This should have been Chris Christie's moment.
With the GOP leadership in Washington engaged in open warfare with its conservative base, the New Jersey governor was seen as one of the few emerging national candidates with enough crossover appeal to play the peacemaker in the party. And in fact, before "Bridgegate," Christie had been primed to launch his 2016 campaign in the opening months of 2014. Now he's politically damaged, perhaps fatally, and many other leading contenders may be too compromised by their stands on the party leadership's surrender over the shutdown and debt-ceiling issues.
Republican Party strategists say it's an open question whether anyone else will emerge with the national stature and appeal to make the peace in an outright civil war that is likely to play out through the rest of the year—and very probably into the 2016 presidential campaign. Even Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee and erstwhile conservative darling who was one of the 199 GOP House votes against the debt-ceiling increase Tuesday (standing against Speaker John Boehner and his House leadership), remains somewhat tainted by his sweetheart deal with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray ending the government shutdown late last year. "I think it's going to be open warfare through 2016," says Matthew Latimer, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and senior staffer for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Scottie Nell Hughes, news director for the Tea Party News Network in Nashville, Tenn., says the GOP may be fated for a replay of 2012—where candidates vying for conservative support tear each other down in the presidential primaries and the party is left with a tepidly moderate nominee—"until we see some leadership step up and say, this is how we need to act." Hughes says the party establishment recently followed a predictable pattern by floating Jeb Bush's name for 2016 within days of Christie's near-downfall, as the latter was walloped by a scandal over whether his administration engaged in political retribution by deliberately causing traffic problems on the George Washington Bridge. But Hughes believes there are still conservative saviors out there, among them Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another former conservative favorite who appeared to fall from grace last year because of his willingness to compromise on immigration.
Still, Hughes notes that even she is "getting beaten up" by her tea-party colleagues for daring to say so.
Some strategists who are more aligned with the establishment wing of the party, like former GOP congressman Vin Weber, say the best hope for a national unifier may well lie with popular Republican governors such as Mike Pence of Indiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio who have stayed largely out of the intra-party battle in Washington. The latter two, however, still have to win reelection at home this year. "You can't be the peacemaker, if you will, and have been totally on one side of the fight," Weber says. "There's no perfect person. Almost by definition, he or she is going to have scars. I think there's a need for us to be able to talk to each other."
Most Republican analysts say the party has a bounty of talent, and some of those with an eye on 2016, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, may still find a way to appeal to the conservative base while wooing the GOP center.
Right now, however, there's no truce in sight. Weber maintains that the party is in better shape than in the last election cycles because "the number of really destructive primaries around the county is smaller." But neither he nor other leading GOP strategists believe the tea-party/conservative insurgency is anywhere close to petering out. Indeed, in some primary races like Sen. Lindsey Graham's reelection bid in South Carolina, no fewer than four tea-party-aligned candidates are trying unseat him.
Despite the ongoing investigations into his administration, Christie can't be counted out. Yet even Christie in the best case faced an uphill struggle to win over conservatives suspicious of his stand on fiscal and social issues. With almost two years still to go before the next presidential election, it is impossible to say what new conservative leaders with national potential will emerge—for example, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who by being both a Latina and a woman could neutralize a lot of Hillary Clinton's appeal. But many GOP strategists agree that such a national unifying figure is sadly lacking today. Rick Tyler, a former aide to Newt Gingrich, says there hasn't been anyone of that stature since Gingrich himself became House speaker in 1994. "What's needed is someone who can figure out how to put the coalition together, how to get evangelical conservatives and the pro-growth conservatives together, how to attract African-Americans and Latinos."
Tyler, however, laments that the Democrats "have the potential to pull together a powerful coalition too." And other GOP strategists say it's very possible, and probably likely, that the Republican civil war will still be raging in 2016, with no Appomattox on the horizon.