One of my favorite political trivia questions runs as follows: “In the last half of the 20th century, how many Republican Party presidential tickets did not have a Nixon, Dole or Bush on them?”. That the correct answer is “One” (the 1964 ticket) speaks to the extraordinarily organized way that the Republican Establishment managed the party nomination process for decades after World War II.
I think it was Mark Shields who said during the 2000 election that Republicans pick nominees in a fashion similar to how family-owned banks in Ohio pick a new president: “OK everyone, thanks for coming to the meeting. Dad is retiring. Bill is his oldest son so he will be the president. Any objections? No? Great, see you on Monday.” Shields was commenting at the time on why even the best-run, most public imagination capturing insurgent campaign in the post WWII-history of the Republican Party (John McCain’s) would ultimately get crushed by the party establishment and the rank-and-file voters who take their marching orders therefrom.
But my have things changed. I view President G.W. Bush as a critical figure in the party’s transformation because while he couldn’t have been elected without the Republican Establishment he made clear his contempt of them the moment he got into office. More cracks showed in the 2008 nomination race, a multi-car train wreck that McCain somehow won. In 2010, the Tea Party candidates were running as much against the Republican Establishment as they were against Democrats. And today, after the sort of serious people the Establishment would have loved (Thune, Daniels) declined to run, Governor Perry joins Gingrich, Pawlenty, Paul, Bachmann, Romney, Santorum and Cain (and Palin?) in a circular-firing-squad-cum-rugby scrum. Never in my lifetime has the Republican Party nomination process involved so many divisive figures, second-rate figures and genuine loons, nor evoked such a lack of broadly shared enthusiasm for any one candidate. In short, the Republican Party today is reminiscent of the Democratic Party of the early 1970s, and that’s a huge edge for President Obama no matter which Republican nominee he faces in 2012.