Over at Mischiefs of Faction, John Patty has a theory for why there are eleventy billion Republican presidential candidates. There’s a bit of casting about for an answer, but what he ultimately arrives at can be summed up as: it’s the price the GOP is paying for pursuing a short-sighted strategy of ramping up outrage on every front as part of an overall total obstruction policy.
The reason for this, as I see it, is that there are a number of tangible objets de la colère (objects of anger) for the GOP base. Obama, Obamacare, Immigrants, Unions, Gay Marriage, Budget Deficits, just to name a few. These are all very different now in a way that wasn’t always true…
…The problem for the GOP is that there are so many policies and other issues that are induisant la colère (anger inducing) to their natural electoral base. Simply put, the GOP seems like a party that, at the base, is mad…
…As demonstrated by the craziness of the unqualified GOP candidate [Donald Trump’s] current media frenzy, it is completely reasonable to suppose that the establishment Republicans opened Pandora’s box by so clearly, stridently, and unthinkingly aimed at opposing all things coming from the other side of the aisle (arguably, the best recent example of such a stance came from then-Minority Leader and now-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell).
Succoring anger solicits serious squabbles.
What does political science say about this? I think it’s easy: the GOP as a “national party” focused very narrowly/short-term for the past 6 or so years, and the currently broad, voluble, and volatile field is the price they pay for what probably seemed like a worthwhile bet to block/repeal the Affordable Care Act. That bet didn’t pay off, but it’s still coming due, and will be paid over the next 3-12 months.
If what we’re concerned with is the size of the Republican field, this theory doesn’t have a particularly convincing causal explanatory power. Or, perhaps, we can use this observation as a tool to dig deeper. I do think Patty has identified a factor, even if it isn’t necessarily one of the strongest factors.
I think he comes closer with this:
I won’t continue on a granular level: the point is that the broad and deep slate of GOP candidates reifies the constellation of discord and discontent within part of the GOP’s base. To be clear, this type of mutli-faceted cleavage is not unusual in “the opposition”—when a party has been in the wilderness for a sustained period, it is frequently the case that none of the various factions has a sustained and acclaimed position of primacy.
The problem is that I think that there’s a serious error in the premise here. It’s true that the Republican base is upset about a wide array of issues, some cultural, some economic, some about foreign policy. What’s not clear, however, is that more than a couple of the candidates are running to represent just one of these issues, or to represent a faction of a divided party. I think we can say comfortably that Sen. Lindsey Graham is running primarily to defend neo-conservativsm from an assault by Rand Paul. And Rand Paul represents a unique faction within the GOP. But, beyond those two individuals, it gets a little more difficult.
We might be able to identify Ben Carson as an anti-ObamaCare candidate, but this doesn’t distinguish him or separate him from the others. Opposing the health care law is a default position, not a factional one.
We can identify some fissures, though. Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump oppose entitlement reform and Rick Santorum has rather unconvincingly tried to rebrand himself as a working-class populist. Jeb Bush has problems with the base on education policy and immigration reform, and Marco Rubio actually led the effort to pass immigration reform in the Senate.
However, overall, as The American Conservative editor Daniel McCarthy noted two days ago in the New York Times, there isn’t much that these candidates disagree about.
There’s nothing wrong with the number of candidates seeking the Republican nomination. The field will narrow once the debates begin, and until then the more opportunity the party has to debate its direction, the better. But that’s where the contenders so far disappoint. From Jeb Bush and Scott Walker at the head of the pack to Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee in the middle to Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham at the back, their similarities are more striking than their differences. All want to be the generic conservative candidate…
…On foreign policy there is less variety among the prospective nominees than in 2008 or 2012, despite the radically new conditions represented by the rise of ISIS and warming U.S. relations with Cuba and Iran.
Time will tell whether economic populists like Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb stir up a debate over jobs and trade with Hillary Clinton, or whether sharp foreign-policy divisions arise among them. But it seems possible that five Democratic contenders will have a more vigorous discussion of the economy and America’s role in the world — and even race and gender issues within the country — than the 15-plus Republican field will have. That’s not a comforting thought for those of us who want the G.O.P. to be a party of creative reform.
Should we make this obvious and ask what distinguishes these candidates’ health care proposals from each other? Really, you can choose any topic or policy you want. These candidates either don’t have any proposals or they’re indistinguishable from each other, or they’re based on strict fantasy.
So far, outside of Trump and his antics, there’s really only been two issues the candidates have fought over. The first is over who is the most authentic conservative, and the second is over who is the most electable. In these disputes, there’s been less substance than recitations of grievances.
And that’s why I think Patty is onto something when he identifies anger and grievance as one of the causes of the large field. It’s just that it’s not easy to see how that works.
More important, surely, are the new post-Citizens United election laws that make it easier than ever to finance the travel, staff, and other expenses of a presidential campaign. If you don’t have to go into debt to find yourself on a presidential nomination debate stage, it’s a pretty tempting thing, no?
Also important is the severity of the fuckup we call the latter Bush administration. Not only did they fail to leave an heir apparent, they left a smoking husk of a country and a party behind them.
A final thing to consider is this: they have no real theory about how to win the Electoral College and they’re unwilling to test the idea that a non-conservative might provide the answer. So far, the best they’ve come up with is that they should be more conservative.
And anyone can be that.