In the postwar era, the Democrats have had some truly wide-open nominating contests. But the Republican Party has no Jimmy Carter coming out of nowhere in the last 60 years, no McGovern insurgency taking over the party in one fell swoop. They don’t even have the kind of Seven Dwarves nomination by attrition that gave us Michael Dukakis.
Instead, Republican nominations are completely predictable. They always, always, always nominate…
the guy whose Turn it is next.
I touched on this a couple years back but trot it out again now that events have moved on and my audience has jumped.
This principle of the Turn – a term I shall Capitalize to emphasize its Significance - both transcends and flows with the ideological shift of the GOP from northeastern moderates to the neo-Dixie theocrats who run the party today. The Turn line stretches back, with one arguable gap, to Tom Dewey.
The change in the nomination process, from the functional, brokered convention to the sequential state by state primary race, has been driven by the Democratics. The Republicans have been dragged along by changes in state law that were made, by and large, to facilitate the big-D Democratic process.
Yet there's still an insider dynamic to Republican nominations. Perhaps this is because Republican voters are conservative in manner as well as ideology, believers in order and tradition and succession and continuity. Mass psychoanalysis is risky, but cycle by cycle, administration by administration, the principle of the Turn wins out.
Earning the Turn
How do you earn the Turn? By positioning yourself as the obvious heir apparent.
The easiest way to do this is through the Vice presidency; you need only to meet minimal standards of ept-itude to earn the Turn. Not hard, but not automatic. Nixon and Bush Sr. weren’t exceptional but weren’t in question either. Agnew was well on his way to a Turn - there were “The Spiro of `76” signs at the 1972 convention – but he crashed and burned even before Nixon. Dan Quayle, a punchline from day one, fell short.
(Why is “inept” a word and “ept” not?)
Top party leadership or genetic connections can also earn you a turn, but the only other way is to self-start and claim a place in line. To stake a claim, you challenge the holder of the Turn in the primaries. You’re not contesting THIS nomination, you’re shooting for the one four to eight years ahead.
The History of the Turn 1944-2004
This abbreviated, simplified history looks only at the giants. No Al Haig comic relief here.
The Turn starts with the handoff from Tom Dewey to Ike. Dewey’s wartime loss to FDR was not held against him, and he kept significant party influence despite the Dewey Defeats Truman election.
There was a spirited battle in `52 between Eisenhower, who had the backing of the northeast Dewey wing, and Bob Taft (son of the fat president, grandfather of his namesake the disgraced governor), the candidate of the mossback Midwesterners on his second or third try. There WERE no Southern Republicans yet. The northeasterners won out because it was Ike’s Turn after winning a war and all, and with the assist from the northeast. (Taft died the next year and never got a Turn.)
After Eisenhower the eight year vice president, occasionally controversial but competent, had his Turn. The Nixon Turn is a little complicated. Goldwater, the only break in the line, got his 1964 chance only because Nixon – still holder of the Turn after his narrow loss – took a pass. The country wasn’t going to elect a new president less than a year after the Kennedy assassination; even Goldwater believed that. LBJ got a bye. Think of it as a brief interregnum, like Oliver Cromwell, and see the 1968 Nixon nomination and win as the restoration.
The absolute proof of my theory
Who was the only person ever to beat Ronald Reagan?
That’s right, I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not. How could an unpopular, unelected president beat the ten foot tall colossus of the GOP? Because he was PRESIDENT and therefore it was his Turn. The conservative movement had gathered steam through the long Nixon-Ford era, but for matters of the presidential succession the Turn principle was more important than ideology.
Only after Ford had run on his own, and almost held on despite all odds, was it Reagan’s Turn. Again, proof positive that the shift in ideology and geography is less important than the
After Reagan, Bob Dole tried to make the case that Senate leader trumped an eight year vice president for the Turn. But since Bush the Elder had met the vice presidential standard of minimum ept-ness, he got it instead. Dole only got his Turn AFTER Bush 41 had used it up, and became the only post-Dewey Republican to earn the Turn but not the presidency (Goldwater got the mere nomination, but not the critical Turn.)
The line seemed broken at last, but the GOP Powers That Be quickly settled on Junior, the Legacy Candidate, as the one whose Turn was next. John McCain challenged but fell short. Did that
The Future of the Turn
It would have been interesting, albeit scary, to see what impact Cheney would have had on the 2008 race. I think the Turn principle would have triumphed and he’d have won the nomination. Even likely electoral disaster (Ford `76, Dole `96) does not deter the Turn.
The importance of 2000 was not the Bush 43 nomination but the Claim on the Next Turn. Like Reagan in `76, and Dole in `88, McCain lost but he ran well and positioned himself in the intervening years. He earned the Next Turn.
Thus the 2008 primaries are NOT about who will be the nominee. They’re about who will come in second and claim the Next Turn for `12 or `16. The nominee is determined: John McCain.