The GOP’s Giant Problem

In 1988, the Democratic primary field of Gov. Mike Dukakis, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. Al Gore, Sen. Paul Simon, Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Sen. Gary Hart, and Rev. Jesse Jackson was widely derided, not only by Republicans, as “The Seven Dwarfs.” When Rep. Pat Schroeder briefly contemplated a run, the meme became “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

In the end, of course, Gov. Dukakis won the nomination and ran the most spectacularly incompetent general election campaign of modern times, managing to lose an election that was indeed his to lose, while of course carrying his home state of Massachusetts, where he astonishingly spent most of his time campaigning. He just didn’t seem to have an affinity for the rest of the country.

In 2016, the Republicans have a problem opposite to that of the 1988 Democratic dwarfs, and one that could be just as deadly for their general election prospects. They’ve got eleven or twelve giants.

Let me be clear. Not one of these men (yes, all men) is a moral giant, or a giant as a statesman or thinker or leader. But these are all political giants within the Republican firmament.

First there’s Jeb Bush, former two-term governor of Florida and member of the reigning dynasty in the Republican Party. Nobody’s got more access to power and money than Jeb Bush, or broader name recognition, and no other candidate (not even Marco Rubio) can guarantee carrying Florida. Alas, the name recognition isn’t exactly all positive, and the man’s moderate views on immigration cause him to be feared and reviled by the Tea Party base. Still, he is the leading candidate of the Republican establishment and is expected by all to be among the two or three strongest candidates in the field. Jeb Bush is a giant. Surely he’ll garner at least 20% of the primary vote.

Then there’s Gov. Chris Christie, the successful Chairman of the Republican Governors Association and formerly the darling of the Republican establishment, once viewed as the moderately conservative candidate who could save the Establishment from needing to turn again in desperation to the Bushes to hold back the unruly Tea Party base. But then he became a Nixonian figure, embattled in a scandal of his administration’s making, as his own staff weirdly caused traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge to enact a deranged form of political revenge on a mayor nobody had heard of. So far, no indictments have been forthcoming, but the scandal remains a cloud hanging over Christie’s head, the way Jeb’s last name is a cloud hanging over his own. Still, Chris Christie is the most skilled politician in the field, with easily the most colorful personality, and perhaps the strongest support of any candidate in the Northeast. Chris Christie is a giant, and not only in stature. Surely he can be counted on to carry at least 20% of the primary vote.

Then there’s Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian firebrand who begins by inheriting the long-established political operation of his father, perennial losing presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul. Sen. Paul is the most interesting and independent candidate of the lot, willing to work across the aisle with Democrats and to stake out positions on such matters as the drug war and diplomatic relations with Cuba that not only could appeal to Democrats and Independents (who can vote in some Republican primaries) but also appeal to young people and anyone with common sense, clearly a minority within the Republican base but not necessarily a negligible minority. Sen. Paul will be ganged up upon by the hawkish candidates (that will be almost all of them), but being ganged up upon and thereby standing out is not necessarily a bad thing in a crowded field. Paul has a troubling history of plagiarism and unenthusiastic support for the Civil Rights Act, but none of that should slow him down in a Republican primary. Rand Paul is a giant. Surely he’ll command at least 20% of the primary vote.

Then there’s Mitt Romney. He’s already begun hinting that he’s running. The man’s basically got nothing else to keep him busy. Without the presidency, his life is reduced to remodeling hell, building elevators for his cars at his ever-expanding home in La Jolla. He actually leads in all the polls, assuming he’s a candidate. His biggest problem: how does he manage to announce his candidacy, after unwisely laughing off the possibility of his running for the last two years? And what’s his rationale for running? With four governors (and former governors) likely to be in the field (Bush, Christie, Walker, and Kasich), he can’t claim that only he has the required executive experience. Yes, the whole damned situation is impossibly awkward, but he knows he has to run, for the country’s good. And if he runs, Mitt Romney is a giant. No way he doesn’t get at least 20% of the vote.

