Monday, February 04, 2008

# Posted 3:45 AM by Patrick Porter  

POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT THEORY: For the past decade or so, I've had a little theory about Primary contests in the US.

It seems that the political establishment of both parties has great resilience, more than is often assumed. It can mobilise money, people, contacts, rumours, and primal fear better than even the most exciting challengers.

Of course, this 'establishment' concept is relative rather than absolute - most folk who become serious candidates for the presidency have serious money, influence and elite interest behind them somewhere in the background. But some are more establishment than others.

So in 2000, Bush junior crushed 'maverick' McCain in 2000 after a promising initial campaign, while Al Gore hammered Bill Bradley. In 2004, a patrician John Kerry overcame Howard Dean.

In 2008, it seemed that Hillary Clinton almost had the nomination by birthright, by dynastic association and by her core place in American public life. It seemed that she would dominate against John Edwards the populist anti-poverty campaigner and Barak Obama, the charismatic candidate branding himself explicitly as an outsider against the defunct Washington status quo.

For a while there, it seemed that this theory would be vindicated. But now it is no so clear. Partly as a result of the missteps of the Clintons, partly because of the kind of momentum Taylor discusses below, and maybe because there is an anti-dynastic sentiment coming to life in this campaign.

The Republicans, for the first time in years, don't have a clear establishment candidate, and it isn't even clear whether they have a homogeneous establishment. Their powerful backers are fractured between fiscal conservatives, small government libertarians and big-spending social engineers, between socially conservative evangelical Christians and socially progressive economic liberals.

After the implosion of Rudi Guliani's candidacy, and the strain of Romney and Huckabee trying to out-flank one another from the right, John McCain emerges as the one who can cobble together some kind of coalition.

Its hard to predict, but I suspect that if we wins the nomination, his fortunes will rise and fall with the success or failure of the 'surge.' He has criticised the Bush Administration's execution of policy, but identifies himself with the policy itself. He has lashed himself unambiguously to the war in Iraq. In this sense the nexus between foreign policy and domestic politics will be very tight, even if Iraq stabilises and recovers in 2008 and stays off the back page.

McCain has occasionally 'flip flopped' in the past. Most notably by courting the religious right that he once denounced. But overall, he seems the one Republican whose position on vital issues, from immigration to Iraq to electoral finance reform - is built on fundamental views and a bit of courage.

In a perfect world, I'd have McCain as President and a more untested but truly soaring Obama as Vice President. Oh well, can't have everything.
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The Republicans, for the first time in years, don't have a clear establishment candidate,

But still pretty clear. The Republicans have shown a strong tendency to nominate the "next in line" even when the next in line is the guy who ran and finished second in the last contested primary. Reagan, Bush, Dole, et al. all finished second in the primaries before winning. So McCain would indeed be the historically typical Republican choice.

The Democrats, by contrast, have almost never nominated the second place candidate from last time. Gary Hart was the last second place candidate from last time to even be a favorite for the nomination. Of course, that's partially because the second place finisher has often come from the same outsider wing of the party (concentrated in educated young white males)-- Dean, Hart, Jerry Brown, Tsongas, among others, though there's also been Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Scoop Jackson, and others. Consistently, though, the Democrats have avoided running anyone who ran for the nomination and didn't get it before.
The phrase "establishment candidate" seems to mean different things to different people. You use it in the sense of Batter On Deck, presumptive nominee, essentially by default; the guy most people would think of if you asked them in an off year 'who will run in the next election.'

That is all very well and Toryish, but it doesn't seem to be the current usage, which carries far more opprobrium. What they now seem to mean by "establishment candidate" is "tool of the elites/Moneyed Powers/Eastern Establishment/Rockefeller types" and so forth.

It is always an insult, and it always applies to someone who is not your guy. I remember listening to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham ranting in her flat nasal tone about how Giuliani (full disclosure: my guy), back when he was polling on the radar, was the "establishment candidate" and a RINO and everybody was shafting Fred Thompson. Then I think it was Romney was the RINO. Then Thompson dropped out and McCain became the "establishment candidate" and Romney was It.

Basically "establishment candidate" now means "someone you don't like." But if you believe that the United States is run by six families and always has been and always will be, then I suppose the guy they like is the "establishment candidate."
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