The GOP’s leadership crisis extends beyond Congress. In recent cycles, Republican presidential primaries have been relatively orderly affairs where the party establishment rallies around a frontrunner—often the person who came in second the last time (Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney)—who holds off right-wing challengers on his way to the nomination. This year, however, that kind of elite control looks unlikely. Chris Christie, the first choice of many GOP leaders, is so wounded that even if he runs, he will not be the frontrunner. Some donors are rallying behind Jeb Bush. If he does not run, they may turn to Marco Rubio. But the road to the GOP nomination runs through Iowa and South Carolina, whose Republican activists resemble the anti-establishment, talk-radio-powered folks who knocked off Cantor. If those activists helped defeat Cantor merely for supporting citizenship for undocumented immigrant children, think how they’ll react to Bush or Rubio, who support a path to citizenship for their parents as well.
In the Democratic Party, by contrast—which has enjoyed a reputation for organizational anarchy since the days of Will Rogers—party hierarchies are clear and largely unchallenged. A February Pew poll found that Democrats were more than 20 points more likely than Republicans to say their party’s leaders stand up for party principles. And the consequences are plain to see.
There is no talk of a revolt against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, even though she has failed to wrest back the House, or of a coup against Majority Leader Harry Reid, even though Democrats may soon lose the Senate. And elected Democrats—unlike Republicans—don’t worry about primary challenges from ideological zealots. In New York, the bluest of blue states, progressives couldn’t even mount a token challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has made the one percent his political base.
In contrast to the GOP’s problems in fielding a strong establishment candidate, 90 percent of Democrats approve of their party’s heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, who looks headed towards a coronation in 2016. To a remarkable degree, the parties have switched roles.
Partly, it’s because Democrats hold the White House. Unity is always easier when your party has one undisputed leader. But that’s not the whole story. In 1980, a Democrat occupied the Oval Office, and the party still faced a leadership crisis when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter. The Republicans faced one in 1992, when Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush.
The bigger reason the parties have switched cultures has to do with their perception of the future. Grassroots Democrats certainly get frustrated with their leaders, who they consider too cautious and too beholden to Wall Street. And were an unusually compelling candidate like Elizabeth Warren to run, many would rally behind her against the Clintonite establishment. But these anti-authoritarian impulses are held in check by a greater optimism about the direction of the country. Over the last few years, a younger, more tolerant, Democratic-leaning generation has helped elect the country’s first African-American president, helped make gay marriage mainstream and may soon help elect America’s first female president. As a result, although Democrats may be upset that Obama can’t pass immigration reform, they’re inclined to believe that because of demographic change, another Democratic president will soon get another chance.