What do Republicans look for in the perfect candidate? It depends on who you are, in the oversimplified sense: if you are a member of the Republican donor class, you generally look for the candidate who seems best positioned to win a general election – ideological issues are secondary, though there are some litmus tests. If you’re a member of the conservative grassroots, you look for the most conservative candidate who can conceivably beat the donor class’s candidate and the Democratic candidates as well. In an era when the nation is so distrustful of Washington and despises the elite ruling class, this battle essentially amounts to a debate about whether the party ought to choose the most electable insider, on the part of the donor class, or the most electable outsider, on the part of the conservative base.
The Republican Party is not a fan of outsiders in general – thus, candidates who run as outsiders and lose tend to moderate themselves in their second or third run, reaching out more to the donor class and conveying that yes, they may pound the populist drum on the stump, but that their conservatism is not so strident as to prevent them from doing business reasonably. Insiders have a challenge too – they cannot be elected merely based on the money they raise, but need voters to support them. So they have to take on some outsider aspects in pursuing the nomination, even if their bankroll laps everyone else’s, in order to convince the base that they aren’t so bad after all. Both sides settle for a candidate they acknowledge isn’t perfect, and grumble along the way – and after a loss, those imperfections both factions cited all along are blamed, fairly or unfairly, for the result. For a coalition with different factions and different priorities, the perfect candidate doesn’t exist.
But there is a smaller faction within Republicanism which has a different kind of perfect candidate, and for them, the discovery of perfection occurs regularly. It’s not really a faction, mind you: it is the tiny portion of the political elite who leech off the funds of naïve donors of all sizes, and make their living creating, selling, and placing advertising for products they do not believe in. Yes, the consultant class often finds a perfect candidate – malleable on hot button issues, persnickety and prone to give good quotes, and typically just antagonistic enough toward fellow Republicans to receive favorable media coverage.
In this cycle, they have a dandy of a candidate in Ohio Governor John Kasich. A fiscal conservative with a testy personality who loves Jesus and Obamacare alike? Perfection. And he in turn has hired the perfect consultants for his impending run! John Weaver and Fred Davis, fresh from snarfing up Jon Huntsman’s cash in 2012, are back again to trot out a candidate who will spend his time trolling his own party and giving interviews. Who can forget this glorious effort?
Reunited and it feels so good, at least as a reminder of Dan McLaughlin’s rules for candidates.
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) June 10, 2015
Kasich’s hirings are a good reflection of a key difference between modern Democrats and Republicans. Within the Democratic coalition, political professionals work for client groups who get nothing if Democrats lose – the cost of failure is high. But for the GOP, there is a small but influential group of consultants who stand to make money consistently regardless of the outcome of the election. It’s a lot easier to find the perfect candidate in a market where you can be rewarded for failure almost as much as you are for success. That’s the beauty of a business model where you make money from selling a product whether or not anybody buys it.