Speaking of “Goldwaterism”…Ross Douthat published a column yesterday expressing the fear that the “unprecedented unsettleness” of the early 2016 Republican “invisible primary” might produce a “nearly unprecedented, not-since-Goldwater outcome” in the presidential nominating contest.
What Douthat was doubting was the “usual pattern” taken by the GOP:
[This is] the path that every post-1970s Republican primary campaign has ultimately taken, in which a candidate who seems reasonably electable, performs well with “moderate conservative” primary voters (to use Henry Olsen’s helpful typology) and wins the blessing of the party’s donor class, successfully fends off a more right-wing challenger, and sometimes a more moderate challenger as well.
But as Jonathan Bernstein notes, there’s no obvious frontrunner for 2016 (“no former nominee, no former or sitting vice president, no acknowledged longtime leader, no close runner-up from a previous cycle”). And the putative Establishment candidates–Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio–all have unusually large handicaps (though perhaps no larger than the 2012 nominee’s “Obamneycare” problem, which he overcame).
Douthat doesn’t buy into the mystical notion that the “Establishment” has iron control of the nominating process; he acknowledges the narrow escapes made by Romney and especially McCain in the last two cycles, which might have gone in another direction. And Bernstein is always careful to define “the party” in ways that include ideological groups and other organized factions–not just shadowy Beltway elites–as important decision-makers.
In my own opinion, what separates “the party” from random rank-and-file voters is most likely a superior interest in electability. But even then, the principle of “high risk, high reward” can well come into play, with entirely rational people deciding it’s worth trading some degree of electability for the ideological payoff of a less-electable-but-not-hopless candidate. And let’s don’t forget a decent number of great-big-grownups in the Republican Party buy into “move right and win” theories whereby a more ideologically consistent candidate can not only “energize the base” but can offer a clearer appeal to swing voters (this is, for example, a big part of Scott Walker’s rap about why he is politically successful).
So all in all, I think it’s safe to say this really could be a cycle that breaks the mold and offers general election voters the kind of “choice not an echo” that Barry Goldwater rightly said he represented. Partisan allegiances being what they are, even an extremist GOP nominee almost certainly won’t do as poorly as Goldwater did. But it remains to be seen how many Republican movers-and-shakers decide they’d better get behind one of the tarnished “somewhat conservative” candidates, or go for broke. Foreign policy and immigration aside, it’s not like they really disagree on much that matters.