Is The Republican Primary George McGovern’s Fault?

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

Related Post Roulette

32 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    +1 for a reference to The Room.Report

  2. sonmi451 says:

    No one was showing swing-voter Jane Doe those planks of the Democratic base best left under the rug.

    Heh. I can’t tell whether you meant this as a compliment or not.

    I don’t think it’s comparable though. Sweeping things considered too base-friendly under the rug is par for the course for Democrats, not so much for Republicans.

    But seriously, hankering for backroom deals in this day and age? What is this, Chicago-style politics? 🙂Report

    • Kimmi in reply to sonmi451 says:

      somebody’s just upset at Koch and company. Backroom politics is stillt he rage in the Republican party (and I’m betting it will continue to be until someone kicks the really old school cons out)Report

  3. James Hanley says:

    FYI, what Cost is saying (based on your post, I didn’t read the original) is right in line with what presidential scholars are saying.  In general, the disconnect between the party organizational structure and the selection of the party’s nominee is very bad for the parties and leads to a different type of presidential candidate than we got in the 19th century when the party leaders really dominated the selection process, and even different now than in the early to mid 20th century.

    Yes, the wingnut shift in the GOP exacerbates that, but without the primary system, they wouldn’t be able to control the selection process.  In the old days, they’d have been shunted aside and their candidates would have quickly gone down to defeat as the convention went through ballot after ballot until they got someone who was relatively non-offensive to all sides.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

      And then Arlen Spector would STILL be defeated. Without the base, he doesn’t win PA’s general election.

      When the base gets restive, party leadership better pay attention.Report

    • I dunno. Besides right now and arguably 1972, it seems to me that post-reforms, the parties have always chosen the logical, most electable candidate.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Elias Isquith says:

        1 in 3 on santorum. and he’s NOT the most electable.

        (better than cheney, but who isn’t?)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Elias Isquith says:

        the parties have always chosen the logical, most electable candidate

        Given that half those candidates have lost, that’s a hard claim to demonstrate. 😉

        More seriously, though, it’s not just about electability, but about the type of people who end up becoming candidates.  The primary system is what gives us the self-driven egotistical power-abusing presidents we’ve fairly consistently had throughout your and my lifetimes.  They’re not disciplined at all by their parties because in many ways they run against their party’s interest, except to the extent it just so happens to line up with their own, because instead of having to appeal to party leaders they just have to appeal to a slice of the public.

        And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s particularly democratic–consider how small the primary electorate is, and how non-median-voter it is.  We have a system that could hardly be better designed for promoting the interests of folks like the Tea Party.

        If we want to reign in an increasingly un-checked presidency, ending primaries and returning to selection by party elites at conventions is a critical necessity.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to James Hanley says:

          The primary system is what gives us the self-driven egotistical power-abusing presidents

          Sorry, I’m not seeing this.  At least as a new thing.  I mean, you can rephrase it as ‘drive, ambition, and a willingness to bend the rules’ and you get Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts, Kennedy and (the second) Johnson, at the very least.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

            And of course, Nixon,  But contrast it with Bush 1, who came to power in the current system*, but would have been equally a ‘natural’ President in 1989 or 1889.

            *though if you look at some of his 1980 speeches, it would indeed be unlikely that he could have been nominated today – for Prez or Vice-PrezReport

          • James Hanley in reply to Kolohe says:


            Jackson’s a fascinating outlier.  He managed to subvert the original caucus system of selecting candidates, and that helped lead to the convention system.

            We can’t say that Lincoln was driven like current presidents are–we have no idea what he’d have done in the absence of a civil war.

            Polk is also an interesting character, one of the few–and that’s the key, one of the few memorable presidents of the 19th century.  He stands out as unusually active for his time period, today he wouldn’t.

            Wilson, in fact, is one of the key characters in all this. He provided the theoretical foundation for the modern presidency, arguing that the prez should dominate the political system. All your other examples are 20th century examples, as the primary system was expanding, and they support my point. (I’m not sure about JFK, though; I think he was just a dilettante who wanted status, rather than caring about actual power.)

            Note that I’m not saying the old system could never produce a driven person, just that it tended not to, because most of those people had made too many enemies to survive the convention.  Some slipped through occasionally, or their drive only became apparent once they had the White House.   By contrast, who could imagine a Silent Cal today? Or a Harding-style front-porch campaign?  Today’s candidate has to be highly personally driven, to a dangerous level.

            I recommend Crenson and Ginsberg’s Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced. It’s not a light read (the density of the material isn’t really the issue, but the style of presentation, unfortunately), but it’s an eye-opening book.Report

        • Scott Fields in reply to James Hanley says:

          James –

          I think you make some excellent points here about primaries leading to a particular type of candidate that isn’t going to be good for the party or necessarily for the country, either.   On the other hand, I have no good idea what selection by party elites would look like these days with the Internet, talk radio and 24 hour cable news.

