Last weekend, I joked that Jeb Bush achieved half his goal of “losing the primary” to “win the general” election. Actually, what he said is that the Republican Party needs to nominate someone who can “lose the primary to win the general election without violating [his] principles.” At face value this statement is just plain silly because, as Jeb acknowledged by suspending his campaign, when you lose the primary you don’t get to compete in the general. But underneath his contorted logic, Bush was articulating the core Republican dilemma: how can a traditional conservative win the party’s nomination without succumbing to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racially insensitive sentiment prevalent among the party base and avoid setting himself up for failure with a diverse general electorate? Jeb discovered the hard way that he can’t.
And he wasn’t alone. For months, Republican elites have been at a loss to figure out how to counter Donald Trump’s appeal to the Republican rank-and-file. Waiting for him to fade under the weight of his political inexperience has proved futile. Painting him as a liberal hasn’t worked because Trump’s appeal is not ideological. Money, normally the can’t-fail political resource of choice, has proved ineffectual. No one threw more money at the problem than Bush.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who in her state’s primary put her full weight behind Marco Rubio’s successful quest to become first-among-also-rans, diagnosed the problem last fall:
“You have a lot of people who were told that if we got a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, then life was gonna be great,” she said in an interview Thursday. “What you’re seeing is that people are angry. Where’s the change? Why aren’t there bills on the president’s desk every day for him to veto? They’re saying, ‘Look, what you said would happen didn’t happen, so we’re going to go with anyone who hasn’t been elected.’ ”
This sense of betrayal is understandable, considering the same party leaders desperate to stop Trump have Read More
With the departure of Jeb Bush from the Republican field and Marco Rubio’s top-tier finish in South Carolina, the path is now clear for Rubio to claim the establishment mantle, not because he is a particularly strong candidate but because he will be the last acceptable candidate standing after every other option fails. Rubio’s disastrous New Hampshire debate performance and his subsequent lackluster primary showing would have meant the end of his candidacy in a typical year. Instead, he was able to rally the support of the South Carolina Republican establishment because there was no other realistic place for them to turn.
A peculiar pattern started to develop last fall, as once-heralded prospects exited the stage while inexperienced candidates soared. Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal – all governors of states with significant populations, all touted at one point as the future of the party – were out before the balloting began, while Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina took turns dominating the conversation. Then Chris Christie fell after New Hampshire and Bush exited tonight. Kasich is finding little traction outside New Hampshire; when he leaves, a field once crowded with governors will have none. Who else is left as an alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz?
Choosing a candidate because he is the least worst choice is as problematic as selecting a candidate based on electability, because eventually the flaws that prevented that candidate from emerging on the merits will make themselves known. In the near-term, establishment Republicans will get the winnowing they were denied after New Hampshire, setting up a three-way race with a true believer (Cruz) and a mouthpiece for the angry and disaffected (Trump). This is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for preventing a Trump or Cruz nomination. Rubio remains vulnerable on immigration, the animating issue for a large portion of the Republican electorate, and he can look frightened and weak when attacked. At some point it will be helpful for him to actually win somewhere. And let’s not forget that Donald Trump won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries by double-digit margins. Let me say that again: Donald Trump won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries by double-digit margins. Had Rubio pulled this off, the calls for everyone else to withdraw would be deafening.
Three-way contests can be unpredictable, but after many inconclusive months the contours of the Republican race are starting to take shape. The real test of how well the Republican Party can endure its own nominating process will be what happens when the sizable but incompatible factions represented by these candidates have to come together in the end.
Following Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming defeat in New Hampshire, a loss in Nevada would have unleashed a torrent of potentially self-fulfilling stories about her failings as a candidate. That she was able to escape Nevada with a 6-point victory protected her campaign from a downward spiral just as the primary calendar turns friendly. That she was expected to run away with Nevada just a few weeks ago mattered little, because Bernie Sanders made a strong play for the state and appeared to be within reach of winning. Expectations are funny things.
If Sanders demonstrated in New Hampshire that he could convert crowds at large rallies into voters, Nevada illustrated the challenges he faces in a more diverse electorate. Everything accelerates once the candidates leave behind the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving little time to change minds, and Sanders – like the broader progressive movement – needs to bring voters of color into his coalition. Entrance polls suggest Hillary cleaned up with African American voters; Super Tuesday will be just plain Tuesday for Bernie if that happens again ten days from now.
But to understand what happened in Nevada in terms of the campaign that Sanders is running, think about it from an establishment-outsider perspective. Sanders is betting his candidacy on the assumption that there is enough rot at the core of the Democratic Party establishment for it to fall over if pushed hard enough by his supporters. He fails if he is unable to assemble a broad-based coalition or if elites are resilient enough to resist the coalition he assembles. In New Hampshire, Bernie’s supporters were an overwhelming force. But Nevada is an organization state, and Hillary succeeded in mobilizing Las Vegas casino and hotel workers with an assist from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who while officially neutral made sure that Culinary Workers Union employees would get paid time off to attend the caucus, a move that boosted her prospects. This time, conventional politics proved strong enough to turn back Sander’s insurgency.
Clinton’s Nevada victory sets her up well for the mad dash ahead. But Sanders has enough resources to keep going, and he continues to drive the message of the campaign. This is an interesting dynamic, because while Nevada leaves Hillary poised to win delegates and states at a substantial pace, the Nevada result has not diminished Bernie’s ability to challenge the status quo and shape the party’s future.
Jeb Bush said he was going to “lose the primary to win the general.” He went one for two.
