Parties, Not Candidates, Control Presidency
Kevin Williamson has an item out sneering at several people, myself included, for saying Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign is going nowhere. I'd leave it alone but since he’s misunderstanding several points, I suppose others are, too.
What Williamson gets right: He says if Cruz won the Republican nomination, he could win in November. The Texas senator would be hurt by a perception that he was more distant ideologically from the center than Hillary Clinton is (or whomever the Democrats nominate), but that isn't a disqualifying disadvantage. Ronald Reagan probably overcame that sort of obstacle to win in 1980; a different Republican name that year -- say, Senator Howard Baker -- might have defeated President Jimmy Carter by a larger margin. If it was a huge Republican year, Cruz would win.
But Williamson is assuming Cruz can be nominated. Sure, nothing in politics is impossible. And it's possible the process has changed substantially, and we just haven’t noticed it; maybe the Republican Party has changed significantly, and we missed it. Barring that, however, everything we know about presidential-nomination politics cuts against Cruz as a plausible candidate.
Williamson also doesn’t appear to believe the nominations are being contested (and perhaps decided) right now. This reality seems to bother some people, so they reject the evidence all around them. Maybe they don't like it, but it's happening nonetheless.
For Williamson, any speculation now is a waste of time:
Will he be the nominee? Good Lord, who knows or cares at this point? It’s a question mainly of interest to Ted Cruz and his rivals, and maybe to their sainted mothers. That we are so fascinated by the possibility is further evidence of the corrosive cult of the presidency — we conservatives should know better than to wait for the anointing of a savior.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Choosing a nominee isn’t about “anointing a savior” -- that makes it sound as if the country is full of saps and rubes who believe such stuff. Nomination politics isn’t about the candidates much at all. It’s about the party. Groups and individuals within the party figure out what they want to fight for (and against) and what is expendable or just lip service, and they find out what all the other groups and individuals in the party care about. They eventually cut deals, or fight it out, or form new coalitions -- these actors define the party.
Part of that process involves binding the nominee to the party. Candidates win by aligning themselves with the winning coalition, and they do so largely by pledging to bring the party network into their administrations. In other words, they allow their candidacies to be absorbed by the party network.
This means that anyone who wants to affect anything after 2016 should be involved in nomination politics now, not later. And it isn't just about the presidency (while Williamson is correct that presidents are overemphasized, it's still true that the president is the single most important player in the constitutional system). The way the party redefines itself filters down, changing (or reinforcing) the choices Congress, governors, state legislators and other elected officials make.
To believe that only the candidates care or should care about presidential nominations is a complete misreading of U.S. politics.
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