WASHINGTON — 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 last 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, R-Wis., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., 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 Barack 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 Romney. These aspiring leaders are distancing themselves from the images Romney left us — the image of 47 per cent 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 per cent 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.
It was Jindal who reacted most forcefully to Romney’s remarks about "gifts" after the election:
"I think that’s absolutely wrong... we have got to stop dividing the American voters... we need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American dream, which is to be in the middle class, which is to be able to give their children an opportunity to be able to get a great education... So, I absolutely reject that notion, that description. I think that’s absolutely wrong."
During the presidential campaign, it seemed that Romney was always struggling to find a way to make a mark for himself. It turns out this was wrong. Romney did make a mark — and his potential successors are running away from it fast.
Last week Ryan played the role of the compassionate conservative as he delivered the keynote speech at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner. Perhaps, given the venue, Ryan should be labeled a "bleeding-heart conservative." That’s what Kemp liked to call himself. He was the most prominent modern conservative to relentlessly champion conservative ideas as a way to help the poor.
Ryan spoke at length about poverty. Though he was trying to fashion himself in the Kemp mold, as a vice-presidential candidate, he was never much like Kemp. In 1996, as Bob Dole’s running mate, Kemp visited Watts and Harlem and spoke relentlessly about those on the lower end of the economic ladder. Ryan didn’t show the same emphasis — nor is Ryan taking a leadership role on these issues in the current fight with Democrats over budget priorities. It might be hard to do that during the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, but that highlights a serious limitation for Ryan — he’s a member of Congress. His perch doesn’t let him do much besides deliver speeches.
Rubio is something more rare — the coalition whisperer. Party strategists are hoping he will be the man who helps Republicans improve their relationship with Hispanic voters. Unlike Ryan, who must operate in the balky political system, Rubio has public gifts of the kind on display at that same Kemp dinner. He told the crowd that night of being presented with a badge from the hotel’s catering department that read, "Rubio, Banquet Bartender," in honour of his father. "It all starts with our people," Rubio continued. "In the kitchens of our hotels. In the landscaping crews that work in our neighbourhoods. In the late-night janitorial shifts that clean our offices. There you will find the dreams America was built on. There you will find the promise of tomorrow." No other national Republican figure can speak like that.
Some fortunate GOP rising stars get to play more than one role. Jindal was speaking to the crowd at the Brookings Institution because he is the governor of a state whose education system was being praised for its successful experiments with school choice. Besides trying to fashion himself as a truth teller, Jindal can also claim to be a "doer" who can point to actual accomplishments.
This is also true of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been heralding his recent agreement with the Newark teachers union. Last week, Christie visited the White House and helped win more emergency aid for those hit by Hurricane Sandy. In the intra-party competition to shape the GOP’s future, Christie and Jindal will have an advantage by virtue of being governors who can point to their achievements, whereas Ryan and Rubio are members of Congress, an institution where achievement goes to die. That is, as long as Christie and Jindal don’t run from their accomplishments as governors as Romney did. That’s another lesson they’ve undoubtedly learned.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.