Republican presidential candidates will debate for the third time this week, just after political neophyte Ben Carson took the lead in a national primary poll away from political neophyte Donald Trump. Neither man is qualified to be elected president, and neither can beat Democrat Hillary Clinton, but together they have been polling at about half the Republican primary vote for months. Why do so many Republicans treat the presidency so lightly?
For millions of Americans, the White House is not something to be captured, but something to be resisted. Some of the GOP’s most loyal voters see their party as a dissident force against President Obama and against the demographic changes in America that he represents. They see the Republican Party as a bulwark against an expanding federal government (epitomized by “Obamacare”) and a counterrevolutionary movement against social “experiments” such as same-sex marriage (which exists) and a ban on gun ownership (which is politically impossible). By this thinking, it’s more important to keep control of Congress, and as many state governments as possible, than to win the White House—which constantly moves forward, like a shark, in search of greater power no matter which party controls it. What has the presidency gotten small-government conservatives since Ronald Reagan, anyway?
The GOP as resistance movement explains the curious situation in the House of Representatives, where a faction known as the Freedom Caucus seems to want Republican control without Republican leadership. “We’re really tired of the top-down, micromanagement where you have just a few people, or in this case just the speaker and his team, determining the outcome,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) told Politico after outgoing House Speaker John Boehner reached an agreement with the Obama administration to raise the U.S. debt limit through March 2017 and thus eliminate the threats of a government shutdown or debt default until after the next presidential elections. (Paul Ryan, Mr. Boehner’s presumptive replacement, quickly agreed, saying of the collaborative effort, “I think the process stinks” and “under new management we are not going to do the people's business this way.” Mr. Ryan is under suspicion for his past support of Mr. Boehner’s efforts to appease the White House by keeping open the federal government.)
But “top-down” management is what the presidency is all about, and Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson are as guilty as any of the candidates in giving the impression they could and would act unilaterally as president. (Mr. Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, has little to offer voters other than his ability to intimidate people during business negotiations.) GOP voters would surely relish a defeat of Hillary Clinton next November, but it’s difficult to imagine a Republican president unifying his or her party for more than a few hours after the inauguration speech. (Or, in Ted Cruz’s case, a few hours after his ripping “to shreds” the Obama administration’s treasonous nuclear deal with Iran.)
The Republican Party as resistance movement also explains its obsession with proving the illegitimacy of Democratic presidents (see the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the conspiracy theories, encouraged by Mr. Trump, about President Obama’s birthplace) and the Benghazi hearings conducted by House Republicans, with their insinuations that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton cared nothing about the deaths of four Americans by terrorists in Libya in 2012.
And it explains the recent rise of Mr. Carson, who combines a low-key speaking style with some of the most inflammatory rhetoric in the presidential campaign. A recent Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll found that 81 percent of those likely to attend the Iowa Republican caucuses found it “attractive” that Mr. Carson called the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) the “worst thing since slavery.” According to the same poll, 77 percent found it attractive that Mr. Carson “has said that Hitler might not have been as successful if the people had been armed.” These are the sentiments of voters looking not for responsible leadership, but instead for the standard-bearer of an insurrection.
Not surprisingly, onetime frontrunner Jeb Bush is getting crankier by the continued attention given to Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson, and he seems increasingly likely to blurt out, “Take this job and shove it.” (“I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke,” Mr. Bush said at a town hall meeting in South Carolina. “Elect Trump if you want that.”) And last weekend’s New York Times story about the Bush family’s professed befuddlement about their declining power is exactly what Mr. Bush doesn’t need if he is to shed the perception that he feels entitled to hold the presidency. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, rose in the polls after the last Republican debate but has slid back under 10 percent (as of October 23) after being dubbed the new frontrunner among the Establishment candidates.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio have not been helped by the reluctance of Republican elected officials to stick their heads up and act like leaders. As FiveThirtyEight.com reports, there have been fewer endorsements by major Republicans than at any comparable time in recent history; Mr. Bush leads the pack with endorsements from just three U.S. senators and zero governors. (The most successful at picking up endorsements this early in the process was George W. Bush ahead of the 2000 election.) The dilemma for Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio is that neither is likely to become the nominee without the help of party leaders, but they’re running in a party whose voters seem repelled by the very idea of leadership. Perhaps Mr. Bush will become so agitated during the debate that he’ll declare, “If elected, I will not serve!” and thereby finally win the respect of Republican primary voters.