Screen-captured from Wednesday night's GOP debate (via Adam Baldwin):
I wrote a little earlier about "why" we have so many candidates - still about 16 even with Rick "Oops" Perry dropping out - on the Republican roster for the 2016 primaries. I focused on the mechanics of "why": the simple fact that the Citizens United ruling makes it possible for fringe candidates to survive longer during a prolonged campaign than ever before. I focused on the practicalities of "why": as long as you're a candidate on the list, people are paying attention to you, inviting you to the Talking Head shows, and creating a foundation of keeping yourself on the speaking circuit gravy train for life. There's also the fact that as long as there's no clear front-runner - or the front-runner is so reviled by the party leadership (Hi, Donald!) that the party will block him from ever winning - it's in everyone's favor to stick in the race (wow Rick Perry did you screw this one up) and vie for the front-runner spot or at least a spoiler spot that guarantees you a seat at the money table.
I didn't really get into the psychology of "why" there are so many candidates this time around. Or the politics of it. Let me try here.
So, let's re-ask the question: Why are there so many candidates among the Republicans running for the Presidential nomination for 2016?
It's more than just making a cynical play for prestige, recognition, money. There has to be even a sliver of belief among the candidates that each of them thinks he/she has a legitimate shot at winning the nomination and thence a shot at winning the biggest job title of all. Even the ones who aren't doing a good job of it - Hi, Jeb! Hi, Scott - are running because a lot of people within their circle (themselves included) convinced them they had a shot.
It has to do with intra-party discipline. And how now there is no longer much of it.
A political party forms when enough people of a like-minded persuasion organizes around shared beliefs. Historically, our two-party system founded around two economic viewpoints - mercantile vs. agrarian - with differing positions on which takes priority - the mercantile/business class preferred a strong federal government, the agrarian class preferred more state/local powers that protected farmers' interests. Other issues - foreign policy, social policy, technology, theology - coalesced around them as the Democrats and the Federalists/Whigs/Republicans became the two parties we know today.
It helped that our elective system - a winner-takes-all for Congressional districts and an Electoral College for Presidents that answered to winning states over the general population - encourages to this day only two parties to thrive.
Thing is, even within a party there are factions: certain issues that take priority over other issues; or internal debates over how exactly to resolve those issues (in a liberal, moderate, or conservative way).
For Republicans, the factions (up until the 1990s) mostly hewed to:
- Pro-Business (few regulations, free markets, praise to the allmighty CEO),
- Foreign Policy (a realist, trade-oriented stance with other nations, albeit with an isolationist - or Monroe Document - bent),
- Social conservatism (small-c conservatism that viewed a paternalistic status quo based on non-Evangelical Christian beliefs).
What kept these factions in line with the party - both of them - was the overall moderate or centrist viewpoints of the party's leadership that played to the liberal or conservative leanings on certain issues at one time but not another. Back when both Democrats and Republicans had active liberal and conservative wings, this helped maintain the balance (and it helped with bipartisan legislation over the decades).
Other methods of maintaining party loyalty - doling out favors, controlling who got nominated for offices at state and congressional levels - were also used. In Congress this used to mean control committee assignments, and of the purse-strings for pet projects/pork barrel spending.
In the Republican Party, at least this modern (post-1992) incarnation, a lot of those rules changed as the power of the factions changed.
With the hunt for "soft" RINOs (AKA Republicans-In-Name-Only) after the end of Bush the Elder's tenure, the conservatives within the GOP removes one half of the balancing act within the factions making up the whole party. They drove out anyone who didn't agree to cut taxes across the board; they drove out anyone "liberal" or "un-Christian" on social issues like abortion and gay rights; they drove out anyone with a multinational view of diplomacy, in favor of a foreign policy that revolved around an aggressive unilateral stance against foe and ally alike.
A seemingly honest reform effort in the 1990s - by the new Republican leadership that rose in response to Bill Clinton - to end certain acts of favoritism such as committee seating assignments took away a major carrot party leaders in Congress used to control their back-benchers.
The Republican Party no longer handles discipline, in some respects they haven't since 1994: they've given that power over to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. As a result, the elected officials most likely to stand as party leaders pay allegiance to Roger Ailes and Rush: those two un-elected men - among others - who control the messaging for conservative dogma, and dominate the audiences those elected officials need to garner votes (and keep their cushy jobs).
As a result, the factions that make up the Republican Party tilted exceedingly Right-Wing to the point where there are no ideological differences within the party itself. Certain figures may speak or act on specific issues disparate from the GOP party line, but it's usually on just that one (pet project) issue. Everybody toes the party platform because that's how Fox News can sell it every night.
And with the homogenization (unity) of the message, it suddenly made it harder (yes) for one specific person to become a standard-bearer with the factions within the party.
When the factions had to bicker over the issues, it made it easy to rally members around leaders on that issue and allow those leaders - who tended to be charismatic or well-informed - to personalize the debate, make it easier for voters to identify the person to the party. This method also created a form of meritocracy where seniority of an effective politician translated into leadership. Someone who'd gotten elected multiple times arguing well on that issue earned that leadership role.
