Even those who loathe Karl Rove’s every word may be hard-pressed to dispute his pre-Christmas summation of the Republican circus so far: “the most unpredictable, rapidly shifting, and often downright inexplicable primary race I’ve ever witnessed.” And all this, as he adds, before a single vote has been cast. The amazing GOP race has also been indisputably entertaining, spawning a new television genre, the debate as reality show. Installment No. 12, broadcast by ABC in the prime-time ghetto of a Saturday night in early December, drew more viewers (7.6 million) than that week’s episode of The Biggest Loser. It’s escapist fun for the entire family (Hispanic and gay families excluded). Or it would be were it not for the possibility that one of the contestants could end up as president of the United States.
Rove does have one thing wrong, however. His party’s primary contest, while unpredictable, is not inexplicable. It is entirely explicable. The old Republican elites simply prefer to be in denial about what the explanation is. You can’t blame them. To parse this spectacle is to face the prospect that, for all the GOP’s triumphal declarations that Barack Obama is doomed to a one-term presidency, the winner of the Republican nomination may not reclaim the White House after all.
In the standard analysis of the race, which the embattled GOP Establishment is eager to believe, the rapid ascent and implosion of each wacky presidential contender is seen mainly as a passing judgment on Mitt Romney, the android who just can’t close the deal and improve his unyielding 25 percent average in polls of the Republican electorate. The Old Guard professes to have no worries. That steady 25 percent has been good enough to induce much of the press to portray Romney as the “presumed” (if not the “commanding”) front-runner ever since Beltway handicappers like Mark Halperin of Time and Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post labeled him as such early in 2010. One day or another Romney will surely make good on that bet. He has money, organization, and the looks of a president (or perhaps an audio-animatronic facsimile of one). Eventually primary voters will exhaust all conceivable alternatives and accept that no Chris Christie will descend from the heavens as a deus ex machina. Then they will come home to the 25 percent leader of the pack, because that’s what well-mannered Republicans always do. Add to this scenario the GOP conviction that much of the electorate shares its judgment that Obama is an abject failure—he’s “an incumbent nobody likes,” as Peggy Noonan framed it—and the presidency must be in the bag.
But this narrative is built on a patently illogical assumption: that a 25 percent minority is the trunk wagging the Republican elephant. What makes anyone seriously assume that the 75 percent will accommodate itself to that etiolated 25 percent rather than force the reverse? That lopsided majority of the GOP is so angry at the status quo that it has been driven to embrace, however fleetingly, some of the most manifestly unqualified, not to mention flakiest, presidential contenders in American history. The 75 percent is determined to take a walk on the wild side. This is less about rejecting Mitt—who’s just too bland a figure to inspire much extreme emotion con or pro—than it is about fervently wanting something else. While the 75 percent has been splintered among the non-Romney candidates, it is largely unified in its passionate convictions. Just because Trump and Cain have folded their tents doesn’t mean those convictions have fled with them, or that financial underwriters like David Koch (a major Cain enthusiast) have closed their checkbooks.
The 75 percent’s passions are hot because their GOP is a party of revolution. This underlying reality has tended to be lost in the brisk play-by-play narration of the primary-season horse race. While a recent Pew poll shows a decline in support for the tea party, that quaint brand, sullied by its early association with birthers and doofuses in Colonial Williamsburg costumes, was certain to fade and become superfluous once tea-partyers colonized the Republican Party. That takeover has long since been consummated. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., Romney won its influential presidential straw poll three years in a row until Ron Paul ended that streak in 2010, then beat him again this year. Both times Paul’s victories were dismissed by the GOP Establishment (CPAC’s organizers included) as aberrations—fleeting coups staged by hustling young cadres of fringe maniacs. But Paul’s triumphs were no aberration; he was a bellwether of the right’s new revolution. His zeal to dismantle Washington is now mainstream for the firebrand 75 percent. These days a Republican candidate who wants to send multiple departments of the federal government to the guillotine only risks a backlash when he can’t remember the condemned agencies’ names. Romney, a moderate reformer who emphasizes eliminating programs, not departments, is such an outlier next to this wrecking crew that he could be in the Obama Cabinet.
The GOP is even undergoing a cultural revolution to match its ideological reboot. A party that has spent much of the past three decades pandering to the religious right remains adamantly opposed to reproductive rights for women and equal rights for gays. But now it routinely rationalizes and even embraces the same licentious sexual culture it once opposed with incessant anti-indecency crusades. Extramarital behavior that Republicans decried as an apocalyptic stain on the national moral fabric in the Clinton era is the new normal on the right. Just look at Iowa, long an epicenter of the family-values brigade, and the plight of Rick Santorum, a hard-line proselytizer for every religious-right cause and an ostentatious promoter of his own religious orthodoxy and procreative prowess. He has not had one even near-winning week in state polls in 2011 despite campaigning in all 99 counties among what would seem to be his natural constituency. The thrice-married philanderer Newt Gingrich, despite little presence in Iowa and an even smaller campaign outlay than Santorum’s there, effortlessly surged to the top, however transitorily, beating his nearest competitor (Paul) by nearly a two-to-one margin among white Evangelical Christians in an early December Times–CBS News poll of likely Republican caucusgoers.