Seeing election results through the ideological lens flattens out and omits other dimensions, whose role in the outcomes is equally great. Circumstance matters: In 1964, the country was still in the shadow of Kennedy’s murder; 1968 was roiled by violence; in 1976 Ford carried the anvil of Watergate; and 1964 and 1972 each featured candidates whose ideas were so far removed from the national mainstream that two of the least pleasant figures in history won epic landslides (and then lost favor not long after that). In more normal years, the edge goes to the larger political talent, who understands the fine points of coalition assembly, and excels at the art of rapport. Eisenhower was a better campaigner than Adlai E. Stevenson; Kennedy was better at connect-and-inspire than Nixon; Reagan much more so than Carter or Mondale; George H.W. Bush was more so than Michael Dukakis, though neither excelled. And he was less so than Bill Clinton, one of the more extravagant natural talents, who also was better than Dole. Barack Obama was a brilliant natural candidate (whatever one thinks of his tenure as president), whose hope and change mantra (and lack of specifics) put away two more-battleworn veterans, his primary rival, Hillary Clinton, and of course John McCain.And when conservatives won, circumstances were in their favor too.
If there is one guarantor of conservative triumph, it appears to be liberal failure or overreach: Jimmy Carter plus the Great Society blues paved the way for the two Reagan landslides; Bill Clinton’s first two years’ overreach (and failure of health care) for the 1994 Congress; Obama’s first two years’ overreach (and the passage of health care) for the Tea Party Congress of 2010. The next time a movement conservative rails against Dole or McCain for having lost as a “moderate,” he ought to be asked to name a contemporary conservative he thinks could have won against talents such as Obama and Clinton in circumstances that favored the Democrats. Many conservatives ran against both men, and failed to convince even a Republican primary audience of their superior theories and gifts.And if the fable is that the establishment desires to impose Romney on all of us, why have so many supposed leaders of the establishment been trying their darnedest to get people like Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush to run to challenge Romney for the nomination? Is it just part of the establishment plot to further Romney's cause? Or could it be that circumstances have just worked out that none of the more so-called establishment favorites decided to run and a whole lot of weak candidates did and so we're all in a situation where we have to choose among a set of unappetizing choices?
It's almost enough to wish that there truly was such a powerful Republican establishment that could snap its magical fingers and jump-start a stronger, more appealing candidate to win the nomination. But that's not the way it works. The whole system is designed to be decentralized with the laurels going to the most dedicated, best organized candidate who wins the most votes in the early contests. If we're lucky, he is the best candidate suited to winning in the fall. But nothing the establishment or non-establishment does can decide what happens.