It’s debate night again, which we all know means that we’re mostly going to be hearing about Ben Carson’s old relatives and professors, imaginary and otherwise, and their belt buckles and their $10 bills. And that’s fine, to a point. This is the fire-walk you have to make when you run for president. If the facts turn out to be more or less on his side, he’ll get through it. If not, he won’t. But for him to say that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama didn’t have to endure anything like this, with the draft controversy and the Jeremiah Wright story, just shows that he’s delusional. And for him to say this is happening to him because he’s a unique threat to the liberal establishment proves that he’s simultaneously a naif and a megalomaniac.
But that’s a sideshow. And yet... hasn’t the whole thing been a sideshow? Yes, it has. We’ve gone from Trump’s Mexican rapists to Trump’s hair to Trump’s putdown of John McCain to Trump’s putdown of everybody else to Carson’s phantasmagorical childhood stories. Now sure, there is no doubt that a lot of this is media-driven. But not all of it. Candidates can push back against media superficiality if they have ideas. But these candidates have had essentially nothing interesting to say about policy, because the Republican Party and its voters aren’t designed to reward candidates who have anything interesting to say about policy.
In fact, it’s worse than that. They’re designed to punish them. Let’s quickly review: The ones who have tried to take mildly interesting policy positions, notably Rand Paul with his interesting thinking on the prison-industrial complex, are at 2 percent in the polls, barely qualifying to be on that stage tonight. The leaders are the carnival barkers. This isn’t an accident. It’s a logical reflection of what the GOP is today. Trump shot up after bashing Mexicans. Carson shot up because he’s a Godly man and he’s black and he’s not Trump or Jeb Bush. Nothing about their rise has anything to do with ideas.
You’re saying “Ah, stop being naive, it’s always this way.” No. In fact it’s rarely this way. Yes, there are always media sideshows. But candidates like Trump and Carson—the two people who are arguably the least qualified to be president in the entire field—have never gone out to such big leads, combining for half the vote. So this is really without precedent.
I’ve been reading lately about the late 1980s, and specifically Bill Clinton’s rise to national prominence, and my reading is suggesting to me that at the level of presidential politics, the Republican Party of 2016 is where the Democratic Party was in 1988. They’ve lost two in a row, and pretty badly (not as badly as the Democrats lost to Reagan, but allowing for today’s greater polarization, the electoral college results of the last two elections have been pretty lousy for the GOP).
But it’s a natural human urge to scour the landscape for excuses and rationalizations before staring down the hard truths. And so in each case, Democrats of 1988 and Republicans of today were and are able to say to themselves: Ah, but those two losses, they were an aberration. We lost to an unusually charismatic man, for whom the media was in the tank (yes, Democrats said this about the press and Ronald Reagan, and not to start a whole ’nother argument, but there was something to it). On the level of pure ideas, the people are still with us!
The Democrats were fooling themselves when they said it in ’88, and the Republicans are being equally delusional today. The national electorate had turned on the Democrats by then, and it is against this extreme GOP of today, at least in terms of handing the White House over to the party (Republicans can chalk up state-level wins in a lot of states, obviously, but those states aren’t enough to elect a president).
By 1992, after the third straight loss, the Democrats were finally able to look in the mirror and say to themselves, OK, we’re screwed unless we change. Welfare reform? Free trade? Death penalty for a guy who left his pecan pie in his cell because he thought he could eat it later? Whatever, man. We’ll swallow it all. We’re tired of the desert. We want to win.
So the question for the Republicans is, is this 1988 or 1992? I think it’s 1988, because they haven’t yet lost that third one. It’s the third one that drives it home. Especially if it’s to you know who.
But if it’s 1988, then that brings up another question. Do they choose their Mike Dukakis, or their Jesse Jackson? This analogy is to my mind unfair to Jackson, because at least he’d spent a lifetime in politics and knew the issues, whereas Trump is a blowhard and Carson is an idiot, er, excuse me, a yes-he’s-a-brilliant-surgeon-what-I-mean-when-I-say-idiot-is-political-idiot. But it’s close enough for present purposes: Will the GOP nominate a Dukakis-esque regular-track pol (Marco Rubio, everyone seems to think) or will it roll the dice on an insurgent?
The Democrats went with Dukakis. The Republicans probably will go with their Dukakis at the end of the day, and he could win, just as Dukakis could have if he’d punched back. But this isn’t just about punching and counter-punching, which takes me back to where I started. Elections are contests of ideas more than most people think. If the Dukakis of 1988 had been willing the shed just a little more Democratic orthodoxy, maybe that would have helped him. The Rubio of 2015 certainly hasn’t shed much orthodoxy. Indeed, he’s acquired it: He’s moved hard to starboard on the minimum wage (abolish it), abortion rights (no exceptions), and of course immigration reform (now against). And he’s got a tax plan that is cagily crafted to give a higher cut in percentage terms to people at the bottom, but it’s just another Republican giveaway to the top .1 percent.
So I’ll be watching the debate looking for someone to say something unexpected, orthodoxy-challenging, and actually intelligent. And then, more crucially, I’ll be looking in the succeeding days to see if it helped them. But I won’t be holding my breath.