The great Casey Stengel, manager of the epically awful 1962 Mets, once asked “can’t anyone here play this game?” The same has to apply to this stupendously bizarre political season.
It is hard to believe how far we have come in just this year. In December 2014, everyone was swooning over the size and caliber of the GOP bench—so many accomplished individuals, such a diversity of experience and viewpoints. Professor Larry Sabato, the highly respected analyst who leads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, thought the field so deep and “chaotic” that, he didn’t want to pick a Top Tier. He literally started with Second “the Big Boys”—Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie. Sabato had Ted Cruz and Ben Carson alone in the “Outsider’ tier below them—and, in the tier below, “Establishment Alternatives” Mitt, Rubio, Kasich, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.
What Sabato wrote made sense at the time, particularly in historical context. The days of a Republican “Rockefeller Wing” are in the dustbin of history, gone not just to changing times but the increasing regionalization of the two parties. The dividing line now is between types of conservatism; mainstream Establishment Republicans, who are practical and look to win elections and pass (not just propose, but pass) favorable legislation, and those of the harder right (Tea Party and Freedom Caucus types, who prize purity and hold mainstream conservatives almost in as much contempt as they do Democrats.
The Presidential nominating landscape Sabato and other analysis were evaluating in late 2014 reflected that binary choice, either collaborative, or take-no-prisoners conservatives. The GOP party professionals shared this view, and drew lessons from 2012 regarding tone and demographics. They tightened up institutionally to avoid a repeat of what they saw was the basic flaw of Romney’s 2012 campaign—too contentious and harsh-toned a debate/primary season created an overarching, alienating Republican message going into the general election. Obama 2012 had been eminently beatable, and they had fallen short. Hillary was even more vulnerable, and the election even more winnable, provided the message and the messenger projected confidence instead of confrontation.
The Establishment types knew they weren’t going to be able to completely neutralize the hard right. But, they thought that the breadth of the GOP bench would attract new voters—Jeb had a swing-state base and appealed to Latinos, Walker and Christie had won in Blue states, and Paul, in his own esoteric way, appealed to younger voters. Just as importantly, they felt they had constructed what amounted to a double-hulled tanker. If the frontrunners fizzled, Rubio was Floridian, young and appealing, Kasich a solid, swing-state alternative to Jeb and Christie, and Mitt was more popular than Obama. The Establishment also counted on something else—of the more “conservative” candidates, Santorum and Huckabee were loser-retreads, Carson a novelty who would excite the base without being a legitimate threat, and everybody hated Ted Cruz.
Obviously, things have gone a bit awry since then, starting of course, with the arrival, and the staying power, of the USS Battleship Trump. But I have become more and more convinced that Trump is more like an opportunistic infection—he’s possible because of the one thing no one anticipated—the manifest weakness of the GOP bench. Instead of a group of All Stars, they have turned into a noodle-armed, iron-gloved bunch of singles hitters better suited to Casey’s Mets.
Walker is already gone—the appeal of his polarizing approach to the harder right evaporated when he demonstrated a complete lack of readiness for the top spot (don’t cry for Scott-he has gone back to Wisconsin and reapplied himself to extreme partisanship.)
The early promise of Paul is, for all intents and purposes, over. He barely escaped the kiddie table before the last debate, and his movement towards orthodoxy (except on national security/foreign policy issues) has won him no new friends, while costing him freshness and appeal. He has had a little bad luck—being a skeptic of the national security state at a time of renewed terrorist activity isn’t exactly timely—but the more people watch him, the more unmoved they seem to be. It’s just a question of when he drops out—there were reports as far back as October that he was being pressed by McConnell to focus on retaining his Senate seat, which is seen at some risk.
Christie has just never caught on. His poor early poll numbers forced him into the second tier debate, where he shone and escaped. He does have real strengths—a true talent for retail politics—great at town halls, meet and greets, small settings, but it hasn’t moved the needle much. What Christie needs—desperately—is for other like-kind “establishment” candidates to drop out. Since Rubio isn’t going anywhere, that leaves Bush and Kasich. Ideally, one or both would leave before New Hampshire on February 9th, where Christie’s got an important endorsement by the influential, and persistent, Manchester Union Leader. Otherwise, unless his numbers improve, Christie may feel the hand on his back.
Much attention has been focused on the collapse of Jeb—for all his preexisting assets, he seems to register at absolute zero on the passion front. The Hillary-Jeb heir-apparent dichotomy is really fascinating. Hillary is getting better as she knocks off the rust. Like her or not, she’s coming across as authoritative and in command of her facts. Jeb seems just puzzled—the carefully plotted route to the Oath of Office, with huge fundraising, mass endorsements, admiring opinion pieces by sympathetic media-types, to be followed by carpet-bombing his opponents, leading to determined but ultimately token resistance, then the balloon drop seems to have had a central GPS programming issue. Bush, a man with feet of clay, seems completely ungrounded. He could still come back—anything is possible in this outré year, but he’s going to need a lot of luck, and a lot more talent for political warfare than he’s shown to date.
As for Marco, many people, Sabato included, thought he would not run if Jeb did. Jeb was a friend and mentor, there was substantial overlap between Jeb and Marco’s supporters, and the expectation was that Marco would wait his turn. This turned out to be wrong for a number of reasons, not the least of which are Marco’s ego, his impatience, and his apparent unwillingness to be satisfied with a mere US Senate seat. Rubio has substantial skills—he’s attractive and a very good speaker and debater, but you wonder whether he has the staying power. Look under the charismatic surface and you see a hint of Sarah Palin. He is openly uninterested in his day job. His supporters fret he hasn’t spent much time building infrastructure in key primary states, and they worry he’s going to be outworked by Cruz, should the race devolve to a one on one. I can’t help shaking the feeling that Rubio simply assumes he will step into the mantle of Establishment support when and if Bush drops out. He is assuming their fear of Cruz (which is fundamentally different than the reaction to Trump) will induce them to pick a side (his), pressure some of the laggards to bow out, and provide him with cash and operatives at the national and state level. He might be right—but my gut also tells me he’s going to have to work harder to show he earned it, and I don't know if Marco has it in him.
Which, leaves the Establishment, and the electorate, where? The Donald? Teddy the Grinch?
I have absolutely no idea, because they seem to be the only people who know how to really play this game.
And, to paraphrase another baseball icon, Yogi Berra, if the Establishment candidates can't find their fastball, and soon, it will be getting late early out there.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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