Matt Bai’s Case for the CW

I guess I haven’t paid much attention to Matt Bai’s writing in a while, but it seems he’s setting himself up in the interesting role of defending the hoariest of Establishment Conventional Wisdom about the secret subscription of the Republican Party to the median voter theorum, dismissing its professed ideological expressions as a mask for pure pragmatism, while at the same time trying to convince those “pragmatic” Establishment Republicans to stop pandering to the “base.”

This two-front war with the realities of the contemporary GOP is laid out in some detail in a Bai piece at Yahoo. Of course Jeb Bush and if not Jeb Bush then Chris Christie can win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination because McCain won in 2008 and Romney won in 2012. And the because behind that because is electability, which is mostly what primary voters actually care about. How do we know this? Well, because McCain and Romney won, and so, on the Democratic side, did John Kerry in 2004 (aside from the fact that Democrats are famously more focused on electability (and for that matter, “getting things done”) as opposed to ideology than Republicans and were insanely focused on electability in 2004, this is a rather obvious circular argument.

But unfortunately, because Bai wants his Republican Establishment candidates to be more electable than they already are he undercuts his own argument by admitting McCain and Romney sucked up to the conservative base more than they actually needed to:

McCain was never secure in his support on the right. He and his advisers kept trying to unify the party, even after it became apparent that conservative activists had nowhere else to go. As McCain tumbled in the polls, his big gambit was to choose the neophyte Sarah Palin as his running mate — a move intended to reassure the base while simultaneously broadening the party’s appeal with women and highlighting his independent streak.

What it accomplished, instead, was to squander McCain’s advantage on experience and send a message to independent voters that he could be just as cynical and reckless as any other career politician when backed up against a wall.

Four years later, Romney fell into a similar trap. You may recall how he showed up to the first debate and in one night shed a lot of the ideological baggage of the primary season, outclassing Obama onstage while repositioning himself as the moderate former governor of Massachusetts. But whatever good Romney had done dissipated almost overnight when he was later caught sucking up pathetically to an audience of conservatives, dismissing 47 percent of the country as a bunch of freeloading hobos. (Not incidentally, that’s about the same percentage of the vote he ultimately managed to win in November.)

Gee, maybe these two pols won their nominations by something other than appealing to “electability.” I don’t know anyone but Bai who seems to think they moved to the right after winning the primaries.

In any event, Bai is determined to convince us that the case against Bush or Christie in 2016 is a mirage. How could they not beat such nutbags and obvious losers as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz?

Well, there are five reasons I can think of. First, the field probably won’t be limited to one Establishment figure plus Paul and Cruz. Second, as noted above, maybe electability isn’t the be-all and end-all to GOP nomination campaign participants. After all, they came pretty close in 2012 to upending Mitt Romney in favor of Rick Santorum, who had “catastrophic general election loser” written all over him. Third, maybe Bai’s favorites won’t make the accomodations to “the base” that McCain and Romney made. Fourth, perhaps the nominating process won’t create the sort of demolition derby that almost miraculously lifted McCain to victory in 2012, and disposed serially of Mitt’s opponents in 2016 (Will anything quite like Rick Perry’s rapid implosion happen again? Hard to say).

And then fifth, there’s the fact that it may not be all that clear to Republicans or anyone else that Jeb Bush or Chris Christie is “more electable” than anyone else. They’re sure not looking all that good a bet in the early running. According to the RCP averages of polls pitting various Republican candidates against Hillary Clinton nationally, Jebbie and Christie are both at 39%; Huckabee and Paul are at 40%; Ryan’s at 42%, and Cruz is at 38%. Where’s that electability advantage, and why, exactly, would one expect to arise for probably the two best-known candidates in the potential field?

It comes back, I’d guess, to the median voter theorem: Bai “knows” that more “moderate” candidates are more electable, just as he knows the Tea Party Movement is fading and that Karl Rove’s money is a leading indicator of every GOP trend.

I’m reminded of Nelson Rockefeller’s 1968 campaign, which was based almost entirely on an electability argument. Shortly before the convention, when Richard Nixon was still short of a solid delegate majority, a major poll came out showing Nixon running better against Hubert Humphrey than did Rocky. That was pretty much the end of the New Yorker’s campaign.

Maybe Bush or Christie (or Mitt Redux) can make a go of it in 2016, but nobody should sound as sure as Matt Bai does that it will actually happen.

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.