Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Parties Matter

I don't really have much to add to Jamelle Bouie's excellent posts about "moderate" Republican presidential candidates and the incentives involved in seeking the GOP nomination. As he says:
[W]hen looking at the dynamics of a presidential primary, candidate history can only go so far. More important are the party constituencies and interests that shape the dynamics and incentives of a nominating contest. As governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty built a moderate image and governed from the center-right, but as a Republican candidate for president, Pawlenty will adjust to the issue priorities of the conservative coalition. And if he wins the nomination and the presidency, those priorities -- as well as his own issue emphases --- will be the best guide to his actions.
That's exactly correct.

The current fight for the GOP nomination has very little in common with, say, the fights in the 1940s and 1950s between the Eastern Establishment of the party and the conservatives. That fight basically ended for good in 1980. There are different groups and interests within the party, and sometimes there are fault lines that force politicians to choose between them, but whoever gets nominated is going to be basically responding to the same groups. The remaining questions are more about strategy and tactics than they are about either basic philosophy or which interests will be represented by a Republican White House. 

The one place I could imagine a real difference between candidates would be on foreign policy; there are serious rifts between (warning: shorthand, overly simplistic names) realists and idealists, with substantial policy implications at stake. However, I very much doubt that we'll see that seriously debated in the GOP primaries. It's much more likely that instead we'll see candidates competing for who can mouth the toughest-sounding cliches, while muddling through on actual policy. 

Beyond that, you can expect lots of attempts by candidates who basically occupy the same space to differentiate themselves without moving at all out of that space. So: not about, say, who is for cutting spending, but lots of symbolic stuff to show that a candidate is most for cutting spending.


  1. serious rift of foreign policy?

    Hmm. Straw man. Glenn Beck is crazy, but I don't see many people really following him on this.

  2. No, I'm not thinking of Beck. I'm thinking about basically the George H.W. Bush realists vs. the George W. Bush idealists (again, those words don't quite do the job, but I'm not sure "neocon" is any better, and I'm trying to stick to shorthand here. A synthesis is possible, and muddling through is possible, but there really are significant differences.

  3. the shorthand is tripping you up.

    Foreign policy ultimately isn't about parties -- it is about disposition. Some people are weak (George W) and tend to last out; others are indecisive (Carter and Obama); yet others are process (Geroge HW and H. Clinton).

    What is interesting about Obama is he is a bit more direct in allowing party actors into the foreign policy apparatus (see Donnilon).

    But coming up with false labels and then trying to ascribe subscriptions to them is a fools game.

  4. Agree totally with you and Jamelle, Jonathan. But I would add that what you describe in the GOP '12 primaries is what we had on our side in '08. There was very little ideological or issue separation between the candidates, and personal identities and resumes ruled. It was a nomination decided by the 1st black Prez vs. the 1st woman; someone with stunning charisma vs. a field that lacked it; and someone who opposed the Irsq War at the start vs. someone who voted for it. On issues going forward (as opposed to looking back, like on Iraq), disagreement on teh individual mandate was the only thing that got major political media attention, and even then it didn't get much attention from primary voters.

  5. Jayant, I mostly agree with you---with a couple of quibble:

    *Charisma is, in my view, an overused word. Obama's closest competitors (Clinton and Edwards, especially Edwards) were/could be charismatic, inspiring speakers too.

    Obama was able to nab the anti-Iraq War faction of the party. (Just as there's always room for a social conservative in Republican primaries, there's always room for a "peace" candidate in Democratic primaries.)

    Next, Obama was able to organize---people and even more importantly money. It was clear from the 3Q 2007 fundraising reports that Obama would be able to fund a Super Tuesday campaign if he won in Iowa or New Hampshire (traditionally the shoals on which Democratic insurgent campaigns crash, e.g., Howard Dean).

    Finally, Obama's campaign had a strategy they were able to implement for February 2008 by which they won delegate-rich caucus states disproportionately. In retrospect, the key strategic error by the Clinton campaign was not recognizing the full implications of the 3Q 2007 fundraising reports, and developing a "Plan B" for a drawn-out primary battle.


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