THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, no matter how retrograde its ideas, has long outshone Democrats in its ability to attract galvanizing up-and-comers. Eric Cantor’s startling fall is just the latest instance of a conservative “star” self-destructing, but one that underscores the Party’s uncanny ability to spot and exploit a long string of controversial media darlings: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan . . . the length of the list is downright alarming.
Cantor, though departing the House under a cloud, had become a nationally known leader at an impressively young age. Figures like Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul have few Democratic counterparts. Rising Democrats like Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren have yet to be given leading roles that would signal their stature within their party, and Warren, a latecomer to politics, is only now beginning to hit her stride. Only the GOP has a cadre of young iconoclastic lieutenants with big responsibilities and long resumes.
The GOP’s leadership advantage derives not just from personality but from the very ideological conflict that has threatened to weaken it as a party. In the last presidential election, outsized but deeply flawed figures like Palin or Herman Cain held our attention because they stood for something, because they were staking their claim to the soul of their party, and because something dramatically different was going to happen if they gained enough popularity. Even as we despised them, they contributed paradoxically to the political system’s health, energizing the opposition and re-establishing the voting public’s unwillingness to tolerate meanness, character flaws, or dangerous ideas.
Only when President Obama leaves office will it be clear how decrepit the Democratic Party has become. His youth and charisma have tended to compensate for the Democrats’ bland leadership and ideology, concealing how staid and, well, conservative, its major figures are. Figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden are wonderful public servants, but they can hardly be said to represent a vanguard.
Disarray in the Republican Party has given the Democrats an opportunity to dominate and prevail. Instead, the Democratic Party is languishing. Democratic leaders have grown unaccustomed to risk-taking, and they have lacked the energy required to consolidate their power in the states, win back the South, or expand the breadth and fervor of their support among voters nationally. Meanwhile, their inability to cultivate young talent leaves them poorly positioned to weather the generational change at hand.