If you peruse Twitter or the headlines at conservative media outlets, there’s a lot of disappointment, sadness and even anger about Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush running for president in 2016. Whatever their merits, neither candidate articulates a particularly winning conservative message on government spending, foreign policy, immigration, entitlement programs or much of anything else that in any way matches the mood of grassroots conservatives who have had it up to here with establishment Republican candidates and their ineffectual ways.
So why should conservatives be elated? Well, just the fact that they’re both running shows that the typical GOP primary story has been upended. This year everything is different. And it means that more principled candidates might finally have an opening.
The typical GOP primary story is that the establishment is very good at getting unified behind one candidate. Early. The conservatives, on the other hand, are something of a motley crew that scrambles and fights in a long, drawn-out, protracted battle. Many discussions are had but very little securing-the-nomination takes place. The establishment is very good at winning. They basically don’t lose. The guy they get behind almost always wins the nomination. You have to go back to 1980 to find another time when the establishment wasn’t sure who it wanted. John Connally raised the most money but George H.W. Bush did pretty well with the establishment as well. We all know who got the nomination.
This year the establishment is not doing a great job coalescing behind one guy. Everyone thought it would be Chris Christie and he seemed to be collecting the appropriate donor friends but then he fumbled and lost their confidence. You now have Romney, of all people. You have Jeb Bush. Christie will throw his hat in the ring here soon, probably. Heck, we’re even hearing rumblings of John Thune and Lindsay Graham. It’s completely crazy over there in Establishment Primary Land. It’s a goat rodeo.
And anyone who is not a huge fan of these candidates should be elated. For once in a long time the establishment is all mixed up and that leaves other openings.
It’s not just that splitting the field helps candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul overcome the typical money advantages establishment picks get. There are the debate advantages they get as well. Think of how the typical GOP primary goes. You have the pre-established nominee having to deal with the technical details of actually winning the nomination by getting the votes of the conservatives in the party. So everyone runs hard to the right.
But if the establishment section of the party has to battle it out, it moves the debate to their mushy left as they all try to explain their love of Common Core or RomneyCare or whatever administrative state program these types are calling for at the moment. And the conservative candidates who are also vying for the nomination can rather easily point out the problems with the progressive administrative state, having already established their conservative bona fides through their governance.
The general mood of the party outside of Washington is more populist than a Romney (47%, anyone?) or Bush (he’s a Bush) can speak to, in all likelihood. The entrance of a Christie might speak to some of that mood, which only further divides the race to the benefit of a known conservative.
Philip Klein had a column in November about how nominating a conservative is the best way to appeal to moderates. It’s so good that I want to excerpt the entire thing here. His basic point is that when you nominate a moderate candidate, it hurts his or her ability to run as a moderate in the general election. Instead the nominee should have a conservative philosophy that he or she can clearly articulate to those who aren’t conservative, that they can defend this position and use it to respond to any unexpected events that occur during a campaign. This is not about memorization but knowing the philosophy. Klein argues that the Republican nomination problem is not one of “purity contests” because the entire problem has been the GOP keeps running people who don’t have the inherent trust of the right. So they have to earn it. And they do it clumsily and end up embarrassing themselves and the party.
For instance, conservatives never trusted Mitt Romney, because, among other reasons, he was a liberal governor who was pro-choice, in favor of gun control, and a champion of government-subsidized universal health coverage. Because conservatives didn’t trust him, Romney spent his first bid for president, in 2008, eroding his credibility by flip-flopping on a litany of major issues in a failed bid to win over the right. In 2012, he was able to win the nomination, but because he lacked an actually conservative philosophical mindset, he didn’t know how to make conservative arguments in an appealing manner and as a result he ended up looking foolish.
So when Romney said he was “severely conservative” or wanted “self deportation,” he was saying things he thought conservatives wanted to hear. He interpreted conservative critiques of the culture of dependency in the worst way imaginable.
See, if the candidate already had the trust of conservatives, he would shore up their support immediately and not have to spend the entire primary convincing them — only to turn around and run to the middle after making all sorts of statements that the press and the Democratic opponent will use against him.
Far better to run a consistent campaign. The only way to do that is if the candidate already has the trust of the base. Think of President Obama’s campaign in 2008. He didn’t have to spend a lot of time wooing the fringier parts of the left. He already had them. He was able to run more as a moderate and continue that messaging through the general election.
As Klein says:
The popular myth is that a winning candidate has to play to the base in the primaries and then move to the center in the general election. But the reality is that winning candidates in both parties have tended to maintain a relatively consistent theme throughout their campaigns… When base voters implicitly trust a candidate, they’re more likely to give that candidate the benefit of the doubt when he or she tries to communicate a message to appeal to the broader electorate, because they assume that deep down that candidate “gets it” and is “one of us.” A candidate who is constantly having to prove something to the base — from the declaration of candidacy to the waning hours of Election Day — is guaranteed to lose.
So not just conservatives but the entire Republican Party should be elated that the establishment still hasn’t picked its guy for 2016. Let that establishment primary go on for months, even months and months. During that time, the grassroots and DC types should think soberly about which GOP candidates are truly conservative and have the trust of the base without having to constantly communicate it. That’s the healthiest way to win the nomination and the general election.