Brian Beutler wrote quite an interesting take on tonight’s big event, What’s at Stake in the Second Republican Debate: Full Panic in the GOP. In it, he discussed Ramesh Ponnuru’s contention that eventually the party would “consolidate behind a consensus choice” and thus make Trump “a nuisance, not a nightmare.” That’s a reasonable narrative. That’s more or less the narrative of 2012. Mitt Romney was attacked again and again, but he prevailed because he was the establishment — the “electable” — choice. (Fun fact: he wasn’t elected.) But as Beutler pointed out, Romney was always doing better the current establishment candidates, and his numbers only grew over time.
The best option for the Republicans, at least according to Beutler who I think is right, is for the establishment candidates to go after each other. The big problem is not so much Trump but the fact that there are four establishment candidates: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Scott Walker. Together, those four now have 17% of the vote according CBS News / New York Times poll. That is certainly something that could be built on. The Christie and Fiorina voters would probably join in. And so too might a number of Ben Carson’s supporters.
Of course, it is kind of sad that the four establishment candidates combined manage only a fairly crummy third place. And I don’t think this is just a matter of the Republican base wanting change or whatever. What we are seeing in the presidential nomination contest is what Republicans have stood for my entire life: this idea that politics is not a skill and all we need is someone to stand firm. Or as Grover Norquist put it back in 2012, “We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget… We just need a president to sign this stuff.” (Fun fact: this is not what most Republican voters want; just what Norquist and his plutocratic friends want.)
So we have the top two candidates with not a second of political experience in the traditional sense. As I’ve noted before, Ben Carson is just racial Valium for a certain part of the GOP base — a candidate who reduces their anxiety that they are a racist party without requiring anything at all from the voter. And Trump is performing a standard Republican trick of claiming that he has special, but vague, skills that will save the nation. It’s like Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam War or Reagan’s refusing to say what he would do on foreign affairs because he wasn’t president yet and didn’t have all the information.
There is a bigger problem, I’m afraid, with the four establishment candidates: not one of them is very charismatic. I think the most charismatic is Kasich, and he’s the one who accepted Obamacare and comes off as a (relatively) decent human being. There ain’t a big appetite for that among the GOP faithful. I’ll admit: if any one of them put in a “memorable performance,” it could help. But imagine if that is memorable in the way that Rick Perry’s performance was memorable when he said that people against the DREAMers had no heart. I don’t see their supporters running directly to one of the other three candidates.