          That said, Jay Cost trying to put the GOP’s current predictament on “lefty do-gooders of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (his phrase) smells of a desperate attempt to escape blame.  Elias is right that the party faithful have gone off the deep end, but it was the party elites (elected officials, opinion leaders) that pushed them there.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Scott Fields says:

            On the other hand, I have no good idea what selection by party elites would look like these days with the Internet, talk radio and 24 hour cable news.

            Yeah, good point. Hopefully it would mean John Boehner and Mitch McConnell making the decision in a back room before Rush had a chance to weigh in, but I’d hate to bet on that.Report

  4. Rufus F. says:

    Ah, I remember back when conservatives only talked about cultural decline!

    Seriously, though, you probably don’t remember back when “liberal” wasn’t a dirty word and the Democratic Party seemed to be constantly on the verge of going off the loony cliff. It was back around the time in the mid to late 80s when people were talking about how there was always going to be a Republican president because America was a Republican country by God. The left “base” was about as alienated and angry as the tea party is now. Anyone recall “Rock Against Reagan”? I also vaguely remember it being even worse in the late 70s; certainly, the “fringe” left writing from that time period is pretty nutty. Anyway, the Democrat recovery you’re sort of talking about took, what 12 years to happen? And, hey, maybe Romney will win and there will be a permanent Republican majority forever! Or, maybe they’ll lose and it’s a permanent Democratic majority forever!Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Rufus F. says:

      yeah, the dems went whacko for a while, and needed someone to truly clean house. Clinton’s moderate is very different from Campaign Obama’s moderate… but they both come from the same school of “get it done”Report

  5. DensityDuck says:

    “The far more logical explanation for the Republican Party’s current nomination woes?”

    …was something written twenty years ago.Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    So what you’re saying, Elias, is that the primary system is delivering to the Republican party exactly what its members really want?

    On a related note, has anyone done a delegate projection if all the primaries had been winner-take-all?Report

  7. James K says:

    A thought-provoking post Elias, I think this merits a blognado post.Report

  8. Tom Van Dyke says:

    As a matter of fact, Elias, the Obamans played the race card on Hillary and Bill over the LBJ legacy [and comparing Obama’s SC to Jesse Jackson’s], and swung the black vote.  How soon we forget.

    Blankley got it wrong, though.  Obama played the race card masterfully.  For more info, google Clinton, Obama and “fairy tale.”

    NYT Mag:
    “None of them ever really took seriously the race rap,” [Bill Clinton] told me. “They knew it was politics. I had one minister in Texas in the general election come up and put his arm around me.” This was an Obama supporter. “And he came up, threw his arm around me and said, ‘You’ve got to forgive us for that race deal.’ He said, ‘That was out of line.’ But he said, ‘You know, we wanted to win real bad.’ And I said, ‘I got no problem with that.’ I said it’s fine; it’s O.K. And we laughed about it and we went on.”

    As for the rest of the OP’s analysis, the 2012 GOP field is comparable to the Dems’ 2004 field, what you tend to get when running vs. an incumbent.  Romney’s an uncanny GOP mirror of John Kerry, come to think of it, and how the GOP can be slagged on as going nuts when the biggest moderate is the frontrunner is an elision of reality, IMO.

    Yes, Santorum is more ideological [probably too ideological to win the general], but still, he’s a two-term senator from a purple state.  You can find him on the electoral map.

    As for Newt, well, he’s Newt, a one-of-a-kind.  Policywise, he’s all over the map and it would be unfair to call him hard-right or any ideological box.

    The interesting thing in 2012 is that the Tea Party—the activists, “the nuts”—don’t have a candidate.  Michele Bachmann was heavily invested in the Tea Party but the feeling wasn’t mutual.  Herman Cain never got a vote, and we shouldn’t read too much in the “signalling” of early primary polls.  Rick Perry was the Tea Party dream, I guess, but even the “nuts” could tell he doesn’t have the Right Stuff.

    The guys who are left are…the guys who are left.  Pawlenty quit too soon, but that shows a tentativeness of character that we need in a president.  Mitch Daniels would be polishing his nomination acceptance speech right now, but he just didn’t want his family dirt dragged through the 24/7 news cycle.  [Look for him as VP, though.  VPs get more slack unless they’re named Palin.]

    Jay Cost’s analysis is even worse.  The only reason 2012 is still open is that Romney can’t seal the deal with the GOP, and that’s his fault, not the party’s, not the system’s.  Geo. Dubya cruised wire-to-wire in 2000, following Cost’s preferred script to a T.  So too, after Pat Buchanan’s surprise win in New Hampshire scared the bejesus out of the party establishment in 1996, the party unified behind sure but noble loser Bob Dole in short order.

    And of course, there still could be a convention brokered by the gargoyles with the foul-smelling cigars.  Enter the strongest and most qualified Republican of them all, who sat this one out because of his unfortunate surname.


