Some re­flec­tions on the Repub­li­can Party de­bate


The U. S. 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign seems dif­fer­ent. Tra­di­tion­ally, t he Repub­li­cans have nom­i­nated a known- quan­tity can­di­date with ex­ten­sive gov­ern­ment ex­pe­ri­ence. The Democrats are more given to sur­prises.

The sud­den emer­gence of Don­ald Trump as a can­di­date rather than con­stant kib­itzer has fur­ther crowded an al­ready jammed Repub­li­can race. His surge to the top of public opin­ion polls has made him the media fo­cus, so far. If sus­tained, this will be a ma­jor shift.

The big ques­tion is whether Trump can re­main the front-run­ner. In 2012, Michele Bach­mann and Her­man Cain gen­er­ated early ap­par­ently strong sup­port, only to fade.

Richard Nixon, Ron­ald Rea­gan, and Ge­orge H.W. Bush had years of po­lit­i­cal and gov­ern­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ence in ad­vance of se­cur­ing the nom­i­na­tion, two as vice pres­i­dent. Bob Dole, the Repub­li­can can­di­date in 1996, ear­lier had un­suc­cess­fully sought the nom­i­na­tion and was the 1976 vice-pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. John McCain and Mitt Rom­ney also fit this pro­file. While Ge­orge W. Bush did not have such ex­ten­sive se­nior ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore achiev­ing the White House, his fa­ther’s prece­dent — and sup­port — makes him a spe­cial case.

Two ex­cep­tions from out­side the main­stream are Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, the enor­mously suc­cess­ful nom­i­nee in 1952 and 1956, and Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter, the 1964 nom­i­nee de­feated in the land­slide for Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son. Eisen­hower de­vel­oped ex­tra­or­di­nary vis­i­bil­ity and pres­tige as Supreme Al­lied Com­man­der in Europe dur­ing World War II. He was not a vet­eran of elec­toral pol­i­tics, but bril­liant at in­ter­na­tional, Washington and Army pol­i­tics.

Gold­wa­ter’s nom­i­na­tion re­flected the grow­ing strength of con­ser­va­tives in the party, but also the spe­cial cir­cum­stances fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy. In the year af­ter Dal­las, Pres­i­dent John­son ben­e­fited from broad public sym­pa­thy.

By con­trast, the Demo­cratic Party at times has se­lected nom­i­nees who came up fast from the mar­gins. Both Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clin­ton in 1992 were rel­a­tively un­known gover­nors of smaller South­ern states be­fore se­cur­ing nom­i­na­tion and then elec­tion to the White House. Un­suc­cess­ful party nom­i­nees Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004 were prom­i­nent in Mas­sachusetts but not nearly so well known na­tion­ally.

Even John F. Kennedy from that state was not a broadly known na­tional fig­ure be­fore 1960. For Amer­i­cans at large — pre­oc­cu­pied with daily lives — JFK was at best only vaguely de­fined, and for many he seemed to come out of nowhere in that year. The Kennedy or­ga­ni­za­tion shrewdly both em­pha­sized the route of the pri­maries, which were rel­a­tively few in num­ber then, and sought the tele­vi­sion de­bates with the much more well-known Richard Nixon.

In the trau­matic, vi­o­lent pol­i­tics of 1968, sen­a­tors Robert Kennedy and Eu­gene McCarthy bit­terly strug­gled in pri­maries, while Vice Pres­i­dent Hu­bert Humphrey se­cured a ma­jor­ity of con­ven­tion del­e­gates with­out en­ter­ing pri­maries. Opin­ion polls con­sis­tently showed Humphrey the strong­est to chal­lenge Richard Nixon or Nel­son Rock­e­feller, the Repub­li­can front-run­ners.

What emerged from that ter­ri­ble year was pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment that process had to be­come more open and “rep­re­sen­ta­tive.” Since 1968, both par­ties have made pri­maries steadily more im­por­tant, and now dom­i­nant.

How­ever, rel­a­tively few peo­ple vote in pri­maries. Iron­i­cally, they are not nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive of public sen­ti­ment.

Tra­di­tion­ally, Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can party or­ga­ni­za­tions were im­por­tant in de­ter­min­ing nom­i­nees. To­day, these fil­ters and gate­keep­ers are largely gone. Tele­vised melo­dra­mas fol­lowed by pri­maries are the re­sult, fu­eled by enor­mous sums of money.

This has given us Trump — for the mo­ment. Dem­a­goguery is noth­ing new, but the de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles have changed. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distin­guished Pro­fes­sor at Carthage Col­lege and au­thor of “Af­ter the Cold War” (NYU Press and Pal­grave/Macmil­lan). Con­tact him at

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