By Rick Perlstein, cross-posted from Crooks and Liars
Another pattern: the desperate attempts of the political press to
drum up evidence of a competitive race, whatever the historical lessons
that point obstinately in the opposite direction. It's not a hard to
take: "on the ground," things always look competitive. The vaunted party
"base" plain their disgust with the sell-out moderate party elites want
to shove down their throats, dutifully falling in love with a series of
far-right saviors in the earlier innings: President Pat Robertson, who
nearly won Iowa in 1988; President Pat Buchanan, who took New Hampshire
in 1992; and All Hail Huckabee
the choice of Iowa caucus-goers in 2008—but not before Fred Thompson's
moment in the sun later in the year, and after Rudy Giuliani dazzled
conservatives who hadn't yet figured out that he was a cross-dresser with gay roommates The same thing always happens next: The insurgents fall by the wayside. The base comes around. Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.
You would think the political press would have figured this all out
by now. Would have figured out that delegates nominate presidential
candidates, not the Gallup Poll. They have been missing that story at
least since 1964, when it was President Henry Cabot Lodge—surprise
winner of the New Hampshire primary even though he was busy in Saigon
being wartime ambassador to Vietnam—that had the political press all
aflutter, even as Barry Goldwater had practically clinched all the delegates he needed for the nomination already.
Now, Barry Goldwater belies the point above that the Establishment always wins—he was
the wingnut savior of 1964, rescuing rank-and-file conservatives from
the imposition of an Establishment drone—but ultimately reinforces it.
1964 was the year that the modern Republican pattern was set: it was the
election after which, following November's humiliating landslide, the
Republican Establishment said never again. Even that
Establishment itself inclined further and further to the right, there
really hasn't been an exception yet: even as insurgent candidates took
the Democratic nomination time and again—McGovern, Carter, Dukakis,
Clinton, and of course Obama was all insurgents to one degree or
another—the Republican nominees have always been the Anointed Ones.
And, barring exigencies I simply don't see developing, they always
will be. And the feckless political press—which is really only a race
for second place, for the coveted position of "next in line"—must always
miss that fundamental story. The illusion of a horse race is their
quadrennial full employment program.
What should would be learning from our incompetent political media? How does the realstory—the process by which insurgents are laid low, weeded out, humiliated into withdrawing, sabotaged, whatever—go down?
Hard to say, because no one ever bothers to cover it. Stuff like Newt
Gingrich's failure to qualify to qualify for the ballot in his adopted
home state Virginia: that was a story for a couple of days, but
no one made any sort of connection to the bigger picture—that this whole
business of building an organization to overcome the profound
bureaucrats hurdles to winning delegates militates in its very nature
against insurgents, no matter how popular they might poll. Stuff like
the astonishing sh*tstorm Establishment "SuperPACs" have been throwing at Newt Gingrich in Iowa this past week.
This seems to be the ca. 2012 version of machine-style
ballot-disqualifying, or of a friendly visit to a recalcitrant delegate
from the banker financing the expansion of your widget factory in
Kalamazoo, bearing threats.
The methods change. The game remains the same. On TV, however,
nothing ever changes: the nomination will be treated like a plebiscite
overseen by Gallup. The winner in Iowa will wear the crown once enjoyed
by Pat Robertson. The citizenry will be stupider than it had been the
Rick Perlstein is a journalist and historian whose books Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of America are essential reading for an understanding of modern American political history.