Another Stab-in-the-Back From the Establishment

People (like Matt Bai, for instance) who just assume everybody understands more “moderate” presidential candidates do better have not spent much time talking to conservative activists, who have built up a vast corpus of doctrine holding distinctly otherwise (dating back to Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo). Arguments against the median voter theorem (which hold that successful parties aim at attracting “the median voter”) on the Right are many and overlapping: the “enthusiasm” argument, the “hidden majority” argument, the “message coherence” argument, the “differentiation” argument, the “authenticity” argument, the “populist” argument and on and on.

This is why “electability” arguments for relative moderates don’t necessarily cut much ice with Republican caucus and primary voters, unless they are backed by recent experience or massive poll results. As for recent experience, Ronald Reagan remains the gold standard, and even though George W. Bush turned out to be a “big-government-conservative” RINO squish, he was definitely the main “movement conservative” option back in 2000. McCain and Romney, of course, lost, and that will most definitely be used as a talking point against perceived “moderate” or “Establishment” candidates in 2016.

But it had not occurred to me until I read one of Greg Sargent’s posts today what might happen to the Republican zeitgeist if an “Establishment” candidate wins the nomination again and then loses to Hillary Clinton:

[N]othing would be worse for Boehner and other establishment figures than somebody like Bush getting the GOP nomination but then losing to Hillary Clinton — and short of a Tea Partier winning the presidency, nothing would be better for the base conservatives. Those conservatives could say: Look, we’ve tried nominating old, familiar, establishment Republicans three times in a row now, and all it got us was President Obama and now President Clinton. We can’t repeat the same mistake in 2020. It’ll be an awfully compelling argument to those in the party, even if the counter-argument — that nominating someone like Cruz would be a complete disaster — might be true.

No kidding. This happened once before in GOP presidential history. The Heartland Conservatives who roughly coalesced around Bob Taft (and for a while, Joe McCarthy) lost the GOP presidential nomination to media-manipulated galleries in 1940, and then to the New York Eastern Establishment under Tom Dewey in 1944 and 1948, and then to Dewey’s puppet Ike in 1952 and 1956, and then to Ike and Dewey’s protege Dick Nixon (who sold out conservatism in a platform agreement with Nelson Rockefeller) in 1960. Finally, the frustrated Right had to take total control of the party in 1964 via Goldwater. 2020 could look a lot like that.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.