international analysis and commentary

The ongoing rejuvenation of both American parties


After President George W. Bush left office, his reputation in tatters with the onset of the financial crisis and because of a series of political and national security blunders, the Republican Party fielded two outdated candidates, Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney, in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. It took a beating both times. But in the shadow of a crumbling old guard, the seeds of a new leadership were sown. The Tea Party was born, and though it brought along with it a number of improbable characters – from Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann to former Missouri Representative Todd Akin – it also breathed new life into a stale GOP. Young and ambitious conservatives of various stripes, for example Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, were suddenly given the space to emerge. Almost all of them now harbor pretty obvious presidential ambitions. Regardless of how far they will go individually, these and other up-and-coming Republicans will form the backbone of the party and will set the tone for the GOP legislative agenda for decades to come.   

What about the Democrats? Relegated to the opposition for most of the Bush era, the party of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Bill Clinton, but also of Al Gore and John Kerry, underwent a similar rejuvenation in the first few years of the new millennium, a process that led first and foremost to the political ascent of President Barack Obama. Today, however, having held the White House for the past five years and the Senate since January 2007 (they also controlled the House from 2007 to 2011), the Democrats look ahead to a more uncertain future than their Republican opponents. “The out-of-power party often faces the challenge of finding new leadership,” says Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website of political analysis and election predictions managed by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “With a Democratic president, it’s not as obvious that there are some Democrats waiting in the wings for the post-Obama era.”

Though plenty of promising Democratic politicians are making their way in the halls of Congress and in states across the country, the party has been slow at promoting its freshest faces because the usual suspects don’t seem to be ready to let go yet. With President Obama term-limited in 2016, the consensus is that at least one between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will be 69 years old then, and Vice President Joe Biden, who will be 74, will enter the race for the White House, immediately becoming the front-runner for the nomination and sucking the air out of the room. In the Senate and in the House, Democratic doyens like Harry Reid, who was born in 1939, and Nancy Pelosi, class of 1940, have worked wonders for the party in the last decade but it is not clear that they have groomed successors capable of filling their big shoes once they retire.

Some of the names of leaders-in-waiting in the Democratic camp are already well-known. “Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Mark Warner of Virginia have been mentioned as possible Democratic contenders should Clinton not run for the presidency in 2016,” says Skelley. Though they are viewed as emerging Democrats, only Gillibrand and Klobuchar are under 55 years of age.

Rather than Washington, then, one might look to the states for younger Democratic prospects – such as Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O’Malley of Maryland. Forty-four—year-old Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of the Vice President and an Iraq veteran, is also seen as holding great promise though he suffered a serious health scare last summer. According to experts, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and her Pennsylvania counterpart Kathleen Kane are two other young Democrats to keep an eye on going forward, though it is unlikely that they will debut on the national stage before 2018. The same is probably true for Eric Garcetti, recently elected Mayor of Los Angeles.

Naturally, with the 2014 midterm elections approaching, observers will be watching for any indication coming from the ballot box in November. And there is no lack of interesting races. In West Virginia, 46-year old Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is running for the Senate to keep her state in the blue column despite a marked tilt to the right in recent years. In Kentucky, 35-year old Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is taking on Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and polls have them tied in a neck-and-neck race. Already up for re-election in the House are 39-year old Texas Representative Joaquín Castro (whose twin brother Julian is the up-and-coming mayor of San Antonio), Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a 32-year-old combat veteran, and Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, the latest heir to the Kennedy dynasty, whose last name alone excites many people in Democratic circles. The party is also fielding a few challengers in 2014 that appear to have potential. “Two of them are strong female candidates who are daughters of well-known southern Democrats: Gwen Graham (daughter of former Florida Sen. Bob Graham), who is running for a House seat in Florida, and Michelle Nunn (daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn) who is running for the Senate in Georgia,” says Geoffrey Skelley. “Both of them would probably become more prominent members of their caucuses if they pulled off upsets in their respective races.”

Things are moving at the gubernatorial level as well. In South Carolina, State Senator Vincent Sheheen, age 42, hopes to unseat Republican incumbent Nikki Haley. And in Texas, State Senator Wendy Davis, who gained nation-wide fame this summer for holding an 11-hour filibuster against an anti-abortion bill, is mounting a strong campaign for governor in a state that has long been a Republican stronghold but which is now experiencing demographic changes, particularly because of immigration from Central and Latin America, that increasingly favor the Democrats.

In the end, there actually seems to be a plethora of rising Democrats hoping to take the helm of the party in the post-Obama era. The question is one of timing. Will enough of them come of age at the right time, when the old guard is ready to cede control? Or will the insistence of the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden on staying in the game despite their age burn their successors before they get the opportunity to lead? The new year will surely bring telling signs of how America’s political leadership is being transformed.