    • Kolohe in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      I agree with all of this.  Though I wonder if a John Ellis Garnica Gallo would actually have a better chance of being able to put this thing away.Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Kolohe says:

        Hell yes, Mr. Kohole.  I give Middling Mitt a 50-50 shot just as the Not-Bama.  Ex-Gov Gallo would be an actual plus candidate across the board: on paper, on the stump, and with the party machine.  I put him with Bill Clinton as the best in decades, except for, you know.

        This was an accident of birth that cut both ways.Report

    • Katherine in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      In short, the poor showing this year isn’t because of some change in the primary system – it’s because people don’t like running against an incumbent president.  Makes sense.  There’s not a lot of candidates (besides Newt) so old that a run in 2016 would be out of the question.

      Although I think the extremism of the Republican base also plays a definite role.  Kerry went out of his way to appear a moderate in the 2004 primary.  Romney’s going out of his way to cast himself as far-right (that’s why we think they’re nuts, Tom – even their “sane” candidate is crazy.  Cut the deficit while increasing defence spending, but don’t increase taxes by one cent!  And let’s throw in a war with Iran too!  And well we’re at it, we need to antagonize Russia more, just for the hell of it.  And we all know the government can’t create jobs, so let’s attack them for not creating enough jobs!)


      • wardsmith in reply to Katherine says:

        Katherine I wrote an OP on this back in December but I see you were one of the few who read it. I also suspect Pelosi read it or one of her staffers. 😉Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Katherine says:

        I didn’t get into the partisan politics of the thing, Katherine, more an arm’s-length assessment of the dynamics.

        I’m only hoping that Romney is keeping his powder dry about the failures of the Obama presidency and will unleash them at the proper time.  If he were to reveal his strategy and arguments now, the Obama campaign would have ample time to defuse them by November.

        The Solyandra and Fast & Furious messes, for instance.  KeystoneXL and the entire NIMBY energy policy.  To litigate them now would result in them being “old news” by November.  Bill Clinton escaped a lot of heat with the “old news” tactic, abetted by a willing press.  I can only suspect and hope that Romney’s not as incompetent a campaigner as he appears: the charitable reading is that he’s doing the minimum to cruise to the nomination and saving his heavier artillery.


        Should the status quo maintain, Katherine, that Romney’s on trial and Obama gets a free pass, it’ll be a McGovern-Mondale style wipeout.


  9. Scott Fields says:

    Beyond the Kerry/Romney parallels, which I agree are uncanny, I think it’s quite a stretch to compare the 2012 GOP candidates to the 2004 Dems.  We all have our blinders, I suppose, but I don’t remember seeing the same level of flop sweat coming from the left then as I’m seeing on the right today. Comfort yourself however you wish.

    I find it interesting that you are able to compartmentalize the idea that the Tea Party doesn’t have a candidate from the observation that Romney hasn’t been able to seal the deal with the Grand Old Party.  The Not-Romney vote is the Tea Party vote, isn’t it?  One by one, the base electorate has tried on every shirt on the rack, has found that none of them fit, yet they still don’t want to go home with the Mitt.Report

    • Scott Fields in reply to Scott Fields says:

      I meant that as a reply to Tom. 🙂Report

    • Mr. Fields, I give Romney a better shot than I gave Kerry.  That’s only my opinion, but I’m honestly not feeling the flopsweat you attribute to yr opponents, nor do our opinions amt to much either way.

      Fer the record, poll sez “tea party Republicans also favor Santorum over Romney, 44 percent to 23 percent.”  Substantial, but Santorum is also accused of being a big-gov’t conservative—my impression of his record is a Dubya-style “compassionate conservatism,” which went over about as well as New Coke.

      Sen. Tom Coburn, now that would have been interesting—same Catholic sensibilities as Santorum but a top 5 deficit hawk in Congress.  Probably too much of everything for America.  At the end of the day, we like vanilla.

      The only way Romney wins in November is as being less radical than Obama.

      Which IMO, he very much is.  Santorum is as radical as Obama in his own way, according to my own assessment of where the American center lies.  So, that’s a push, and Santorum’s resume isn’t particularly impressive either.

      Gingrich?  Impossible to pin down ideologically.  One day he wants to kick Iran’s ass, the next he wants to give a laptop to every black kid in America.  I guess it’s that whether he veers into the right ditch or the left ditch, Newt’s always radical, veering into one ditch or the other.


      • Kolohe in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Coburn would bring occasional facial hair to the Presidency, which really is the best and oldest tradition of the Republican party.

        The flopsweat is there, because the players in the Republican party see this right now as a possible squandered opportunity than the equivalent players in the Democrats in 2004, where it was always going to be an uphill fight.   See how the Virginia legislature has walked back just some of the recent efforts on the culture war stuff – and keeping McDonnell from signing a bill that would be hard to defend as a VP candidate (and even if McDonnell not on the ballot, would nonetheless provide the tipping point to allow Obama to keep Virginia in the electoral college).Report