Then there’s Mike Huckabee. In an exit poll of Republican voters in the 2014 Iowa Senate election, he came in first in a list of potential 2016 presidential candidates, with 19%. A TV talk show star, he’s also a regular, down-home, religious Christian with recurrent weight problems, and what can be more American than that? The religious base of the Republican Party in Iowa loves this guy; they put him over the top in the 2008 Republican caucuses. No reason they can’t do so again, especially in a fractured field in which no other candidate (excepting perhaps Ben Carson) seems as religious. The other candidates dismiss Mike Huckabee at their own peril; the man, I kid you not, is a giant, and he’s just given a clear signal that he’s running by stepping away from his talk show. He should be good for 20% of the vote, especially if he’s already at 19% in Iowa.

Then there’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who stands as the giant whom the other giants fear. Cruz can even cut into the Wisconsin support of Sen. Ryan (and Gov. Scott Walker), since Cruz is in fact the living reincarnation of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Cruz owns the Tea Party base, the loudest and most vibrant and politically active constituency in the Republican coalition. He is a crackerjack orator, willing to say almost anything to garner media attention, and to play no-holds-barred hardball politics to force his fellow Senators and fellow candidates to take unnecessary and politically treacherous votes. Ted Cruz is a giant. The Tea Party will turn out in vast numbers in the primary, and so Cruz certainly cannot be held to under 20%.

Wait a minute. That’s only 6 candidates so far (assuming Mitt Romney can come up with an excuse to run, a pretty safe assumption) and we’re already up to their splitting at least 120% of the vote. You begin to see the problem. They clearly can’t all earn 20% of the vote. And it gets worse, because there are more.

There’s Sen. Marco Rubio, not so long ago viewed as the savior of the Republican party. It’ll be harder for him to run with Bush running, but he’s just brash enough not to back down. The young savior of the Republicans is arguably still a giant, and he knows what he’s doing when he picks a fight with Sen. Paul over Cuba: he’s staking out his foreign policy cred with the Republican base. He’s going to be the top Castro-and-Cuba basher in the field; nobody can outplay him on that.

Then there’s Gov. Scott Walker, winner of three elections in a little more than four years. Like his home-state colleague, Rep. Ryan, he splits the middle between the Tea Party nuts and the Establishment types. He’s truly a polarizing governor; the Tea Party loves that. Unnerving political scandals aside, Scott Walker is a giant, and surely each giant will get at least, well, are we down now to 12% of the primary vote?

Then there’s Ohio Gov. John Kasich. After a rocky start, he became a popular governor of the most important state for the Republican Party in the general election, the state without which they simply do not win general elections. He may lean towards the more sensible, Establishment side of things, but still he’s always been pretty far right, and he’s got legislative and executive experience. He’s not damaged goods like so many of the others. John Kasich is a giant.

And let’s not downplay the comeback try of Gov. Rick Perry. He’s got new glasses, a new look, and the same old loyal fundraising base that’s the class of the field, excepting only Jeb Bush. He’s had plenty of time to memorize the three Cabinet departments he’ll promise to shut down, and expectations for him are so low at this point that he can only exceed them. In that same exit poll of Republican voters in the 2014 Iowa Senate election, Perry actually came in second, with 17% support. Believe it or not, Gov. Perry remains a giant.

Then there’s the aforementioned Dr. Ben Carson. Who is Ben Carson? He’s Herman Cain on steroids. Herman Cain may have been a joke, but there was a time in 2012 when he actually led in the polls, before allegations of sexual harassment took him down. Why in the world did Herman Cain, some kind of nutty fast food businessman, lead Mitt Romney and the rest of the field for a time? Because he was a good talker (by the standards of the competition) and, I would argue, because he’s black. A lot of Republicans hate being labelled a white party, or a racist party. Herman Cain was their answer to that. Ben Carson will be their answer this time, and Ben Carson is smarter than Herman Cain. He’s a neurosurgeon and an author and, to top it off, he’s a religious fellow. Ben Carson, mark my words, is a giant.

Some other candidates will run, of course, of the non-giant variety. Rick Santorum will likely run (the fact that the guy who came in a close second last time isn’t even one of the giants shows you how bad the giant problem is), as will Carly Fiorina (she’ll likely be the only woman and the only CEO, and that should be good for at least a few votes). Sen. Lindsey Graham may run, complicating the South Carolina primary for the whole field. So if the non-giants split even 10% of the vote, that leaves 90% to be split among eleven or twelve giants.

It’s going to get ugly. Some of the giants will have to become giant-killers. That’s a problem for the Republicans.

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