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If You Choose Not to Decide, Have You Really Still Made a Choice?

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As a follow-up to Paul’s post below Julia Azari makes a couple of interesting points:

My basic hypothesis is that the Republican Party network failed to coordinate to stop Trump or promote another nominee not because they couldn’t do it, but because they decided to let things unfold rather than try to control events. There’s a stronger conspiracy version of this theory, which suggests that elites might have used the channels by which they usually coordinate on a nominee to deliberately eschew coordination. The weaker version, which is the one I’m more comfortable embracing, suggests that this time party elites just didn’t bother.

I think there’s some truth in this, but I still prefer my subtle variation. I don’t think that the failure of GOP elites to coalesce around an alternative to Trump and Cruz represents a conscious decision not to decide so much as it reflects genuine disagreement about who the best alternative to Trump or Cruz is. There are certainly some influential Republicans in the stop-Trump camp. Rupert Murdoch’s media apparatus has been attempting to go after Trump and prop up Rubio with an almost comic lack of subtlety, and Cruz wasn’t wrong to think that he was being targeted Thursday. There are a lot of Republican influencers who agree with Murdoch that Trump would be a disaster, but if they don’t agree that Rubio is the best alternative, there’s not much they can do.

As they say, parties are a they, not an it (something that, it should be said, The Party Decides does recognize.) A lot of party elites might prefer any of Rubio/Jeb!/Kasich/Christie to Trump, but there’s nothing that can force them to decide between them. Nonetheless, if Trump wins, it clearly as (at a minimum) a serious anomaly for The Party Decides thesis.

This point is really interesting:

Finally, Trump is kind of a paradoxically perfect disjunctive presidential candidate. In the political time theory, the disjunctive phase is typically characterized by two problems: The different factions in the party can no longer be reconciled, and the priorities of powerful voices within the party can no longer be reconciled with the national mood and its policy imperatives.

Azari is talking here about Stephen Skowronek’s theory of political time and presidential authority (explained here.) I was actually thinking that Trump could be seen as the modern equivalent of a certain type of preemptive candidate: the apolitical war hero the Whigs used to throw up, or that the Republicans used to win two presidential elections during the New Deal era. When your party is the minority coalition, your best bet is to run someone without strong existing party attachments who could theoretically attract less committed members of the majority coalition.

I think in a sense we’re both right here, in part because under the current partisan alignment Skowronek’s model is finally losing a lot of its explanatory power. With the exception of Jackson/Lincoln each reconstructive president has had less of an impact than the previous one, and it’s not clear to me that any president can really be “reconstructive” in this context.

The bad news is that even if Republican party elites fail to stop Trump, this doesn’t mean that the Republican Party is on some level failing or about to crack up. It’s true that at the presidential level the Republicans are essentially at the preemeptive stage of political time; under normal circumstances it will be difficult for a non-exceptional candidate to win. But at the congressional level, they’re at the disjunctive stage (but have an advantage in the House anyway because of the way electoral rules favor Republicans.) And in many states, they’re a completely dominant coalition.

The Republican Party, in its current state, is a minority coalition that because of institutional structures is likely to control at least one federal veto point after most elections. And while all things being equal they will be a significant underdog in presidential elections, they only need to get lucky once to be able to impose some radical changes on American politics. Even if they Trump wins the nomination and is beaten badly by Clinton, the inevitable “Republican CRACK-UP” stories will almost certainly prove as wrong as they typically do.

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