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Tales of Woe

The myth of a powerful Republican establishment.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Late in 2003, Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase “Bush Derangement Syndrome” to describe the rage of the left at our 43rd president, a loathing so intense that when the president was reelected his anguished opponents needed grief therapy simply to cope. This morphed in time into Palin Derangement, which infected the elites of both parties. And now some on the right have come down with a similar affliction​—​Establishment, and/or RINO Derangement​—​the belief that a Republican party elite is conspiring against them and is behind all of their woes. The symptoms are a sense of intense persecution along with one of perpetual grievance, and a feeling of having been wronged by unscrupulous people, endowed with magical powers that allow them all too often to triumph, in spite of their being so wrong. Out of this has grown a series of what Mona Charen calls fables designed to make the victims feel better and avoid looking hard at their vulnerabilities. This may work in the sense of affording condolence. But the myths are simply not true.

Photo of the Ronald Reagan Republican Center

Myth number one is that in every presidential election since 1984 (when Ronald Reagan ran for the last time) conservatives have been held down and forced to suffer the torments of Hades as one inept RINO (Republican In Name Only) squish after another has been shoved down their throats. George H. W. Bush won once but paved the way for Bill Clinton by breaking his pledge not to raise taxes. Bob Dole lost, taking the glow off the 1994 midterms. George W. Bush won, and then won again, but spent too much money, wasn’t really conservative, and led congressional Republicans astray. Then the RINO par excellence, John McCain, failed to succeed him and gave us Obama’s long night.

All of these men, of course, were challenged in primary contests by a legion of more conservative figures, who fought to derail them and failed: The elder Bush was challenged by Jack Kemp, Pierre du Pont, and Pat Robertson (and by Pat Buchanan, in 1992); Bob Dole by Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, and Buchanan; the younger George Bush by Orrin Hatch, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer; McCain by Mike Huckabee (a social conservative), Mitt Romney (a fiscal conservative), Rudy Giuliani (a law-and-order conservative, though a social libertarian), and Fred Thompson, a total conservative who ran rather less well than them all. 

Save for 2008, when all the contenders were serious (and four of the five were distrusted by movement conservatives), the “establishment” candidates were far more credentialed than their conservative challengers (save for Kemp, Gramm, and Hatch, who never gained traction). George Bush the elder had been a congressman, director of the CIA, and ambassador before serving two terms as vice president; Dole had been Senate majority leader and a congressional fixture; George W. Bush the younger, a successful governor of one of the biggest states in the Union; and McCain was a multi-term senator, widely seen as a leader on defense and foreign affairs. By contrast, their challengers tended to be vanity candidates, preachers and pundits, people who might be seen as trying to raise their profiles or lecture fees, activists for one or more boutique causes, people whose time to shine had long vanished, and those whose time never came.

The 2012 primary campaign has been an exaggerated version of this dynamic, with one credentialed ex-moderate running against a social conservative who served only five years in the House, a marketing whiz who was a political half-wit, a former speaker dethroned by his caucus, an ex-senator who lost his last race by 18 points, a 76-year-old member of the House with an eccentric agenda, and a four-term Texas governor whose résumé was impressive, but who tripped over his tongue and his feet. It took no manipulation by sinister forces to eliminate most of them. Conservatives did run, but not the best of them. This was not a dark RINO plot.

Was there ever a case of a thumb being put on the scale for an establishment candidate? Yes, it turns out that there was. In 1980, Reagan chose the elder George Bush as his running mate to win over the country club voters, and this mixed ticket won. Eight years passed, and Bush began running for president, presenting himself as Reagan’s helpmeet, successor, and heir. Running against him was Jack Kemp, who was a much closer fit with the Reagan agenda, but Reagan could not disown his loyal vice president. His lack of endorsement was fatal to Kemp, who always believed it was Bush’s positioning of himself as Reagan’s legitimate heir that sucked the air out of his campaign. This not only led to the first Bush presidency but inspired Bush’s two elder sons to enter what was becoming the family business. As a result, a generation later, people are still discussing the possibility of a third Bush as president. And who kickstarted this so-called establishment dynasty? None other than Reagan himself.

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