The winnowing-out process has begun, and we have just been winnowed in--
the reaction of former U.S. Senator FRED HARRIS [D-Oklahoma] to an unexpectedly high finish in the 1976 Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucuses (Harris would go on finish 4th in the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary [held over a month later in that year of the Nation's Bicentennial] but, only a week thereafter, himself would be unceremoniously "winnowed out" due to a mere 5th place finish in the Massachusetts Democratic Presidential Primary).
Nearly four decades after Senator Fred Harris uttered the above-quoted [in?]famous statement, at least a "winnowing-in" process begins- not with either a Presidential Primary in the Granite State or the 'First in the Nation' Caucuses in Iowa- but, rather, with bifurcated nationally televised debates today involving (albeit in different ways) all 17 of the (currently publicly announced) major Republican presidential contenders (meaning, again, all those with at least a "puncher's chance" at actually gaining the 2016 GOP presidential nomination).
But this opening salvo of the latest campaign for the Grand Old Party's grandest prize is not only the very beginning of a mere contest between candidates for the Nation's Highest Office: for, truth be told, an all-out battle is also about to be most fully joined. Yes, it is but a political battle- not a military one (therefore no actual blood will be spilled-- or so one hopes!): but it is nonetheless a battle that has been overdue now for well over a quarter century. It is, in fact, a battle over what the Republican Party of the United States itself is now in the (and, in addition, what it will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future after) the middle of the second decade of the 21st Century of our Era.
It is joined precisely because President Ronald Wilson Reagan, emulating an earlier President- Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whom Reagan saw as something of a mentor, even while Reagan [along with those who most strongly supported him] also, at the same time, distanced himself [and themselves] from- and, often as not, even disdained- the seemingly fullest ramifications of FDR's 'New Deal'), managed to- just like FDR- put together an otherwise unwieldy political coalition: except Reagan's, of course, was to the right of center (while still maintaining the support of the "bell curve" of the electorate), in much the same way as FDR's had been to the left of same (while also appealing to the "bell curve" of its own time) five decades before.
Lyndon Baines Johnson- an acolyte of FDR much more fully than was Ronald Reagan, obviously (as LBJ not only adapted FDR's approach, as would Reagan [Reagan being much more successfully "the Great Communicator" than LBJ ever was, however] but, unlike Reagan, also adopted FDR's left of center political position)- managed to cobble together much of the old "FDR coalition" and ride it to a landslide victory in the 1964 Presidential Election: but, in truth, LBJ's electoral triumph was to be "the last hurrah" for such a traditional "New Deal coalition" (later candidates for the Presidency who tried to resurrect it [such as Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson in his failed bid for his Party's 1976 presidential nomination] would utterly fail to do so, said coalition having so clearly already run its historical course). Thus, the way was paved for the emergence- in the 1980s- of the so-called "Reagan Democrat"; more to the point, the Southern Populists who would have been Democrats back in 1932 were to fast become Republicans during Reagan's Presidency (even in 1964, under the pressure of their own region's still strong opposition to the then-Civil Rights Movement [among other things] enough such Southern Populists- while still ostensibly Democrats at the time- defected from LBJ's own coalition to allow a few Southern States to "appoint" Presidential Electors for Republican Barry Goldwater; these same Southerners would also prove to provide the core support for then-Alabama Governor George Wallace's insurgent independent campaign for the Presidency in 1968).
As a result, Reagan's conservative coalition of the 1980s managed to win (and win big!) three Presidential Elections in a row: the two that elected Reagan himself to the White House followed by the election of Reagan's vice-president, George H.W. Bush (essentially running as 'Reagan's Third Term'), in 1988. But, come 1990 (marked, symbolically, by the first President Bush seemingly reneging on his earlier [in?]famous "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge), the Reagan coalition began unraveling (albeit in less spectacular fashion than FDR's own coalition had unraveled- after FDR was already quite dead- in 1948 with the defections, from that coalition, of both the 'Dixiecrats' to then-President Harry Truman's right and former VP Henry Wallace's 'Progressives' to Truman's left).
It was in the context of this altogether slow (as compared to that of the Democrats of the post-World War II era) unraveling that cracks in the Grand Old Party began to appear: Bush41 faced an at least noteworthy (albeit unsuccessful) challenge to his renomination for President in 1992 and, despite an overwhelming Midterm Election victory for the Republicans in 1994 (one which gave the GOP control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades), many a Republican sitting in either house of Congress was not at all "hard core" devotee of Newt Gingrich's 'Contract With America' (hence Gingrich's problems controlling his own Party in Congress during his four years as Speaker of the House).
Thus, that doctrine known as 'The Eleventh Commandment' of the Republican Party- "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican"- was to find itself honored more and more often in the breach during Presidential Primaries and caucuses every four years, although it was seemingly rigidly enforced come the Republican National Conventions (to the point where one could fairly argue that any real dissent was easily gaveled down by the Convention Chair [where not even successfully kept out of the convention hall itself by the GOP leadership cadre of moment]). 'Unity' was ever the Grand Old Party's watchword (no less than it also was for a rival Democratic Party still scarred by however dimly remembered scenes of the Democrats' own Convention in Chicago in 1968)- successfully so with the two victories in Presidential Elections by the younger George Bush (aka 'Dub-ya') as the curtain was first rising on the 21st Century.
