who can win the most conservative votes.
Most campaigns for the Republican nomination follow the pattern of the 1988 race to succeed Reagan. George H.W. Bush was the Reagan-backed frontrunner, ensuring a critical mass of conservative support. There were candidates to his right, chiefly Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp, but they split conservatives into rival camps. Bush was also helped by the fact that another viable candidate, Bob Dole, appeared to be running to his left.
Bush won the nomination. Eight years later, Dole finally got the nod by following the same playbook. Many conservatives backed Dole while Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, and Steve Forbes split the vote to his right. Lamar Alexander ran vaguely to Dole’s left. Then in 2000, George W. Bush won plurality conservative support with Forbes, Alan Keyes, and lesser candidates running to his right and John McCain running to his left.
Will history repeat itself this time around? On his campaign website, Rick Perry bills himself as a “Reagan Republican.” He has no cap and trade, Romneycare or TARP bailouts in his background. Emphasizing American exceptionalism, Perry’s stated rationale for his campaign is vintage Reagan: getting Americans “to believe that America’s best days are ahead, that we are not consigned to a fate of high unemployment and rising prices, and that our place in the world can once again be secure with a policy of peace through strength.”
For his part, Paul Ryan appeals to economic, social, and national security conservatives while running on one of the party’s most ambitious conservative domestic initiatives since the Kemp-Roth tax cuts. Ryan is recasting supply-side economics for a country that is basically broke. His message nevertheless resonates with a broad cross-section of movement conservatives.
Chris Christie gives the impression that every day he is carrying out the domestic equivalent of Reagan firing the air traffic controllers. Before the bipartisan battles in Wisconsin, it was Christie who took the fight to the public sector unions. Christie showed that groups once thought to be untouchable — like teachers — could be confronted successfully.
Of the three, only Perry is running. Others have tried to play the role they are being asked to fill only to come up short. This much has clear: conservatives have been looking at the Republicans who want to lead them and have been left wanting more.