Are GOP candidates floundering?

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Republican nomination fight is not helping the party's prospects
  • Marco Rubio may be the strongest candidate but he has obstacles to overcome, Zelizer says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, a New America fellow and author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)With 365 days to go, the Republican Party is in bad shape for the presidential election.

November 3 brought some good news for conservatives with the defeat of marijuana legalization in Ohio and Republican victories in state and local elections, such as Matt Bevin becoming governor of Kentucky. Some polls show that in head-to-head competition a number of Republicans would theoretically defeat Hillary Clinton (if the election were held now). Even so, GOP candidates face very substantial problems in the race for the White House.
Their natural front-runner, Jeb Bush, has fallen dramatically in terms of polls, organization and fundraising. All the other candidates -- regardless of the enthusiasm they have generated -- are seriously flawed in terms of a general election campaign.
    Donald Trump, the surprise story of summer 2015, has made a long list of controversial statements and has a history that would provide Democrats with ample fodder in the general election.
    Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina lack campaign and governing experience and have their own record of extremist statements that would prove harmful in a campaign to win in swing states.
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    John Kasich, the darling of the Washington media, has not been able to gain any electoral traction, while others, like Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee have struggled to gain the attention of voters or reporters.
    Ted Cruz might have done well in the last debate, but his long record of extremism and obstructionist tactics won't sit well with an electorate that is sick of gridlock.
    The best prospect for a new star is Sen. Marco Rubio, though he will have to survive coverage of his controversial finances and his ties to a former congressman being investigated for campaign finance violations.
    Rubio's lack of experience and youth, which is appealing for some, could be a problem given that it will be contrasted to Clinton's formidable political experience and command of policy.
    Friday's jobs report is also a reminder to Republicans that the recovering economy, with wages up and unemployment down, at the same time that the deficit is down, will make many voters less likely to switch horses in midstream.
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    Is there anything Republicans can do to strengthen their position? There are some aspects of this situation that Republicans won't be able to improve in the near future. Even with Rubio's popularity rising, it is unlikely the GOP will settle on a candidate until several rounds of caucuses and primaries.
    Trump has proven his campaign has serious legs, while Bush is trying to rehabilitate his. The contest will remain wide open and uncertain for some time.
    Even with this uncertainty, there are three important steps Republicans can take in the next few months that would strengthen their position for the election that is now only one year away.

    Drop the media war:

    The strategy of attacking the "liberal media" is not new. Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president, famously criticized the "nattering nabobs of negativism" when he launched an all-out assault on the press. In 2012, Newt Gingrich attacked CNN's John King, saying: "I think the destructive, vicious and negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern the country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office."
    The sniping of Republican candidates toward the press, most recently with Ben Carson's heated exchange with reporters raising questions about his past, might provide a few provocative sound bites, but all the complaining about being mistreated has made the candidates look weak and defensive.
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    Even Gregg Jarrett on Fox remarked, "They seem to resent challenging questions, which, to me is confounding. Do they then cross the line into just sort of sounding like fourth grade whiners?" These kinds of attacks also tend to goad reporters into being more aggressive with the candidates and their party, as has been the case in the past weeks. Republicans should drop this strategy altogether.

    Tame the House Republicans:

    The Republicans are facing a structural challenge in that the political needs of the House Republicans differ from those of the presidential candidates. For about 40 members of the GOP in the lower chambers, who represent very red districts, the best move to survive politically is stick to the right.
    Becoming more extreme and more obstructionist toward the White House only helps secure their long-term position. This is a problem because the Republican presidential candidates still need to appeal to a much broader portion of the electorate. Republican obstructionism in the House, which was on display with the turmoil over the speakership, has continued to undercut the national approval ratings of the GOP. If anyone thought Paul Ryan would be very different, they were given a taste of just how conservative he is when one of his first statements was to take immigration reform off the table and dismiss President Obama as untrustworthy.
    Although the recent budget deal diminishes the threat of a government shutdown or default, the problem remains. The congressional battles that will take place in the next few months over issues such as climate change and domestic spending will continue to raise the question of whether the Republicans are really capable of governing in a divided political system.
    If Ryan wants to help a member of his party reach the White House, he is going to have to impose some order on his conference and use his power as speaker to clamp down on the Freedom Caucus. At a minimum, he has to contain his own rhetoric while using the "education" sessions he employed as chairman of Ways and Means to persuade some of his rightward colleagues that some legislating will be necessary to boost the overall image of the Republican Party.

    Offer ideas, not just attacks:

    Thus far the presidential race has been remarkably thin when it comes to ideas. When he ran in 1980 for the presidency, Ronald Reagan famously understood that compelling ideas were essential to building a viable political coalition. For Reagan, anti-communism and a defense of free markets were the two pillars of his agenda. He used these ideas to bring together different factions in his party and to offer a clear and compelling alternative, at the time, to President Jimmy Carter.
    It is difficult to see what the equivalent set of ideas would be for the current crop of candidates. Much of the existing debate has revolved around sniping about Senate voting records and the physical appearance of fellow candidates. There have been a flurry of negative and polemical remarks about everything from the criminal records of illegal immigrants to the activities of Planned Parenthood. Most of the Republicans have spent a considerable amount of time attacking President Obama, but they have done less to define what new directions the Republican Party will take in the coming four years.
    None of this is a recipe for winning the presidency. As President Bill Clinton famously said, "If one candidate's trying to scare you, and the other one is trying to get you to think, if one candidate is appealing to your fears and the other one is appealing to your hopes — you better vote for the person who wants you to think and hope. That's the bet."
    Whether Republicans can repair some of the damage they have suffered remains unclear. Nor are Democrats out of the woods given the polls showing ongoing concerns about Hillary Clinton. But if Republicans don't start taking these steps, they will continue to struggle and leave Democrats with a relatively strong playing field in the fall of 2016.