Paul Waldman notes today that although Jeb Bush is substantively pretty conservative, his tone on the campaign trail has remained resolutely moderate and affable. Waldman explains how this leads to Bush winning the nomination:
If you’re Bush, your path to victory looks like this: Trump soaks up all the attention for a while, but eventually gets bored (and hasn’t bothered to mount an actual campaign that can deliver votes), and either fades or just packs it in. Meanwhile, the conservative vote is split. Once the voting starts, the failing candidates will begin to fall away one by one. But by the time most of them are gone and their supporters have coalesced around a single candidate like Scott Walker, it’s too late — Jeb has built his lead and is piling up delegates, has all the money in the world, and can vanquish that last opponent on his way to the convention in Cleveland.
In other words, a repeat of 2012, when all the hard-core conservatives split the tea party vote ten ways while Mitt Romney quietly vacuumed up the entire moderate vote. By the time Rick Santorum was the last tea partier standing, it was too late. Romney coasted to victory.
This is the great conundrum of the tea-party wing of the Republican Party. What they should do is coalesce immediately around Scott Walker. He’s the most plausible winner among the tea partiers, and if the race was basically between him and Bush from the start, there’s a pretty good chance he could win. On the other hand, if he has to fight off a dozen challengers for months on end, it’ll just be a rerun of 2012. He’ll get a share of the tea party vote, but it won’t be nearly enough to fend off Bush, who will have his own share of the tea partiers plus the vast majority of the moderate wing of the GOP, which is disgusted that their party has been taken over by loons. There are still quite a few of those folks around.
I guess this is where a smoke-filled room would come in handy. This is a classic collective action problem, but without party bosses who can step in and take charge, there’s really no answer to it. The tea-party candidates keep thinking that they can run and win because there are so many tea partiers among the Republican primary electorate. Unfortunately, there are too many of them who think so. The end result is that they tear each other to shreds and end up with John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush. And then they whine and complain about how “the party” has betrayed the conservative cause yet again.
This isn’t inevitable, of course. It’s possible that Walker or one of the other mean-boy candidates will break out and become the de facto tea party standard bearer. It’s just not as likely as it should be. It’s a shame the tea partiers can’t get their act together, isn’t it?