Last month when I blogged about the Republican primaries, I was struck by the fact that no front-runner has emerged as the role of the safe, electable choice. Primaries frequently resolve into contests between an establishment choice who runs on electability and an outsider or dark horse who runs on ideological closeness to the party base or, to pick up the dating metaphor from my earlier post, the primary becomes a choice between the safe, reliable suitor your parents want you to marry and the exciting boyfriend or girlfriend with shakier prospects.
The Democratic primary was already falling into that classic pattern in September, with Hillary Clinton offering the respectable, electable choice and Bernie Sanders bringing the this-may-be-crazy be-still-my-heart romance. Over the last month, those roles have shaped up even more clearly. On the other hand, it was remarkable that the contest was all about the exciting, untrustworthy outsider candidate, Trump, but that neither Jeb Bush nor anyone else had managed to establish himself as the Mr. Reliable option. A month later, it's even more obvious that the Republicans don't have a leading "electable" candidate. In fact, the Mr.-Reliable types have only fallen further behind, and Jeb Bush is cutting his campaign budget while he tries to persuade his donors and the media that he isn't already cooked. Today, Hillary Clinton looks more like a safe and formidable general election candidate than ever, and the Republicans seem further away from producing a viable nominee than ever. What is going on over there?
Let me present three possible theories, none of which are completely mutually exclusive:
Theory Number One: GOP Voters Aren't Ready to Settle Down Yet
This argument is simple and has often been made, although it's beginning to get a little frayed. Under this theory the Republican voters will eventually settle down and back an electable candidate once they have sown their wild oats with more ideologically exciting candidates.
This is a pretty good description of what happened in 2012, as Republican primary voters had a series of one-or-two-week whirls with dark horses before settling down and accepting safe, boring Mitt Romney's proposal. One perspective on 2012 claims that most Republican voters knew it would be Romney sooner or later, but wanted to have some fun while they were still single. Under this theory, the problem with the Jeb Bush campaign is that it's too early for the primary voters to settle down with Jeb Bush just yet.
This may still happen in 2016. The best case for this argument is that the real elections haven't started yet, which means the effect of campaign organizations haven't come to bear. There is plenty of room for a well-funded, well-organized candidate to make up a lot of ground once the primaries start, partly through advertising but more importantly through a strong ground game.
Donald Trump has very little campaign organization. Ben Carson apparently has almost no campaign organization at all. Getting little old ladies rides to polling places is not those candidates' thing. They aren't going to do a great job getting out the vote in the early primary and caucus states, but some of their more traditional opponents will. And once we're past the first few states, the rest of the primaries and caucuses will start coming much too fast to build effective campaign organizations if you haven't already done it. There is a scenario where a Trump or Carson comes out of the first two or three contests with a real but shaky lead but then loses Waterloo on Super Tuesday, just because he hasn't planned to run real campaigns in that many states at once.
The argument against this theory is that none of the "safe" or "electable" Republicans is anywhere close to the standing in the polls that Mitt Romney had four years ago. Jeb Bush isn't even polling at 10%. For the voters to settle down with a Mr. Reliable, they need an identifiable candidate to settle down with. Maybe the Republican voters will get one last fling out of their systems and settle down, but with whom?
Theory Number Two: The Establishment and the Base Have Parted Ways
This is the scarier option, whereby the Republican Party has fractured so badly that the establishment can no longer influence the party electorate's choices. The falcon cannot hear the falconer, and some rough beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Bethlehem to accept the nomination.
Under this theory, the problem is that more than half the primary voters aren't looking for someone electable at all (or that they are so ideological that they cannot reliably gauge electability, because they can't imagine the median voter's perspective). It could be that 2012 led a large number of Republican voters to conclude that settling for a Mitt Romney doesn't work. The voters don't want to settle down. The voters want what they want.
