There's a word that's starting to pop up with some frequency in the coverage of the 2012 Republican presidential primary -- "suicidal." Why is that? This week, New York's Jonathan Chait and The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza offer theories of why this election has been so chaotic -- with 11 frontrunners, by Lizza's count -- and why Republicans seem as weirdly self-sabotaging as teenage cutters.
It's the primaries
Lizza (a noted media dieter) reports that political scientists say maybe those old smoke-filled rooms -- when party elites picked their nominee away from public view -- weren't so bad after all. The modern primary system, in place since 1972, has created "an unholy alliance of the press and media-savvy candidates." Lizza continues:
The rise of primaries would lead to nominees who mobilized small factions, rather than to those who knit together broad coalitions. Parties, [political scientist Nelson] Polsby insisted, had to have some 'consensus-forcing institution,' like the deliberative Conventions. For some time, Polsby’s fears seemed overblown.
Parties just had a different kind of smoke-filled room -- the "invisible primary," in which the year before the election, candidates competed for endorsements and money, and party elders got a sense of who had the right combination of being ideological enough to appeal to activists and being moderate-seeming enough not to scare the straights. The old system allowed parties to control their activists -- "intense policy demanders," who want their candidate as absolutely far right or left as electorally possible. But instead, this year you had Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain and Rick Santorum and the rest -- candidates who make for good TV and who are supported by small factions.
It's the demographics
Chait has a different explanation: Republicans are acting like it's the apocalypse because it is the apocalypse -- for them. President Obama doesn't pose a threat to democracy, Chait argues. But!
But the panicked strategic analysis, and the sense of urgency it gives rise to, is actually quite sound. The modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests.
The numbers are startling: If demographic groups split the same way they did in 1988 -- but represented the portions of the electorate they did in 2008, Michael Dukakis would have won in a squeaker. Nonwhites will be a third of the electorate in 2020. The Republican base is shrinking. What to do? Treat this election like it's their "last chance," Chait writes. Since the 2010 elections, the Republican strategy has been pure obstruction, instead of investing in getting Latinos to like them more so they can win elections in the future, in order to make Obama unpopular enough that they can win back the White House and the Senate. Chait writes:
If they can claw out a presidential win and hold on to Congress, they will have a glorious two-year window to restore the America they knew and loved, to lock in transformational change, or at least to wrench the status quo so far rightward that it will take Democrats a generation to wrench it back. The cost of any foregone legislative compromises on health care or the deficit would be trivial compared to the enormous gains available to a party in control of all three federal branches.
On the other hand, if they lose their bid to unseat Obama, they will have mortgaged their future for nothing at all.