Born in Alberta, reared in Texas, educated in the Ivy League classrooms of Princeton and Harvard, Ted Cruz formally opened the 2016 presidential election last month. On Tuesday, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul joined the campaign. Next week, Marco Rubio, born, educated and elected to the Senate in Florida, joins the Republican nomination struggle. Many more Republicans will follow. And as the campaign comes into focus, so too do the challenges facing the Republican Party.
The party, to be sure, has many advantages going into the presidential election. The surfeit of candidates on the Republican side speaks to the intellectual ferment in the party – and to the deep well of talent the contemporary GOP possesses. Those letters stand for Grand Old Party and for much of the 140 years that the party has stood behind those letters, it has been full of grand but older, experienced political figures. The new GOP is full of young but untested figures.
The very untested nature of those candidates – Mr. Rubio, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul all have less than a term in the Senate – might seem to be a disadvantage. Indeed, ordinarily these three would be considered presumptuous, but the man who occupies the White House at this very moment ascended to the presidency in his first term in the Senate, and in fact with less time in the chamber than any of the three Republican contenders.
So while the inexperience of the Republican candidates may be blunted as an issue – unless you argue that it was Barack Obama's inexperience that led him to such a bland presidency and to tepid approval ratings – there remain many challenges for the Republicans. Here are the leading ones:
The size of the Republican field
Americans may be impatient with the Obama administration, and with the entire Democratic Party, but right now the multitude of candidates on the Republican side deprives the party of the clear focus it needs as it prepares for 2016.
In this regard, the party's advantage – so many smart newcomers plus veterans such as former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas, and Governors Scott Walker of Indiana, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio and Mike Pence of Indiana – may turn out to be a disadvantage. The Republican race could swiftly disintegrate into an impenetrable fog, with no clearly discernible figures on the landscape. The longer that persists, the worse it is for the Republicans, which brings us to this next point.
The pace of the Republican campaign
Right now, just about every top Republican leader hopes the GOP campaign will be swift and decisive, the better to prepare the party for the general election to follow and to avoid a lengthy, costly and destructive nomination fight. So dedicated to this goal is the Republican Party that it has taken two important steps to assure a quick resolution.
First of all, it has scheduled its nominating convention for July 18 to 21, 2016, far earlier than its last convention (Aug. 27 to 30, 2012). And, second, it has altered the structure of the nominating fight so as to encourage a quicker finish and a clear nominee.
The party abandoned a set of 2012 rules specifically designed to lengthen the process and substituted for them new winner-take-all rules for all primaries March 15 and later. That will allow strong candidates to accumulate huge piles of delegates that – unless the law of unintended consequences is put into play – will lead to a clear winner. But how this will work if a dozen – or a half-dozen, or even four – candidates survive to March 15 anyone's guess, but it might be chaos.
The social issues
Since 1980, Republican candidates have played to the so-called "social issues" – support for family values, opposition to abortion and gay marriage. That calculus has changed, and the evidence is in Indianapolis and Little Rock.
Those two cities – the capitals of Indiana and Arkansas, respectively, neither exactly a hotbed of liberalism – have been roiled in recent days by controversies over Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, with reliably conservative Republican governors finding themselves calling for the state measures to be amended to preclude discrimination against gays. This is an important marker in the gay-rights movement, but it is also an important marker in the history of the Republican Party, which may not even include any reference to same-sex marriage in its 2016 platform.
The Obamacare trap
Nearly 70 times the Republican-controlled House has voted to "repeal" Obamacare, the national health overhaul that was passed in President Obama's first year. It has never been passed in the Senate, and in any case would be vetoed by the President with no fear that his opponents have sufficient support in Congress to overrule him.
The great lesson of Obamacare – and the caution for any Republican candidate, such as Mr. Cruz, who wants to campaign on the issue – actually comes from Saskatchewan's pioneering fight for government health insurance in the 1960s.
Just before the measure was passed in Regina, Premier Tommy Douglas predicted the outcome of the struggle. He said that once patients had this insurance, no political party would "dare" – his word, and an apt one – take it away. That was the case in Saskatchewan a half-century ago and may well be the case in the United States in the second decade of the 21st century. And as a result a campaign based on opposition to Obamacare may be making a dangerous bet.