As a result, the Republicans were able to over the years raise significant leaders to control the party both at the podium and behind the scenes. Sometimes it would boil down to just one person (say, Robert Taft in the 1940s), but often there were several at one time: someone strong on foreign policy, someone strong on domestic issues, someone strong on finance, and often someone else on each topic arguing a different tack to provide honest debate (say, Goldwater vs. Rockefeller in the 1960s and 1970s).
When it came to Presidential primaries, those leaders would be the likely candidates (or a proxy who ran with that leader's blessing): as a result, most of the campaigns would orbit around four to six of them, making it easier to determine which candidate (and which issues) would win that election cycle. It was rare to see more run in any given election cycle: 1980 was packed up to ten candidates due to incumbent President Carter's weakness and the awareness of the nation's mood shifting to a post-New Deal conservatism. And even then, it was a clear two-candidate race between Reagan and Bush the Elder.
But today for 2016, lacking any genuine differences between candidates on the issues, it means ANYONE can stand up and declare him/herself a standard-bearer not just on specific issues but for the whole party.
Worse, it means that anyone within the Republican Party itself that's not even an elected official - hi, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson and Donald Trump - can rise to claim the standard-bearer role without ever proving themselves capable of winning any election in the first place. The entire meaning of merit - of experience and leadership on politics and issues - no longer has value.
And once again to note: the Citizens United ruling about uncontrolled campaign spending by third parties (SuperPACs) made it so that candidates no longer have to rely on the party for financial help: a candidate can rely on a single uber-rich backer who wants his special issues solved his way (which may harm the Republicans' overall popularity with regular voters). Candidates can also rely on nation-wide fund-raising efforts that don't have to go through the party. At this point, the RNC is a vestigial organ, much like the earlobe or the appendix: it's only real value is that they allow the candidates the means to get their names on the ballot.
As a result, we've got the most number of candidates running for the Republican ticket that has ever been seen (when Perry was in it, that made seventeen (!) names on the list). And while some of them are clearly nowhere near an honest chance of winning, as long as they can pay their bills they are in this thing muddying the waters and adding to the noise.
Let's look again at the natural factions that exist within the Republican Party, although now there's four instead of three:
- Pro-Business (has changed the least, still pushing for deregulation and tax cuts, essentially what passes for the Establishment leadership today)
- Foreign Policy (now a neo-conservative fringe that seeks an aggressive stance to the point of unilateral wars against "enemy states")
- Social Conservatism (now a Big-C Conservatism that follows an absolutist evangelical approach to Christianity)
- National Populism (a mixing of various elements from the other three factions that created its own Nativist and anti-Establishment world-view)
Rather than having one or two prominent figures in each faction, there are several in each. Making it worse is that as the Republicans merged every issue into a broad conservative agenda, the candidates have to pander across the board like never before: they cannot indulge in being "just" a tax-cut candidate or a "Praise Jesus" candidate (back in 1988 for example there were clear distinctions between George HW Bush and Bob Dole and Pat Robertson) they have to be both (even when those issues really do not blend well).
As a result, nobody can just say that Jeb! Bush is a Pro-Business candidate because he's also deep into the Social Conservatism range (think Terri Schiavo) as well as the Neocon Foreign Policy stance (due to having to defend his brother George W.'s debacles with the War on Terror and an unneeded Iraqi invasion).
And none of these candidates are willing to step down and back a more charismatic figure to ensure their issues hold sway. (Also because, honestly, few of these jokers are charismatic enough to pull it off)
And this means there is no one true standard-bearer around which the party can rally. Not even the clear Establishment name in Jeb!, who is right now drowning in the shallow end of the candidate pool in single-digit polling numbers.
If I had to break down the candidates by faction, it wouldn't be a clean break for most:
- Pro-Business: Jeb! Bush, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal,
- Foreign Policy: Lindsey Graham, Jeb! Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul (interestingly not as a neocon that dominates this issue nowadays)
- Social Conservatism: Jeb! Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio (except on immigration), Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal,
- National Populism: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz
Not a single stand-out figure for any faction, save for Donald Trump: the only candidate polling in double-digit leads over everyone else.
It is telling that the candidates right now in the Republican lead - Trump, Carson, with Fiorina nearing the top of the pack - are the ones with least experience and merit within the party ranks. They are the ones pandering best to the primary base, all because the party platform itself - drawn up and marketed by a conservative media more interested in creating outrage to generate ratings over actual governance - ignores and despises such expertise.
This is a problem for the Republicans and not the Democrats by the by because the Democrats did NOT go through any ideology purge like the Republicans did with their RINO hunting. As a result, there are clear distinctions between factions among the Democrats now to where only a handful of candidates - Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and maybe Joe Biden - have a clear reason to run. And right now the race is clearly a two-choice race between Hillary and Bernie.
For the Republicans, you are not going to see any clear distinctions any time soon. Not even when the primaries kick in for real and candidates actually start winning and losing votes. We may see another low-tier candidate fail out due to lack of funds, but none of them really stand out as an obvious to-fail name. Right now, all of them profit by staying in the race just a little bit longer... and a little bit more...
'Cause the candidates aren't really running for the Presidency.
The candidates are running for the next Fox News hosting gig.