Let’s take stock of where the presidential race stands post-New Hampshire and pre-Nevada/South Carolina.
Republicans: The New Hampshire Primary produced the worst possible outcome for Republican Party elites hoping to avoid a Trump or Cruz nomination. With a campaign that promises “so much winning” that his supporters will eventually get tired of it all and beg for a loss here or there for variety’s sake, Donald Trump would have imploded had he fallen below expectations in New Hampshire after losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa. But he didn’t. Pre-election polls were accurate, and Trump lapped the field, although his 35% share of the vote is impressive only in relation to the paltry 16% won by John Kasich in finishing second.
Marco Rubio, surging out of Iowa on the strength of finishing third (you read that correctly), probably didn’t have enough time or momentum to overtake Trump, but he was positioned to separate himself from the other candidates with establishment appeal and make the duration of the primaries a three-way contest with Trump and Cruz before being shelled like a peanut by Chris Christie in the pre-primary debate. With brutal force, Christie revealed Rubio as an empty suit who retreats to canned talking points when pressured to answer questions. The long-term damage to Rubio is still unknown, although his greatest problem with an electorate looking for an alpha figure is not that he is vapid (history suggests that can be overcome) but that he looked weak and helpless in the face of Christie’s cross-examination.
This is potentially a huge blow to party elites desperate for someone to emerge from the field of not-Trumps and not-Cruz’ and make a serious run for the nomination. Kasich is unlikely to find a receptive audience as the primary calendar turns toward the South. Christie departed the race after his sixth-place finish, a cruel outcome after effectively living in New Hampshire for the better part of a year. Jeb Bush has impressed no one with his lackluster style and air of entitlement. New Hampshire voters failed in their purported role of winnowing the field, and the longer it takes for the Rubio/Kasich/Bush sub-contest to resolve itself, the longer Trump can win primaries with four-tenths of the vote. Although things may change after South Carolina, as of now there appears to be no reason for Read More
News reports had barely confirmed the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that his chamber would neither offer its advice nor consent to any nomination made by President Obama to fill the suddenly vacant Supreme Court seat. The timing of McConnell’s proclamation may have been distasteful, but his effort to get in front of the coming confirmation battle was telling. By staking out an absolutist position – no hearings, no vote, no compromise – he was telegraphing how he cannot afford to have a Democrat make this pick. Court appointments in recent years have been contentious as a matter of course, but this one is different because it could fundamentally alter the structure of political competition, striking a lethal blow to conservative hopes for majority status in a new political alignment.
Not surprisingly, McConnell’s rejectionist approach rapidly became the de facto party position. Republican senators and leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination lined up behind him to demand that the next president appoint Scalia’s replacement because, after all, it’s an election year and we have to wait for the people to speak before the president can act. While the implication that the people didn’t speak three years ago when they elected the current president surely plays well in partisan circles where questions about Obama’s legitimacy are not new, McConnell and company must have realized they were saying these things out loud where everyone could hear them. Why take such an extreme position and risk being painted as obstructionists during an election year when it was possible to sound accommodating, go through the motions of considering the president’s nominee, and then vote no? Because McConnell doesn’t want to personify this fight by placing a potentially sympathetic nominee in the spotlight or lose control of the nomination process by holding unpredictable hearings. Republicans control the senate calendar but that is the only card they hold, and everything is suddenly, unexpectedly on the line.
When movement conservatives were engaged in their decades-long march from obscurity in the 1950s to control of the Republican Party and the country decades later, they learned that if you want to change social conditions you have to control the courts, and if you want to control the courts you have to run the executive branch, where Read More
So much political analysis is shaped in the echo chambers of Washington and New York, and while it may be conventional it frequently lacks wisdom. Just think about how many times you’ve heard well-regarded analysts proclaim with certainty that something was impossible, only to see it materialize a few months later. Donald Trump? He’ll fade by August. Well, certainly by September. There’s no way he can survive after insulting John McCain. Or Fox News. He’ll be gone by December. Just wait until actual voters go to the polls in February . . .
There’s a good reason for this. In order to navigate the complexities of the political process you need a frame of reference, like a prior event that helps make sense of it all. Four years ago, the Republican contest was defined by a series of candidates with little experience or marginal qualifications who took turns emerging as frontrunners before disappearing quickly. Remember Herman Cain? Because Trump fit the profile, he was initially regarded as a vanity candidate who would have his hour upon the stage and then be heard no more. But what if the 2016 contest isn’t fundamentally like 2012? What if the Republican electorate has changed in significant ways that appeal to Trump supporters? Then the analysis won’t hold up. And it didn’t.
Much political analysis relies on a journalistic frame of reference centering on idiosyncratic personalities and events. You can understand a lot with this model during periods of political stability when deviations from political orthodoxy are rare. At Wolves and Sheep, we don’t believe we’re living in such a time. So we apply a different frame of reference that treats individuals, events, even entire elections as elements of an interrelated system, and try to understand them in the context of the political moment. Our point of reference is the last time we experienced severe political and social dislocation, in the 1960s, when the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition was fraying and movement conservatism was pushing the Republican Party to the right. There are many nontrivial parallels between that moment and today’s politics, as the once-dominant Reagan regime finds itself challenged from within by a radicalized base and from without by rapidly changing demography.
This model of regime decline, decay and renewal is explained in detail in my upcoming book Next Generation Netroots, which will be available in the spring. More on that soon. For now, welcome to the blog and buckle up. We live in interesting times.