Ari Fleischer says the careers of the four GOP candidates were shaped in the pre-tea party era.
Edward M. Pio Roda/CNN
Ari Fleischer says the careers of the four GOP candidates were shaped in the pre-tea party era.

Story highlights

Ari Fleischer: The names that excite Republicans came to the fore after tea party

He says careers of Romney, Gingrich, Santorum predate crusade against spending

Fleischer says tea party is animated by fear of trillion-dollar deficits far into the future

He says GOP may be lukewarm about its choices, but it's time to unite behind a candidate

Editor’s Note: Ari Fleischer, a CNN contributor, was White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2003 and is the president of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications Inc. Follow him on Twitter: @AriFleischer

CNN —  

Marco Rubio. Chris Christie. Mitch Daniels. Paul Ryan. Say those names, and Republican hearts beat faster.

Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum. Newt Gingrich. Say those names, and Republicans faithfully and accurately say we can beat President Obama, but something feels missing, even as late in the primary season as Super Tuesday.

The fact of Republican life today is that the party was fundamentally transformed by the tea party movement in 2010. The party’s base is driven by a reform it now, anti-spending movement, while its presidential candidates served their terms in office prior to the tea party era, and their records don’t match up perfectly with the direction of the party.

The reason former Sen. Santorum supported earmarks in Congress is because when he served, virtually everyone supported earmarks.

The reason Gov. Romney passed Romneycare as governor of Massachusetts in 2006 was because many Republicans viewed health care reform, mandates and all, as a way to inoculate against Democratic charges that Republicans didn’t care about people who lacked health insurance. It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that the tea party burst on the scene in response to President Obama’s expensive and unworkable health care “reform” legislation.

Today, grass-roots Republicans want to drink a bottle of 2010 small-government wine, but our candidates were bottled in another era, before the tea party’s ideas took root.

Throughout American history, every era presents its own set of problems and answers, which over time yield to a new set of problems and answers.

The 2000s were marked by terrorism and a bipartisan desire to fight it. Deficits then were not the issue they are now. No one in either party objected to war in Afghanistan because it might cost too much or last too long. We were attacked, and our nation demanded a military response. No one objected to spending tens of billions of dollars to rebuild New York or the Pentagon. The war in Iraq began with significant bipartisan support. The 2001 tax cuts were passed with bipartisan support, especially in the Senate. Almost all elected officials wanted seniors to receive prescription drug coverage and the only difference between the parties was over how much it would cost. (Former President George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D plan was far less expensive than the one proposed by then-candidate Barack Obama. Neither Bush nor Obama suggested how to pay for it.)

The 1990s were marked by a boom that resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue pouring into the treasury. In an era of divided government, the nation enjoyed surpluses and tax cuts. The boom went bust in March 2000.

The 1980s were time for a military buildup and a fight against communism. The 1970s were highlighted by Vietnam and inflation, while the 1960s were known for the civil rights movement, the Great Society and dramatic social change.

In each of these eras, as some of the issues were addressed, the solutions created new problems for the next generation to deal with.

Flash-forward to the present. The tea party movement and its passion arose in response to trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see and out of a sense that Washington is in need of dire fiscal reform. In 2010, the public turned against Obama and the Democrats who ran Congress after a massive stimulus that didn’t work, and hundreds of billions of dollars were spent on cash for clunkers, homebuyer tax credits and multiple bailouts (by both Bush and Obama). A massively expensive new health care entitlement was the straw that broke the taxpayers’ back. Our debt is a record high $15 trillion.

This is the political and economic environment today.

Rubio, Christie, Daniels and Ryan represent the new vintage of Republicans whose focus is on fundamental reform of how government spends money, but those bottles remain on the shelf.

Republicans this cycle are thirsty for a taste of something new and different. That’s why Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and even the new Newt each had a chance to win, but their candidacies fell short. Reflecting the new direction of the party, the candidates who remain have put new labels on themselves, even if their contents aren’t pure as many in the party want them to be.

In November, however, voters will face a different choice.

The GOP choice might not be everything Republicans want this year, but the alternative that Obama is selling will leave our nation permanently intoxicated by big government, more spending and massive debt.

The time is near for Republicans to stop focusing on our differences and instead focus on winning.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ari Fleischer.