It is somehow fitting that Republicans are holding this year's convention in Tampa, the city where the Chicago Cubs held their first spring training way back in 1913. Like the annual warm-ups, when minor leaguers vie for scarce and coveted spots in "the big show," speakers addressing the assembled delegates are competing to become major players in the next generation of the Republican Party.
But while baseball teams take years to turn over as veterans retire and rookies take their places, the metamorphosis of the Republican Party is happening almost before our eyes. The real attractions aren't party leaders John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Mitt Romney (ages 62, 70, and 65, respectively). They are rising stars like Marco Rubio (age 41), Ted Cruz (41), and most notably, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (42).
In every Republican power center, the younger generation is already exerting its influence on the party's agenda, while putting the old guard under pressure. The younger generation wants to represent a clean break with the last Republican administration, which ended so badly it cost the party their House and Senate majorities.
"Look at the experience we had after the Contract With America and how we lost our way, frankly. We had good reforms coming through for a few years, and particularly in the early years of the Bush administration, 43, we lost that healthy tension between the executive and the legislature," said Keith Rothfus, a top Republican recruit running against Pennsylvania's Democratic Rep. Mark Critz. "I think partly it was the wartime thing, and unfortunately the Republican Party lost its way. I think what you're seeing is revival and renewal."
The rookies, in other words, are threatening to take the veterans' jobs. And the Romney-Ryan ticket, and the convention at which the two are being formally nominated, are evidence.
Republican activists have never been thrilled with Romney. Despite his massive financial lead, they auditioned virtually every other significant candidate during the GOP primary, vaulting Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann into the top tier over the course of 2011 before deciding each was an unsuitable alternative. They eventually settled on — or for — Romney as the only viable challenger to an incumbent. Even today, polling shows the majority of Romney's voters are casting ballots against President Obama rather than for Romney.
Those activists see Romney as a bridge between two generations of Republican leaders. He is certainly of the old school, the business wing of the party; he is certainly not a transformational figure in the mold of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan. Instead, he is more in the mold of George H.W. Bush, an establishment figure who stands in as the party searches for another Reagan.
Ryan, on the other hand, fired up the activist base precisely because he is of that next generation, and because he has the potential to radically transform a "Party of No" into a party of serious policy.
The presidential ticket is far from the only venue in which a younger generation is moving into position to supersede an older one. The same thing is happening in the House, where Ryan, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and whip Kevin McCarthy, along with 89 freshmen and a growing conservative contingent, have been asserting their agenda. Boehner, the House speaker, has bent over backward to accomodate the sometimes rowdy freshmen, even when it has cost him the possibility of working out deals on major legislation with the White House.
A similar dynamic is unfolding in the Senate, where McConnell, the minority leader, has increasingly had to deal with a contingent on his right flank. That group began with Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, and grew when Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Ron Johnson won election in 2010. The cantankerous caucus should grow again next year, if Cruz takes his seat in the Senate as expected. Other conservative hard-liners like Indiana's Richard Mourdock and Arizona's Jeff Flake could swell the ranks even further.
As the younger conservative caucuses grow in number and influence, the tipping point at which the older generation loses what remains of its grip on the party creeps closer. The convention in Tampa hints that the next time Republicans gather to pick a presidential nominee, the torch will have been passed.