Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

No joke

The Republicans could well pick an anti-establishment candidate

—It was not always like this. Republicans were not always so angry.

Six days after 9/11 George W Bush delivered a speech at the Islamic Center of Washington. Beginning his speech by noting that all Americans were equally appalled by the recent attacks in New York and DC he then urged respect and tolerance for the religion of Islam, reserving his strongest words for those who created a culture of fear for Muslim Americans. ‘Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America’, said the president. ‘They represent the worst of humankind’.

Bush’s presidency was not a perfect period of moderation in American politics. But the contrast in tone compared to today is striking.

Since the Paris attacks, the ugliest, angriest remarks from Republican candidates have had plenty of coverage. Sadly, after even a few months living here in the United States, certain candidates’ calls to close down mosques or set up a ‘database’ of Muslims start to lose their ability to shock. Worse, such posturing allows the supposedly less extreme candidates to get away with ugly, angry comments of their own. So you have governor of New Jersey Chris Christie proposing to keep out even ‘five-year-old orphans’ from seeking asylum in the US and governor of Ohio John Kasich planning a federal agency to promote ‘Judeo-Christian values’ in the Middle East. Donald Trump and Ben Carson might be the most extreme candidates in the race but that does not make them outliers.

It would not be fair to hold up the remarks of individual candidates as testament to the entire breadth of worldviews that make up the Republican party. Nor is outspokenness and extreme ideological positioning a novel feature of the GOP race – just ask Rick Santorum, Herman Cain or Mick Huckabee. Each commanded poll leads, momentum and the enthusiastic support of sections of the Republican base at various points of previous presidential primaries. And each provided a steady drip-drip of either unpleasant or bizarre remarks that allowed many to paint them as tragicomic caricatures of rightwing Republicans. But none of them had a realistic prospect of actually becoming the party’s candidate.

The GOP has a historical tendency to flirt with an extreme outsider before settling down for a moderate candidate from its establishment wing. Therefore, as absurd as we might find Trump and Carson – so the theory goes – they are probably not going to be their party’s nominee. It is a comforting theory. But there are reasons to think that this time things are a little different, at least as far as the establishment candidate goes.

A lot has happened over the past two months of the Republican campaign but very little has actually changed. The bewildering number of GOP candidates (14 at the time of writing) and televised debates (10 altogether) give the misleading impression of a process entirely in flux. In reality for most of the candidates the race is not all that different from where it was at the end of September. Trump and Carson appear to have held their leads, and middleweight candidates that generated brief excitement (Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul) are still bumping along the bottom with single-digit levels of support. This was how the story was meant to go during silly season. The fact that it is dragging on this close to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries is no longer funny for many in the party.

At some point the flirtation with extreme candidates is supposed to come to an end, and the Republican establishment really thought Jeb Bush was going to be the man for the job this time around. That is why the Florida governor is still so far ahead on endorsements and fundraising. Despite all that his prospects look pretty bleak. His eye-wateringly dull performances on the stump and in the debates have been as well documented as his campaign reshuffles and miserable poll results. The former establishment pick currently has a nine per cent chance of getting the nomination according to the prediction markets.

With extreme candidates still riding high and with Jeb unable to close the deal the establishment is looking around for an alternative. And they appear to have looked to Marco Rubio. This is more than just a temporary bounce after one or two good debates. The senator is quietly stitching up the invisible primary – the endorsements and fundraising tests usually cleared by the eventual nominee. And it looks like his toughest contender in that contest is fellow senator Ted Cruz, who also happens to be the only candidate whose polling has been rising significantly since the debates (ie since people outside the Beltway started paying attention).

That is what is so troubling; this is not actually the year of the anti-establishment candidate. Cruz and Rubio may now be what counts as moderate within the Republican selectorate. Given that both were elected just a few years ago as anti-establishment outsiders this is revealing.

So it is in a slightly-more-moderate tone that Rubio outlines his plans to scrap Obamacare and the Iran deal, or in which Cruz shares his plans to shut down the federal government in order to defund planned parenthood. But the outcome is the same – a party that has shifted a long way to the right in a very short space of time.

History provides a precedent. 2016 may well end up going the way of 1964, when Republicans nominated the extreme Barry Goldwater (a candidate with little to no general election prospects) over the moderate Nelson Rockefeller. Commenting on the Republican’s resulting electoral defeat to the Democrats’ Lyndon Johnson the New York Times concluded, ‘Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election … but the conservative cause as well.’

If history repeats itself for the Republicans it will be great news for Hillary Clinton.

But it means Republicans will just keep getting angrier.


Charlie Samuda is a master in public policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School

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Charlie Samuda

is a master in public policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda


  • There is a strange paradox between UK and US politics that I have never been able to work out. It is that whereas in the UK it is the right wing Conservatives that appear professional and comfortable with running things it is the opposite in the US, where it is the democrats that present as the only credible party of government. And of course the opposite is also true. The on going US republican party presidential nomination process has surely hit the buffers with the madman Trump. And back here the Labour party seem to have once again gifted the Tories with another lottery win when they elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
    I would be interested in hear others’ opinion on this, but please do not mention Tony Blair as a left wing success that bucks this trend. His premiership supports the paradox I propose because he was as Margaret Thatcher correctly called it ‘her greatest achievement’.

  • The only people who should be banned from civilised society are those whose religion commands its devout to destroy those who do not share it.

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