The establishment usually wins. That, after all, is what it means to be an establishment. But not always. Three of the last six presidents—Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Barack Obama in 2008—ran against their own party’s powerbrokers, captured the nomination, and then took the Oval Office from an incumbent president (1976, 1980) or an incumbent party (2008).
True, establishment candidates have more often beaten back insurgents. But that hasn’t always turned out so well for their party. Gerald Ford lost the general election in 1976, Jimmy Carter (who had held off challenger Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination) lost in 1980, Walter Mondale lost in 1984, Bob Dole lost in 1996, John Kerry lost in 2004, and John McCain (who’d gone from insurgent in 2000 to quasi-establishment candidate eight years later) lost in 2008. In 2000, the two establishment candidates won their nominations, and both arguably underperformed in the fall. Al Gore managed to lose as an incumbent vice president running in a time of peace and prosperity; George W. Bush frittered away a substantial lead by succumbing to establishmentarian complacency and following the counsel of advisers that the way to win was to don the mantle of inevitability. (He was saved by Ralph Nader voters in Florida.)
Mitt Romney, this year’s iteration of the establishment candidate, is a decent, serious, and in some ways impressive man. But it’s clear a lot of Republicans look at him, his campaign, and his advocates and see the ghosts of establishmentarians past. The question in this cycle has always been whether a viable challenger would emerge. We will now see, in the crucible of an intense campaign, whether Rick Santorum is up to the task of being that challenger. And we will also see whether the establishment will be able to put so heavy a thumb on the scales that voters will think the race is over before it has even really begun.
Thus Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday: If Romney, having beaten Santorum by all of eight votes in Iowa, wins in New Hampshire, where he has a summer home and has been campaigning for six years—well, then we should all just accept the inevitability of Romney. After all, then “Romney is 2-0.” And if he’s 2-0, by whatever margins and in states with 11 electoral votes—“he becomes the prohibitive favorite” for the nomination.
Really? Well, no. But the point is to convince Santorum supporters, and those of you who might consider becoming Santorum supporters, that he has no chance, so as to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of Romney inevitability. After all, “Mr. Santorum shouldn’t kid himself; he faces huge obstacles. . . . He hasn’t had to endure withering scrutiny but will shortly. His chief opponent has tremendous organizational and financial advantages and has been through the rigors of a presidential primary race.” Rove does note with gracious condescension, “Mr. Santorum has a shot, and that’s all he could have hoped for.”
Actually, Santorum can hope to win. He has been running to win. And after what he pulled off in Iowa, it’s foolish to suggest he doesn’t have a chance to win. His Iowa performance, and his speech Tuesday night, were impressive enough to suggest to primary voters in subsequent states that they should make an effort to judge both his capacity to win and his capacity to govern.
Organizational and financial advantages often prevail. But isn’t the story of America that they don’t always determine the outcome? And, by the way, if the candidate with those advantages does prevail, won’t he be better off for having faced a serious challenger?
The first and greatest Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, defeated more established candidates for the nomination in 1860. (He also knew how to co-opt parts of the establishment, a necessary skill for a successful politician—as Ronald Reagan also showed over a century later.) Speaking to the 166th Ohio Regiment in August 1864, President Lincoln thanked the soldiers for their service, and went on to say something perhaps worth keeping in mind today:
I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest. It is not merely for to-day, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright—not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.
Santorum—and anyone else in the field, or anyone who may still enter—deserves “an open field and a fair chance” to compete for the “big White House” that Lincoln occupied. All American history is saying, and all we are saying, is . . . give Rick a chance.