The G.O.P.’s Dukakis Problem

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The Republican Party’s presidential-nominating process has always been run by elites. Oh, the voters have their brief moments of triumph, hoisting up an unelectable right-winger (i.e., Pat Buchanan) or an uncontrollable moderate (John McCain, the circa-2000 version). But the establishment always wins. Meeting in their K Street offices and communicating through organs like George Will’s column and National Review, the main financers and organizers settle upon a useful frontman, a reliable vessel for the party’s agenda who — and this is the crucial part — is blessed with the requisite political talent. Democrats have been known to mess that last part up and nominate a dweeb, but Republicans have generally understood that an agenda tilted toward the desires of the powerful requires a skilled frontman who can pitch Middle America. Favorite character types include jocks, movie stars, folksy Texans and war heroes.

The hidden hand of the G.O.P. establishment is once again at work. Dissatisfied with a presidential field consisting of boring retreads (Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee) and Tea Party-endorsed outsiders (Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin), various elites have been trying to coalesce around a candidate of their own.

Now here is where the story gets strange. The candidates they are recruiting make Michael Dukakis look like John F. Kennedy. They are qualified enough to serve as president, but wildly unqualified to run for president. One way to put this is that most powerful people in the G.O.P. have suddenly gone idealistic. Another way to put it is that they’ve lost their minds....

What, then, explains the Republican establishment’s outburst of idealism/madness? For one thing, the legacy of Ronald Reagan caused conservatives to commit to a hyperidealized conception of the presidency. Democrats dismissed his popularity as a function of Hollywood charisma. Republicans bitterly contested this, and still do. “Far from the stereotype of the passive actor being fed his lines by myriad scriptwriters and directors, Reagan was an avid reader of conservative periodicals like Human Events and National Review, as well as of leading theoreticians of the post-World War II conservative movement,” the former Reagan staff member Jeffrey Bell argued in February. An editor of a 2001 book, “Reagan, in His Own Hand,” said that the Gipper possessed “a formidable intellect, as a reader, a thinker, a strategist.” Their takeaway: Televised charisma alone doesn’t win elections. Ideas — conservative ideas — win elections....

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