Mitt Romney has gone from being the face of the Republican Party to being just another face in the crowd—at the gas station, at the pizza joint, and ringside at a boxing match. The party is looking for somebody new, and the tryouts are already well under way.
The Republican National Committee announced this week that it has put together a committee to investigate the lessons of 2012 and help chart a new course for the future. GOP stars like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Paul Ryan, and Sen. Marco Rubio appear to have already reached their own conclusions. As they and others come forward, we can see the rough outlines of a classification scheme of potential GOP party leaders begin to emerge. So far, we have the truth teller, the compassionate conservative, the coalition whisperer, and the doer.
Jindal was in Washington playing the role of the truth teller on Tuesday, and he hoped he would get noticed. “Maybe I should say some things that are not allowed to be said in public. Maybe I should say some things that folks think about but are afraid to say in polite company,” he told a Brookings Institution audience. “It is completely dishonest to pretend today that America provides equal opportunity in education. We do not. And if you say that we do, you are lying.”
Not too many people think there is equal opportunity in education—so “truth teller” is a more apt label—but by trying to be provocative on the question of education, Jindal was emphasizing an issue usually associated with Democratic politicians. George W. Bush used the education issue to distinguish himself from other Republicans before his own bid for the White House. Not that long ago when a Republican leader charged someone with being “completely dishonest,” you knew he was probably talking about President Obama. Now these party luminaries are discussing a wider set of issues. Ryan focused on poverty in his first speech since the election. Rubio, in his first big post-election speech, focused on economic mobility.
Individually these could be the idiosyncratic choices of three separate men, but taken together they are something far more intentional: a repudiation of Mitt Romney. These aspiring leaders are distancing themselves from the images Romney left us—the image of 47 percent of the American public addicted to government or voters choosing to vote for the president because of the “gifts” of government largesse he delivered. In their recent remarks, these three men are either speaking directly to the 47 percent or about ways to improve the lives of those who belong to it. This tack is both an effort to expand the party’s base beyond a shrinking group of Southern white male voters, as well as a deliberate message of inclusion to improve the party’s image with swing voters, particularly suburban women.