The best argument for this position is the current polls, in which three candidates who have never won a single election between them are garnering more than half the party's support. The party isn't just flirting with exciting dates before settling down. It isn't even choosing between an exciting but irresponsible boyfriend and a dull but reliable fiancee. It's choosing between two irresponsible boyfriends. They're not asking "Trump or Bush?", "Rubio or Carson?", "Romney or Herman Cain?" They are actually asking "Trump or Carson?" That's not choosing between a banker and a street musician. That's choosing between a street musician and a rodeo clown.
The second-best argument for this theory is that the GOP establishment and its media allies have encouraged it. They have spent seven years pushing unrealistic goals on their party base, goals that amount to undoing earlier irrevocable losses. Republicans, including some who knew better and some who apparently didn't, have campaigned on repealing Obamacare, long after it was clear that it would never be repealed. They have appealed to a base that wants Obama impeached, a base where some people fantasize that Obama could somehow have his election invalidated. The rhetoric has not focused on getting past Obama, but on making it as if Obama never happened. And that cannot be done. But the establishment has spent years motivating the base with impossible goals. They can't complain that the base isn't willing to be realistic about what's possible now.
The third argument for this theory is the disarray among the House Republicans, where some members view almost any attempt at pragmatism or realistic governance as treason. That really does suggest a party that's coming unglued. But if that carries over into the nominating process, we should expect maximal upheaval and chaos, because the figures who've been pushed to the front of the primary field are unusually capricious and unstable, prone to strange reversals and vulnerable to self-inflicted meltdowns. Settling down with one of these guys means never settling down. That relationship will be nothing but drama.
Theory Number Three: The Reliable Options Are Unreliable
Sometimes, your parents pick someone for you and they are simply wrong. The person they think will have a bright future is actually going to struggle just to make a living. That nice budding dentist isn't going to get into dental school; the boy who's in line to take over his uncle's dry-cleaning business turns out to be hopeless as a businessman and will end up driving the supply truck. You would be better off marrying your flaky art-major boyfriend who eventually becomes a well-paid product designer.
Under this theory, the party establishment has chosen "Establishment" candidates who are so badly flawed that they don't bring any of the usual benefits "Establishment" candidates have. The so-called "electable" candidates are not electable.
Mitt Romney, who dropped out before the primaries began, is too badly damaged by his last try to be viable this time around. (Certainly, you can't promise the base that Romney will win for them if they give up the guy they really want.) Chris Christie, obnoxious but moderate governor of a blue state, is mired in a scandal that will keep drip-drip-dripping all through the general election, with an outside chance that Christie himself will be indicted. Worse yet, Christie is mired in a scandal that voters understand. It's not some technical thing about which e-mail address he used for what. It's a politician closing a bridge and creating a nasty traffic jam in order to punish some other politician. Everyone can get their heads around that one. And then there's Jeb Bush.
Under this theory, the problem with the Jeb Bush campaign is Jeb Bush. There is no way for Jeb Bush to run without the baggage of George W. Bush. How could there be? And that leaves Jeb(!) with at least three problems: Iraq, the financial crisis, and Katrina. Heckuva job, GOP.
In fact, the idea that any of the smart money has ever been on Jeb Bush for 2016 shows you just how smart that money is not. The idea that even a section of the party establishment wants to get behind another Bush Restoration is evidence that at least part of the establishment's judgment is impaired. Making Bush the nominee demands that the voters get into some hard-core revisionist denial about how the Bush years went, and once we go there the other, flagrantly unelectable candidates are much, much better at that kind of reality distortion. I mean, if you're going to be insane, why not just go with the full-on crazy? This leaves Jeb Bush boring but also unelectable: both a loser and a nerd, with no future AND no motorcycle.
In this theory, it's not that the base has gone crazy and the the establishment can't talk them back into reality. It's that the Republican establishment is crazy too. The base may be louder and less polite with its crazy, but the genteel madness of the establishment runs every bit as deep. The base may not be choosing the unelectable candidates over the electable ones. They may just be in touch with a basic reality the party establishment is too crazy to see: ALL of these people are unelectable in the general, and the primary voters are simply choosing the hopeless case they like best. If there's no one on the horizon you could settle down with, you should at least go with the one who's the most fun right now.
cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog