Matt Bai: Who says Jeb can’t survive the primaries?

October 2, 2014
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So I’ve been catching up on all the latest accumulation of Washington wisdom — or, at least, all the wisdom that I can accumulate in a Twitter feed — and now I totally get why no one other than Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or the reincarnated Pat Buchanan can possibly win the Republican nomination in 2016. (Actually, Pat’s alive and well — it’s just that he’s on the McLaughlin Group. My bad.)

You see, the party’s base voters — the ones who turn out to vote in primaries and caucuses — are too completely off the rails to nominate a mushball like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie! Get real — those guys can’t make it through the primaries talking about immigration reform and bipartisanship and blah-blah-blabbedy-blah. They’d get dismantled in the early states, just like that “maverick” John McCain and that liberal Mitt Romney!

Oh. Hang on.

Here’s what some commentators and conservative bloggers seem to be forgetting: Old-line, establishment Republicans have managed to wrest the nomination in every election since Ronald Reagan left office, and there’s really no reason to think it’s any less plausible in 2016. In fact, if a Bush or a Christie decides to go all in, the smart move probably isn’t to be more doctrinaire, but actually less so.

Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that Hillary Clinton is a candidate for president and her party’s presumed nominee in 2016. (And just so we’re clear, I’m not saying the granddaughter with whom she left the hospital, beaming, this week is actually a robot baby secretly manufactured in China to address certain deficiencies in “warmth” reflected in her internal polling numbers. That’s crazy. I’m not saying that.)

If that’s the case, most conservatives, fiscal or social, are going to be thinking about one thing as the primaries draw near, and it isn’t Common Core; it’s how to keep another Clinton out of the White House. Chances are activist favorites like Paul and Cruz will have to spend more time then trying to persuade voters that they’re electable than Christie will have to spend trying to convince them he’s merciless toward immigrants.

The closest recent analog here is probably what Democrats went through —and put the rest of us through — in 2004, when George W. Bush was running for a second term. The most ardent primary voters quickly got behind Howard Dean, of course, because he channeled their fury about the Iraq War and the general fecklessness of their leaders in Washington. But by the time the votes were cast, Democrats had decided that John Kerry was Democratic enough to be their nominee and was a much safer, if unexciting, choice.

Dean, you may recall, won exactly one state (Vermont, where most of the voters knew him personally) and one territory (the District of Columbia, where most of them knew Kerry). Everywhere else, electability was the decisive issue of the day.

And there are other reasons to think that 2016 will be a more pragmatic year for Republicans than it might seem. For one thing, the Tea Party insurgency that rocked the party in 2010, and to a lesser extent in 2012, claimed exactly one victim in Washington this cycle: Eric Cantor, whose main problem, as I’ve written before, had almost nothing to do with ideology and almost everything to do with his having become an almost human-like hologram. The conservative grassroots may still be angry at their party (and have been, really, for the better part of 50 years), but they’re a lot more focused on weakening Barack Obama and regaining power than in venting frustrations.

In fact, the big conservative money this year has been almost uniformly focused on regaining seats through establishment-backed candidates, rather than upending the order of the Republican universe. Whoever the Sheldon Adelson of the 2016 primaries turns out to be (possibly even Sheldon Adelson), I’m betting he’s more interested in backing a winner from the start this time than in splintering the primary electorate.

None of this is to say that a Paul or a Cruz can’t win the wide-open nomination fight. It could happen. I’m only saying that more moderate, establishment-backed candidates have just as strong a chance, and maybe even stronger.

And if I’m right, then that raises an interesting question. What lesson should an establishment nominee really take away from the last two elections?

McCain managed to make it through the 2008 primaries without having to tack wildly to the right, as they say in politics. (On the war in Iraq, he was already there.) Having earned a reputation eight years earlier as a reformer who spoke his mind, McCain might easily have turned the campaign into a referendum on which candidate knew enough about Washington to overturn the status quo in both parties.

But McCain was never secure in his support on the right. He and his advisers kept trying to unify the party, even after it became apparent that conservative activists had nowhere else to go. As McCain tumbled in the polls, his big gambit was to choose the neophyte Sarah Palin as his running mate — a move intended to reassure the base while simultaneously broadening the party’s appeal with women and highlighting his independent streak.

What it accomplished, instead, was to squander McCain’s advantage on experience and send a message to independent voters that he could be just as cynical and reckless as any other career politician when backed up against a wall.

Four years later, Romney fell into a similar trap. You may recall how he showed up to the first debate and in one night shed a lot of the ideological baggage of the primary season, outclassing Obama onstage while repositioning himself as the moderate former governor of Massachusetts. But whatever good Romney had done dissipated almost overnight when he was later caught sucking up pathetically to an audience of conservatives, dismissing 47 percent of the country as a bunch of freeloading hobos. (Not incidentally, that’s about the same percentage of the vote he ultimately managed to win in November.)

All of which might tell you a few things if you’re Christie or Bush or, say, Marco Rubio. One is that you probably don’t have to genuflect to Rush Limbaugh in order to win the Republican nomination, as long as enough conservatives believe you can win. And the other is that the way the electorate breaks down for Republicans right now (and especially the part of the electorate that isn’t white, male and old), there’s really no path to victory that’s lined all along the way with cheering crowds of conservative activists.

Voters have proven, time and again over the last few decades, that what they want is a president who will challenge not only the old order of Washington, but also the inflexible orthodoxies of his or her party. True enough, it’s not easy to be that kind of Republican and also become your party’s nominee in November.

 But here’s what we’ve learned: It’s awfully hard to be any other kind of Republican right now and win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Politics & Government
  • Elections
  • Jeb Bush
  • Rand Paul
  • Pat Buchanan
  • Mitt Romney
  • John McCain
  • Ted Cruz
  • primaries and caucuses
  • Hillary Clinton
  • George W. Bush

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