But that very 'Unity' only served to then make the Republican Party of that same 21st Century into something of a "pressure cooker":
For disdainful cries of 'RINO!' [Republican In Name Only] were already- before the preceding Century (and Millennium) had itself even ended- being directed at more "Establishment" or 'Progressive' Republicans (for example, the scene at the 1996 Republican National Convention that would soon nominate ex-Kansas Senator Bob Dole for President [to which I myself have referred elsewhere on this website] in which, while then-Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine and then-Governor [himself earlier Senator] Pete Wilson of California [the ostensible 'political host' of the Convention, as it was being held in Wilson's own home town of San Diego] were talking to television reporters, epithets ever rained down upon them from the nearer galleries above [You're all libertines- get the hell out of the Republican Party!]).
The split between more moderately conservative Republicans and those within the Grand Old Party to their right (in some, if not most, cases, well to their right!) grew ever wider during George W. Bush's years in the White House (the younger Bush's TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] in response to the earlier phases of Recession in 2008- seen, by many within what would within the following year [after Democrat Barack Obama had been elected to the Presidency] become the nascent 'Tea Party' movement, as being as much a handout [where not also a sellout] to as it was a bailout of banks [and other financial institutions] "too big to fail"- being a major case in point). The very election (and subsequent re-election) of President Obama simply gave, at first, the initial impetus and, thereafter, the political "fuel" to various and sundry so-called 'Tea Party' movements both within and without the GOP.
But through all of this, the Republican Party itself remained more or less "together" into and through the presidency of Barack Obama (pretty much only the two presidential campaigns of Texas Congressman Ron Paul in both 2008 and 2012 provided a most glaring exception), generally avoiding- one is here tempted to, instead, write "evading"- what now, in the high summer of 2015, finally seems inevitable: a full-on, perhaps even "knockout", fight over just what- and for what- the Republican Party of the United States actually is.
Cue tonight's first nationally televised debates between at least some of the now nearly dozen and a half 'serious' Republican presidential contenders.
In my earlier Commentary on the 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes, I provided an admittedly rough outline of what can fairly be described as the more procedural aspects of what we are most likely to witness over the next 7 months or so (going into and through the first big Presidential Primary and Caucus day of Tuesday 1 March 2016). Now, however, it is time to deal with specifics:
Undoubtedly, the "star" of this evening's Prime Time television extravaganza (limited to only the Top 10 in certain national polls: those "left behind" will have their own televised debate amongst themselves earlier today) will be one Donald Trump who is currently riding the crest of a wave of popular support among ordinary Republicans (if only in the sense that he currently holds the plurality of favorability in national polls) but who also is in the lead as the candidate least acceptable to ordinary Republicans (according to many of the the same polls), thereby throwing at least his closest rivals in these polls (Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor [and son and brother of Presidents] Jeb Bush) into something of an 'ABT' [Anyone But Trump] category (though, truth be told [and given the early dynamics of the GOP presidential nomination race as I now type this], every contender other than Trump is, to all intents and purposes, 'ABT' [with the possible exception of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has been actively courting Trump (and Trump has generally received Cruz favorably in this regard) on, evidently, a theory that Trump himself will only end up out of the race at some point, whereby Cruz would then- hypothetically- have the inside track on gaining Trump's "blessing" (of course, this is also- in and of itself- predicated on the notion that Cruz himself will also still be in the race at such a point in order to so be accorded just such an "honor")]).
The very question of just how long- as well as how seriously- Trump is seeking the GOP presidential nomination well hangs over this race, for 1. the "wave" that Trump is currently riding may very well "crash" (it would be just a matter of when) and 2. other than Ben Carson, Trump is the only Republican presidential contender who has never actually run for public elective office: simply put, Trump has never really ever campaigned (if we here assume that campaigning for political office is rather different than "campaigning" for investors in, say, a real estate development project) and- while a campaign for President of the United States can well "throw curves" at which even the most seasoned political campaigners quite often "swing and miss"- if one has run for office at least once (even Carly Fiorina once lost a US Senate election in California), one has at least some notion as to just what to more generally expect "out there on the hustings"...
except that Trump himself is not really "out there on the hustings", much preferring to making the rounds of morning talk shows and interviews on cable and over-the-air news networks, combined with his own organized "events", to get his message out. This altogether unorthodox (one is even sorely tempted to call it "heterodox") method of campaigning is, in fact, one of the keys to his current relative popularity among Republicans (for it very strongly identifies Trump as a 'non-politician' and, indeed, was generally the same kind of thing that had once endeared Independent candidate for President [and rich guy] Ross Perot to enough voters to thereby gain Perot nearly 1/5 of the Popular Vote back in the 1992 Presidential Election)...
but is it sustainable over the long run? How Trump does in a setting such as that of tonight's debate (where he does not have more direct control over its agenda) may well go a long way towards determining the answer to this very question.
Meanwhile, and like it or not, the other 9 Republican presidential contenders on tonight's stage during the 'Main Event' in Prime Time will have to more or less "play off" Trump as the evening wears on: indeed, it is their own reactions and responses to Trump that will certainly be most telling as to their own ability to- also in the long run, as the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination proceeds apace- thereafter, trump (yes, pun intended!) the man who has made himself into the most visible Republican presidential candidate as of this typing. As I've already said in my Commentary of this past 2 July, one or more of the "survivor"s who will have made it [into the main GOP debate on FOX] will- truly- be "envying the dead" (the "dead" here being the several GOP contenders who- because of national polling numbers that were too low hitherto- will have been left out of [tonight's Prime Time debate]), in at least no little part because the "left behind"s debating earlier in the day will not have had to deal with just such a situation (although, even over this earlier debate between those left out of the 'Main Event', Trump's shadow will nonetheless still loom).
Make no mistake, then: although we are still nearly half a year away from the first Caucuses in Iowa, followed by the first Presidential Primary in New Hampshire, tonight the race for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination most truly begins!...
but it will also be as much a race to- finally- determine and define the very political core of the Grand Old Party of the early 21st Century itself.