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Highlander Doesn’t Explain the Republican Party

Marin Cogan’s description of intra-party Republican feuding misses the mark:

GOP strategist Rick Wilson calls this “the Highlander theory,” after the ’90s TV show about the Scottish warrior who needs to behead other immortals because there can be only one. Ted Cruz became The One by eclipsing Rubio, who had ascended only a few months earlier.

Except for the fact that a nomination process involves winnowing a field of candidates to leave one winner, the Highlander reference doesn’t work very well. Virtually every 2012 candidate that flopped did so because he self-destructed in one way or another. All of the fatal blows for Perry, Gingrich, Pawlenty, etc. were self-inflicted. The same holds true for Cruz and Rubio. For Republican presidential politics to be explained by a “Highlander theory,” all of the immortals would have to be taking their own heads. Once someone has become “the One,” he can’t be “eclipsed,” because all of his rivals would already be dead.

It’s true that Cruz followed Rubio as one of the latest objects of some conservatives’ enthusiasm, but Cruz had nothing to do with Rubio’s implosion. More important, their enthusiasts come from different parts of the right, and that’s different from what happened in 2011-12. The different 2012 non-Romney candidates took turns as the temporary candidate of roughly the same one-third of the primary electorate that didn’t want to settle for Romney. What Cruz and Rubio have in common is that they horribly misjudged the political landscape of the specific issues that they chose for their high-profile efforts in Congress. As far as winning a future presidential nomination is concerned, Cruz may have hurt his chances less than Rubio did. While Rubio took a lot of his conservative support for granted, Cruz is currently interested only in cultivating conservative support. Rubio’s collapse came about in part because he started believing the hype of his boosters that he was the ideal candidate to “rescue” the GOP among Hispanic voters. Rubio was being promoted as a possible presidential candidate mostly by the factions in the GOP that dislike Cruz and Paul for different reasons, and conservatives that favor Cruz and/or Paul don’t trust Rubio because they believe he is on the wrong side of immigration and foreign policy issues.

We’re seeing the effects of waxing and waning conservative enthusiasms for different politicians shaped by conservative media’s hunt for a new topic to fill in the time between now and the formal start of the next nomination contest in 2015. Dan McCarthy recently remarked on the pattern of hyping relatively obscure politicians as the new Republican champion, which is followed by sending him back into obscurity as attention shifts to the next favorite or fantasy candidate:

But every four or eight years, pundits’ imaginations get fired by dark horses: last year, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels had their moments of vogue. In the middle of the George W. Bush years, National Review improbably pinned its hopes on Colorado Gov. Bill Owens as his successor. (Even more improbably, the magazine had a crush on Dan Lungren, then attorney general of California, back in 1996.)

There’s a reason these fantasies never play out: Republican voters not only have a strong preference for familiar names, they also like nationally proven brands.

The 2012 cycle was a particularly bad one for the endless stream of fantasy candidates that some pundits kept talking up no matter how unrealistic or absurd it would have been for that person to run for president at the time. This was a by-product of dissatisfaction with Romney, but it was also an acknowledgment that the eventual outcome (i.e., Romney’s nomination) was already obvious. Obviously, few people in political media, conservative or otherwise, want to minimize the possibility that something new and unexpected could happen in a Republican primary contest, but few believe that something unexpected will happen. The passing interest in various non-Romney and fantasy candidates was a way to avoid total boredom with a process whose result was never seriously in doubt.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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