Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Forget Iowa: GOP Always Nominates 'Next In Line'

By Rick Perlstein, cross-posted from Crooks and Liars

It's a curious thing. I study Republicans for a living—I've done so for almost 15 years. I write books about their history; I write articles about their present. But these days, you probably couldn't find a political junky in America less interested to the supposedly hotly contested race for the Republican nomination. I called it for Willard "Mitt" Romney well over three years ago—the day he finished second to John McCain in 2008. That made him "next in line;" and our modern Republican Party pretty much always nominates the next in line, or at the very least The Logical Choice Of The Party Establishment. In 1968, it was Nixon, the former vice president. In '76 it was the accidental president, Gerald Ford. The guy who came in second in '76, Ronald Reagan, was nominated in 1980; Vice President Bush, the man who finished second in '80, in '88. Old Man Dole in '96. Son of Bush in 2000. Mighty McCain in 2008.

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 day before.

Happy Tuesday!

 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.

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