Sanctioned Losers

About a million years ago I read a 1964 novel by a Mississippi writer named Borden Deal entitled The Loser, about a candidate recruited for a southern gubernatorial race by The Powers That Be whose only job was to draw enough votes from the front-runner to knock him into a runoff with somebody else. He catches fire, of course, and decides to run for governor sho nuff. In the extremely remote possibility that one of you decides to track the book down and read it (it’s actually part of a trilogy), I won’t disclose how it turns out, but there’s a lot of anachronistic details about racial issues and a lot of embarrassingly sexist sex scenes and implausible political events, but it was quite good for its time, as political fiction went.

I found myself thinking of The Loser when reading about the “strategy” of Lindsey Graham’s proto-presidential candidacy, as explained by Politico‘s Alex Isenstadt:

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham may still be weighing whether to run for president, but he already has a strategy — distancing himself from fellow senator Rand Paul.

In TV appearances, on the campaign trail, and even in private fundraisers, Graham, an Air Force reservist and one of his party’s most prominent defense hawks, has gone after Paul repeatedly and by name, casting him as weak-kneed and unwilling to protect the country from aggressors.

In interviews, Graham aides said he was laying out a plan to position himself as Paul’s foil, and will repeatedly contrast his foreign policy positions to that of the Kentucky senator’s more isolationist views, especially in debates. They believe that going after Paul — or “putting wood on him,” in the words of one aide — drives attention to Graham and, at a time of rising concern about threats from abroad, helps establish himself as the hawk of the Republican field.

Now you can take this seriously as a presidential campaign “strategy”–you know, Republicans warm to Graham as they watch him tear Aqua Buddha a new one–or apply Occam’s Razor and conclude that Lindsey’s performing yet another boon service to his friends in the military-industrial complex. By and large, candidates who obsessively hammer one rival in a multi-candidate field don’t do well; it’s why the term “murder-suicide” is often applied to such candidacies, which typically help somebody else. More likely than not, the whole idea is to for Graham to make sure not one primary voter fails to understand that Rand Paul is a damn dirty hippie surrender-monkey who doesn’t understand we’re all about to die if we don’t lash out aggressively in every direction! The day Paul goes down in flames, Graham can return to the Senate with the hearty thanks of all war-loving Republicans everywhere–including the actual nominee, of course.

Graham’s not the only suspected “loser” in the field. There’s Carly Fiorina, whose otherwise implausible candidacy (she was fired from her most important private-sector gig, and badly lost her only run for office in the most pro-Republican year since the Civil War) is being propped up by the entire GOP in order to ensure there is a woman providing gender cover for attacks on HRC, which she will herself make every single day. She, too, will at the appropriate moment retire from the field, confidently expecting to cash in on a Cabinet post or major ambassadorship under President Bush or President Walker or President Rubio.

At some point, we could see still another “loser,” if it’s in Republican elites’ interest to make sure somebody’s around to cut into the conservative evangelical vote for, say, Ted Cruz or Scott Walker. I’m sure there would be some quiet encouragement to an over-ambitious, under-principled rival like Bobby Jindal to stay the course, and Lord knows he’d be willing to do anything up to and including handling snakes to get ‘er done.

The bottom line is that in a field as large and complicated as the 2016 GOP pack, there’s going to be some chicanery. So let’s not devote too much analysis to any “path to the nomination” for some of these birds. They may be running for reasons remote from any fantasies of standing on the podium in triumph in Cleveland.

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.