Earlier this month, the Grand Poobah of the Republican establishment, Karl Rove, provided a clear view of how his wing of the party is keeping score entering the 2016 presidential race.
Rove argues that to win the “invisible” (pre-spotlight) primary, a candidate must enthusiastically support the GOP’s preferred candidates, generic message, and jobs program for veteran political hacks funded by the credulous and self-interested donor class. In other words, a 2016 candidate must tacitly give his unswerving loyalty to the rule that one’s candidacy will in no way threaten the political status quo or derail its well-orchestrated puppet show. Show yourself to be a company man and your time will come.
Establishment favorites Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie have all put in their time. Almost-ready-for-prime-time candidates (reading between Rove’s lines) Paul Ryan and Scott Walker, if willing to abide by the rules, appear to be first in line if the Big Three sit, quit, or implode. The rest of the field Rove politely dismisses, although more for the sin of spending too many days in Iowa or New Hampshire rather than for their ideological nonconformity.
We know, then, how the establishment measures the field, but how do they (so consistently) get their favorites through the primary process? Listen up, “stupid” bitter clingers in flyover America: they’ve got your number.
First: Doom the Establishment Presidential Candidate
As The New York Times helpfully suggested on Friday, “Mr. [Jeb] Bush would benefit most if those Republicans who do run vie for the support of the party’s hard-liners. That would fracture the conservative base, leaving an opening for him among more moderate-leaning Republicans.” John McCain, sought out by Mr. Bush for advice (as the paper of record put it) on “how to run for president without pandering to the party’s conservative base,” offered this aphoristic summary at the end of the article: “Lock up the center and let them fight it out on the right.”
This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is the conspiracy, just as one imagines. How do conservative and libertarian insurgents respond? With a truly republican process and candidate. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist essays on the executive branch (numbers 67-77) suggest that both were in the minds of the founders as they designed the institution, and both will be required to recover something closer to the Constitution’s energetic but limited presidency after eight years of President Obama’s Progressive, hegemonic alternative. The first step is ensuring that the establishment conspiracy fails—by no means an easy task.
Although things appear to be a bit snippy at the moment between the Romney and Bush clans (fun holiday party game: just whose wealth and high-finance investments are the greater liability?), we can expect the establishment to pull off its part of their plan, consolidating around one anointed candidate. Sadly, if recent history is any guide, we should expect the insurgents to carry out their part, too, allowing their preference for this one conservative or libertarian candidate to undermine the more important effort to nominate any one.
Next: Involve More Decision Makers
This will be all the more likely if the establishment is able, as planned, to curtail the pre-primary debate schedule. In the 2012 election cycle, there were 20 debates that involved four or more Republican candidates. These played a significant part in culling the field even before the first primary votes were cast. By the time the third state voted (South Carolina), it was Mitt Romney against three conservative or libertarian-leaning candidates: Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. Unfortunately, the idiosyncrasies of the three not-Romneys (and therefore their constituencies) made a clean establishment-insurgent contest impossible.
Achieving that in 2016 must be the goal of conservatives and libertarians—which means we have one year to organize and adjudicate a fair fight among all who aspire to the insurgent nomination. What might that look like? Hopefully the exact opposite of the establishment primary: a very visible competition before the 2016 primaries featuring more debates, more voters, and, critically, more votes.
Consider one possibility: Schedule a set of ten biweekly regional caucus dates next summer and fall. On each date, Republican primary-eligible voters from four to six neighboring states gather in their respective state capitals to watch the Republican candidates debate (live in one state; by video projection in the others), deliberate on their candidacies, and cast a straw poll vote. The graphic below suggests one way this might happen.
Start in flyover America on the Fourth of July and you’ll have made your way out to the Left coasts by the first week in November, having toured the nation and encouraged a natural consolidation of insurgent voters behind one or two top-tier, well-tested candidates. The debates can be organized to focus on different themes (see table above) and structured to enable (or compel) even a large field of 2016 candidates to speak somewhat at length on a variety of key issues, no thirty-second responses allowed—a just and necessary test for any serious presidential candidate.
What would really winnow the 2016 field would be the straw polls that follow. Tim Pawlenty, perhaps prematurely, dropped his 2012 candidacy the day after a disappointing third-place finish in the July (2011) Ames, Iowa straw poll. Mediocre or poor performances in a string of straw polls would force similar decisions by a number of candidates. Three months before the official Iowa caucus, the survivor(s) will be well positioned to build the organization and fundraising networks they’ll need to beat the establishment candidate during the regular primary season.
This would, of course, provide no fail-safe guarantee of insurgent victory for 2016. But the system currently in place (which dates to 1988) has produced, in order: George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—and seems primed to foist a fifth Bush or a second Romney nomination upon us. A republican alternative—treating voters as if they are, as Hamilton put it in Federalist 77, “an enlightened and rational people”—might just produce a Republican candidate worthy of the name.