2016 Republican primary spoilers

I suppose that in this context the word “spoiler” can have multiple significances, so let me be perfectly clear: I mean “Bruce Willis was, himself, a ghost the whole time” type spoilers.

So, for those who don’t want the suspense ruined, sorry. (Okay, not really sorry.) The Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2016 will almost certainly be John Ellis Bush, better known to those who take an interest as “JEB.” Moreover, you can just about bet your life that if the GOP nominee is not Jeb, it will be Rick Perry.

So, now you can safely ignore all of the horse-race speculation of the next 14 months or so—even if you recognize its lack of real substance and were consciously paying attention for the horse-race element only. Because under the surface—a surface which is actually quite transparent anyway—GOP presidential primaries have to be among the most reliably predictable activities in American politics.

You will not hear this from journalists or pundits, of course. In fact I don’t believe you’ll hear it from much of anyone, and you wouldn’t even be hearing it from me except that I’ve decided I just cannot stand the pending absurdity without some entirely futile effort to call it out for the bullshit that it is. Therefore, this once, I shall indulge in political horse-race commentary in order to highlight what is probably the most egregious waste of oxygen in the whole vapid phenomenon, i.e. the fantasy that the Republican presidential primary is ever a “wide-open, competitive and unpredictable free-for-all.”

This was probably true once. It has not been true for getting on two generations now, at least.

Despite all claims to the contrary, the 2016 GOP primary is not remotely a “wide-open” contest. Despite all claims to the contrary, Scott Walker is not a “strong contender” for the nomination. Chris Christie ain’t gonna put up a significant challenge. Nor will Marco Rubio. You can forget about Rand Paul, and you can certainly forget John Kasich, as well as every other governor whom the local newspapers inevitably and childishly decide is a hot prospect.

Except for Rick Perry, and you can probably forget about him too barring an absolute “black swan” turn of events.

Why can you forget all of these people on whom America’s media are going to indulge interminable feverish speculation well into next year? Because—Rick Perry, again, a partial exception—it isn’t their turn.

This is basically what Republican presidential nomination “races” come down to, consistently, once all of the circus freak-show acts have come and gone. After all of the fan-dancing and flirtation, primary voters line up behind the runner-up from the previous primary, unless there is a “legacy” candidate.

Addendum 6/3: Watching the number of official and unofficial 2016 candidates climb and climb, my thesis seems all the more persuasive fwiw. With nine, ten, sixteen or more names confronting them, doesn’t it seem all the more likely that many primary voters will latch on to one that stands out as relatively proven?

I’ll be perfectly honest, the “it’s his turn” concept isn’t even mine.* I don’t remember where or exactly when I read this, but it stuck with me, and the only qualifier that it requires so far as I can tell is that some candidates can jump to the head of the line without having to wait for “their turn.” Basically, if you’re the vice president of an outgoing Republican administration, or close family of a former Republican president, you’re apparently a “legacy” candidate and waved to the front.

Nearly 40 years’ worth of primary history seems to bear out this theory. The GOP’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, seems to me to have been the first runner-up in 2008… losing to John McCain largely, so far as I could discern, because it was McCain’s turn not Romney’s. McCain himself was edged out by George W. Bush in 2000 for no particular reason that I can identify besides “W” being a legacy. In 1996, the GOP nominated crotchety, scowling Bob Dole (not to be too harsh, given that I voted for him) presumably because it was his turn after having lost the 1988 primary to George H.W. Bush… who was then a sitting vice president. At this point, especially after skipping another election cycle because of Reagan’s re-election, we’re getting into the fringes of my political knowledge, though I believe that Reagan did challenge Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976 and thus it may well have been his turn in 1980.

I should add that, being bombarded with (stupid) writing on the subject almost daily for months now, I have given this some thought and concluded that there’s actually a decent theory here in addition to observational evidence: the Republican Party looks for the candidate who ensures orderly succession. When you think about it this way, there is nothing all that mysterious or odd, here. I suspect that, through the long arc of human history, the search for leadership has functioned along these lines more often than not. Arguably this has been the whole point of millennia of monarchy: not to ensure fairness but simply to ensure an orderly succession and thereby preempt anarchy.

Further, while Americans may not appreciate this, it has often been more complicated than “hereditary monarchy” may imply. “Eldest heir of the current leader” still leaves room for arguing over all sorts of details: are females included, what about children out of wedlock, or children who are still infants, etc. Meanwhile plenty of societies have explicitly eschewed primogeniture, from the Anglo-Saxons to the Ottoman Turks right up to the contemporary House of Saud. The Roman Emperors, while largely honoring primogeniture in theory, often exploited the loophole of adoption in practice; from this perspective even the exceptions to the GOP’s “his turn” rule fit into a larger pattern. Though not a literal adopted heir, George H.W. Bush was essentially Reagan’s formal successor by virtue of being next in the constitutional order of succession. Thus the turn-skipping nominations of Bush the elder and Bush the younger (and potentially Bush the former governor of Florida) are basically instances of the same phenomenon at their core.

