Ornstein’s Warning

Us old folks remember a time when AEI’s Norman Ornstein was the very voice of The Conventional Wisdom. So his new column at The Atlantic ought to come as a particularly significant warning about this election cycle and the particular level of conservative freakout we are dealing with:

Almost all the commentary from the political-pundit class has insisted that history will repeat itself. That the Trump phenomenon is just like the Herman Cain phenomenon four years ago, or many others before it; that early enthusiasm for a candidate, like the early surge of support for Rudy Giuliani in 2008, is no predictor of long-term success; and that the usual winnowing-out process for candidates will be repeated this time, if on a slightly different timetable, given 17 GOP candidates.

Of course, they may be entirely right. Or not entirely; after all, the stories and commentaries over the past two months saying Trump has peaked, Trumpmania is over, this horrific comment or that is the death knell for Trump, have been embarrassingly wrong. But Trump’s staying power notwithstanding, there are strong reasons to respect history and resist the urge to believe that everything is different now.

Still, I am more skeptical of the usual historical skepticism than I have been in a long time. A part of my skepticism flows from my decades inside the belly of the congressional beast. I have seen the Republican Party go from being a center-right party, with a solid minority of true centrists, to a right-right party, with a dwindling share of center-rightists, to a right-radical party, with no centrists in the House and a handful in the Senate. There is a party center that two decades ago would have been considered the bedrock right, and a new right that is off the old charts. And I have seen a GOP Congress in which the establishment, itself very conservative, has lost the battle to co-opt the Tea Party radicals, and itself has been largely co-opted or, at minimum, cowed by them.

As the congressional party has transformed, so has the activist component of the party outside Washington. In state legislatures, state party apparatuses, and state party platforms, there are regular statements or positions that make the most extreme lawmakers in Washington seem mild.

Perhaps he’s thinking of the widespread subscription to the lunacy of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories, or there’s something even more alarming crawling around out there. But I digress…

Egged on by talk radio, cable news, right-wing blogs, and social media, the activist voters who make up the primary and caucus electorates have become angrier and angrier, not just at the Kenyan Socialist president but also at their own leaders. Promised that Obamacare would be repealed, the government would be radically reduced, immigration would be halted, and illegals punished, they see themselves as euchred and scorned by politicians of all stripes, especially on their own side of the aisle.

So the forces favoring a big-time right-wing insurgency, says Ornstein, are already at the kind of levels that produced conservative uprisings in the GOP in 1964, 1976 (Reagan’s primary challenge to incumbent president Ford), 1980 and 1994. But wait: it could be worse than those:

[I]s anything really different this time? I think so. First, because of the amplification of rage against the machine by social media, and the fact that Barack Obama has grown stronger and more assertive in his second term while Republican congressional leaders have become more impotent. The unhappiness with the establishment and the desire to stiff them is much stronger. Second, the views of rank-and-file Republicans on defining issues like immigration have become more consistently extreme—a majority now agree with virtually every element of Trump’s program, including expelling all illegal immigrants.

Third, unlike in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the clear frontrunner and the only serious establishment presidential candidate, and all the pretenders were focused on destroying each other to emerge as his sole rival, this time there are multiple establishment candidates with no frontrunner, including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. And each has independent financing, with enough backing from wealthy patrons to stay in the race for a long time, splitting the establishment-oriented vote. The financing, of course, raises point four: We are in a brave new world of campaign finance, where no one candidate can swamp the others by dominating the money race. When establishment nemesis Ted Cruz announced his campaign, he had $38 million in “independent” funds within a week, $36 million of it from four donors. There is likely more where that came from. Some candidates may not find any sugar daddies, or may find that their billionaires are fickle at the first sign of weakness. But far more candidates than usual will have the financial wherewithal to stick around—and the more candidates stick around, the less likely that any single one will pull into a commanding lead or sweep a series of primaries, and thus the more reason to stick around.

Fifth, the desire for an insurgent, non-establishment figure is deeper and broader than in the past. Consider that in the first major poll taken after the GOP debate, three insurgents topped the list, totaling 47 percent, with Donald Trump leading the way, followed by Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. And, as Trump and the insurgents have shown depth and breadth of support, desperate wannabes like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal have become ever more shrill to try to compete.

I’ve been thinking this for a while and now am saying it every chance I get: the burden of persuasion in the current cycle is increasingly shifting to those pundits and political scientists who insist we’re all being hysterical and we’re guaranteed a nice, calm “centrist” general election between Bush or Rubio and Hillary Clinton that will turn on economic statistics rather than all the wild-ass messages we’ve been hearing from the right non-stop since 2010 at the latest. If Norman Ornstein feels that way too, it may be time for the mandarins of Conventional Wisdom to admit they may not know their posteriors from page eight this time around.

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.