Mike Pence must feel pretty lonely these days.
At times it seems as though the Indiana governor is the only Republican politician in America not running for president of the United States.
By some counts, there already are 15 GOP candidates for the nation’s highest office. By others, there could be as many as 21 Republicans who, come Jan. 20, 2017, say they want to hear “Hail to the Chief” whenever they enter a room.
A field that large will create some interesting problems for Republicans. Just planning their debates will be a challenge.
Where, for example, will they find a stage and venue large enough to accommodate 21 – or even just 15 – candidates and lecterns? The Grand Canyon?
And, should the organizers not want the GOP presidential primary debates to run longer than the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethons used to, figuring out ways to include more than introductions, opening statements, closing statements and a final thank you will be difficult.
At one time, it appeared Pence might lead that crowded field.
The fact that he’s not running – and so many others are – says something not just about Pence’s political fortunes but also about the party of which he is a member.
One reason so many GOP hopefuls plan to joust for a shot at occupying the Oval Office is the seat is open in 2016 – meaning the Republican candidate won’t have to battle an incumbent in the general election. Incumbent presidents have huge advantages in terms of setting the agenda, dictating the campaign’s tempo, raising money and commanding the spotlight.
That’s why it’s been 24 years since an incumbent president lost a re-election bid.
The open seat might account for five or six GOP presidential candidates – but not 15 or 21. That there are so many Republicans who think they may be able to leverage devout support from a political base, however small that base might be, into control of the entire party shows how fragmented the GOP is right now.
The Republican Party is less an organized entity than it is a collection of loosely linked groups and grievances.
That’s not unusual. Many political coalitions, particularly those that have to overcome entrenched power, are united by their opposition to perceived injustices.
Such coalitions, though, are always vulnerable at the seams. The New Deal coalition that Franklin Roosevelt put together came apart when Republicans skillfully exploited the tensions between labor unions, upwardly mobile Americans who were leaving the working class behind and members of the various civil rights movements.
Ronald Reagan also put together an effective and long-lasting coalition. He brought together social conservatives (the religious right) and economic conservatives (the supply-siders). In doing so, he brought the curtain down on FDR’s New Deal and ushered in a new era in American politics.
But Reagan’s coalition always was an uneasy one. Even when he was president, social conservatives felt their purported partners, the economic conservatives, were given a lot of the items on their wish list – tax cuts, deregulation, even targeted bailouts – while the religious right just received pats on the head and words of consolation.
The social conservatives wanted rollbacks on abortion and support of other social policies they see as demanded by their faith. And, after 35 years of waiting for their turn to come, they have grown not just impatient, but furious.
It was in that context the fight over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana occurred. When much of the Hoosier business community came out in favor of same-sex marriage and in opposition to RFRA, social conservatives felt betrayed.
The RFRA doomed Pence’s chances of being president this time around – and even imperiled his chances of being re-elected governor – in part because he thought it was possible to hold the old Reagan coalition together.
But that’s a Humpty Dumpty fool’s errand.
It wasn’t just that Pence was less than adroit politically, though he was. The task was an impossible one.
Not even Reagan could be Reagan now.
And that’s why we have 15, 21 or even more Republicans running for president.