There's a word that's starting to pop up with some frequency in the coverage of the 2012 Republican presidential primary -- "suicidal." Why is that? This week, New York's Jonathan Chait and The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza offer theories of why this election has been so chaotic -- with 11 frontrunners, by Lizza's count -- and why Republicans seem as weirdly self-sabotaging as teenage cutters.
It's the primaries
Lizza (a noted media dieter) reports that political scientists say maybe those old smoke-filled rooms -- when party elites picked their nominee away from public view -- weren't so bad after all. The modern primary system, in place since 1972, has created "an unholy alliance of the press and media-savvy candidates." Lizza continues:
The rise of primaries would lead to nominees who mobilized small factions, rather than to those who knit together broad coalitions. Parties, [political scientist Nelson] Polsby insisted, had to have some 'consensus-forcing institution,' like the deliberative Conventions. For some time, Polsby’s fears seemed overblown.
Parties just had a different kind of smoke-filled room -- the "invisible primary," in which the year before the election, candidates competed for endorsements and money, and party elders got a sense of who had the right combination of being ideological enough to appeal to activists and being moderate-seeming enough not to scare the straights. The old system allowed parties to control their activists -- "intense policy demanders," who want their candidate as absolutely far right or left as electorally possible. But instead, this year you had Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain and Rick Santorum and the rest -- candidates who make for good TV and who are supported by small factions.