Essentially, Republican primary voters—like millennia of barons, burghers, and extended royal families—look for continuity with previous leaders. Close blood relations or “adopted” heirs are preferred when available, and runners-up from the previous primary are the default alternative when not.

Just like primogeniture, this model does not cover every possible contingency. But in practice it seems to cover most election cycles quite sufficiently, including this one now that Mitt Romney has formally declined another run.

This recent news is one further reason why I decided to post these thoughts, because it basically removed what might have been a formally interesting challenge to my theorized system. If the nominee from one election cycle fails to win the presidency, but then seeks the nomination again, what happens? Does continuity mean he goes to the head of the line? Or is it no longer “his turn” because he had a turn and it’s ended? It may be that this latter argument was quietly impressed upon Romney behind the scenes, but in any event we’ll have to wait to find out what might have happened had he brassed it out and insisted “I am still king!” Likewise it will probably be a long time before we find out what happens if, e.g., children of two recent Republican presidents both pursue the nomination at once.

By contrast, I think what will happen in 2016 is simple. Let the Kochs spend as many billions as they want, here. It’s Rick Perry’s turn, based on his showing in 2012, but Jeb Bush is a legacy so Rick Perry is SOL along with everyone else. If some disaster made it absolutely impossible for Republicans to nominate Jeb, primary voters would probably settle back with Perry… although to be honest, unless it happened soon I think any event shocking enough to derail a Jeb candidacy could well be so shocking that order might just break down. Perhaps even resulting in one of those “brokered conventions” of which old political reporters still dream wistfully. Otherwise, though, Walker and Christie and Rubio et al. aren’t even outside hopes, so far as I can tell. At best one of them may finish in a firm second place and thereby secure the nomination for 2020 or 2024. (Barring yet another rival from the Bush dynasty.)

As for any other “what about” you might bring up, I think most of them can be thrown aside. Outside of issues directly relating to orderly succession, I don’t think modern Republican primary voters give two figs for whataboutism in any form. This, after all, is the party that just three years ago chose as their nominee the champion of health care legislation which was, undeniably, the most important model for the national program that said party had by then spent years demonizing as the single absolute worst thing to happen in all American history. It didn’t fucking matter. This tells me a couple of things. One, that for all the growing and disquieting similarities between my loathing of Republicans and their loathing of all non-Republicans, they are the fanatically tribal lizard-people not me… and two, that as long as a candidate is willing to dissemble and pander (pretty much a given), nothing matters more than orderly succession. It was Romney’s turn, the end.

Before wrapping this up, though, I should point out that I’m aware of vulnerabilities in this model. For one thing, time passes quickly when looking at presidencies; with the advantages of incumbency it’s very easy for a generation to pass with just three or four presidents. So it isn’t hard to develop patterns that reach many decades into the past but still rest on a very small sample size.

Also, I have generally concluded that trying to predict politics on any kind of substantial scale is a mug’s game; I think this is an exception but it’s worth asking whether I should really trust that it’s so. Realistically there is no formal “runner-up” in primaries, and it could be that I’m only seeing a pattern at all through hindsight. Perhaps I’m just letting bias impair my judgment; given my low opinion of the party it’s by no means dissatisfying for me to sneer at the GOP lining up behind inherited legitimacy rather than engaging in any kind of honest contest of merit (let alone real policy solutions).

That said, any such sneering is relatively limited for one big reason (in addition to the fact that the Democratic Party may well choose a dynastic nominee of its own in 2016). Basically, I just don’t see how it matters that much. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t really matter whom the GOP nominates; in my view they’re all psychologically damaged people bent on policies that will obviously make our society worse. From a slightly less inflammatory perspective, I might simply note that short of his party spending a very long time out of office, any president seems inevitably to bring back most of the administration of his predecessor. This, frankly, seems to apply to Democrat and Republican administrations alike.

In which case, why not prioritize orderly succession if most of the candidates are going to result in much the same administration? In Democrats’ case, I think many of us still care a bit more about principle, even nuances of principle, than about united opposition to the enemy no matter what… but I’m not even sure there. As regards Republicans, by contrast, well… I’ll believe that they have any greater priority than tribal power—in primary decisions or anything else—when I see it.

* 8/5: I don’t recall reading it before, but Ezra Klein points to one possible precedent here.

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