Here’s a durable tradition, like baseball and apple pie: Long before a presidential nomination season, Republicans always have a frontrunner, and in the end the frontrunner always wins. It’s been that way for 70 years – until now. Now there’s a vacuum at the top, and we have no idea who’s fit to fill it.
The Republican establishment – typically, the country clubbers, Wall Streeters, and big biz donors – usually coalesce around a favorite candidate, who then gets the nod. But as bestselling political writer Mark Halperin rightly noted on Wednesday, the old party dynamic is kaput. This time around, he said, “the establishment is discombobulated.” Thanks to Chris Christie’s precipitous poll plummet.
I hosted Halperin – co-author of Game Change and Double Down – at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, so naturally 2016 came up. In all his years on the campaign trail (dating back to ’88), he has never seen such a fluid, unsettled Republican field. Indeed, “I thought the 2012 field was the weakest I’d ever seen,” and it hasn’t really changed. “The establishment wing of the party does the nominating, and it wants to win” – but with who?
It was supposed to be Christie, but his scandal baggage is already a heavy lift – and the probes and heightened press scrutiny have barely begun. Christie this week has blamed the media for his woes, in a bid to woo the media-hating conservative base, but Halperin pointed out that lots of northeastern Republican donors watch MSNBC and read The New York Times, and they take those outlets seriously. (Indeed, The Times recently reported that when Christie was U.S. attorney, he “was almost removed, twice, by the Bush administration for reasons that were never clear” – and Halperin tweeted the sentence, urging Jersey reporters to fill in the details.)
Christie has already lost the Democrats and swing independents who gave him the aura of “electibility.” But Halperin, who’s already fixated on ’16 (“I’m paid to think of it non-stop”), is hard pressed to name anyone who can fill the vacuum. For starters, “nobody in the tea party wing is going to beat Hillary Clinton” – if matched against a tea-partyer, she’ll win all the states that Obama won in ’12 – so that probably eliminates Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
(Halperin didn’t talk about the social conservative wing, but we can safely say that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum will never get the nod, except in their dreams. I’d also throw out Rick Perry – unless the GOP establishment truly thinks that a Texas conservative yearning for a do-over can take the white-guy party into the 21st century.)
Halperin did mention Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – but only to scoff at the journalists who are trumpeting the guy: “It’s in the reporters’ interest to build up the field and make it seem like something is happening…But a lot of these people will never be the nominee.” He thinks Walker is Exhibit A, because there’s no evidence “that he can hit big-league pitching.” He has no donor or policy apparatus, no evident views on foreign policy or national security, no evident vision beyond Wisconsin, “his political skills are nowhere near President Obama’s,” and (superficial as this may seem) there’s no evidence he has the requisite “star power” for national TV. All told, “to say that he’s now one of the leaders (to supplant Christie), I just think it’s ridiculous.”
This porous situation is so unlike the GOP. The last void was in 1940, when the establishment was split between three candidates (Robert Taft, Arthur Vandenberg, and Thomas Dewey) – and an outsider who had never previously run for office, Wendell Willkie, snatched the nomination. Ever since, the party has nominated its frontrunners: Dewey in 1944 and 1948, Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1960, Barry Goldwater in 1964 (not an establishment choice, but he led all the way), Nixon again 1968, accidental president Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 (he’d tried twice before; by ’80 the establishment came around), George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996 (he’d tried in ’88, now it was his turn), George W. in 2000, John McCain in 2008 (he’d tried in ’00, now it was his turn), and Mitt Romney (he’d tried in ’08, now it was his turn).
So maybe in ’16 it’s Paul Ryan? Maybe, after failing as Mitt’s understudy, it’s now his turn? But it’s just as likely that he’ll stick to the House, where he’s eyeing a prominent chairmanship and perhaps the speaker’s gavel (the GOP won’t lose the House any time soon). Or maybe it’s Ohio Gov. John Kasich (assuming he’s not nixed by conservative primary voters who hate the fact that he signed on to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion)? Or maybe it’s one of the establishment-friendly pups, like Sen. Marco Rubio? Only if he’s willing to cough up his Senate seat (he’s up for re-election in ’16), assuming he can woo conservative primary voters who hate the fact that at one point he said nice things about immigration reform.
Given the chasm, Halperin doesn’t rule out a third Romney run (Mitt’s recent denials notwithstanding). Nor does he rule out a Jeb Bush bid, which would surely please the establishment (although W’s smarter brother has said that he’d be interested only if he could “do it joyfully” – yeah, as if the two-year slog could ever be joyful).
I suppose we could do worse than to have Jeb fill the void. But as Halperin deadpanned, “What could speak more for ‘fundamental change’ in this country than another Clinton-Bush election?”
Halperin touched on a lot of other stuff, too. His gig with me is posted here.
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