Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 1:45 pm | Partly Cloudy 61º


Susan Estrich: Republican Presidential Field Far Too Big to Win

The first rule of “reforming” the system for selecting a presidential nominee is that the best-laid plans lead to unintended consequences.

So it was that the Democrats in the 1980s, stung by repeated losses, decided that the answer was to give Southern states more influence in the process by creating “Super Tuesday,”

The idea, pushed by the more conservative Democratic Leadership Council (not-so-affectionately known by the various “identity” caucuses within the party as the “white boys caucus”) was that it would lead to the selection of a more conservative nominee who might actually be able to win some of those states in the fall.

The theory proved to be totally wrong — at least until Bill Clinton ran. The winner of the first Super Tuesday turned out to be the most liberal candidate in the race, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In retrospect, it made perfect sense: Democrat primary voters in Southern states are dominated not by moderate conservatives but by African-Americans.

Once Super Tuesday passed, the South was all but done, and the liberal caucuses were as powerful as ever. Oh yes, we lost 49 states that year.

Republicans may face similar problems as a result of their most recent “reforms,” which were supposed to make it easier for a winner to win early, but in this multicandidate field, may actually help the very kind of candidate — shall we say, the Donald Trump type — that is breeding terror in the hearts of establishment Republicans who are actually determined to win.

By compressing the process and changing the rules apportioning delegates, the Republicans may have created a perfect storm in which candidates don’t drop out fast enough or soon enough to allow any one candidate a clear one-on-one shot at Trump.

Without that winnowing of the field, 25 percent — about as high as Trump has scored, at least in national polls — may well be enough to win or come close.

Even coming close can be bad news. Since 1968, when the Democratic convention in Chicago was overtaken by the rioting outside the hall, and the country watched police unload tear gas on demonstrators, it has become an article of faith that the worst thing for a nominee is a convention that appears to be outside his control.

The Republicans learned that lesson in 1992. That was the convention that Democrats feared would be a nonstop attack on Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s record on taxing and spending.

I was ready with my answers, but they weren’t necessarily persuasive. To my surprise, and that of Clinton himself, the Republicans chose to spend their convention attacking the Democrats not on the economy, but on matters of religion. I kid you not.

The platform committee voted to eliminate references to Abraham Lincoln because his “better angels of our nature” quote was thought to be un-Christian.

Pat Robertson’s opening-night speech was nothing less than a call for holy war.

It was left to former President Ronald Reagan to try to bring the convention back to reality by calling for tolerance. When Reagan is the most liberal guy on the stage, you know the party is in major trouble.

By Thursday, I had tossed out my weekend column defending the Democratic candidate on tax-and-spend issues and replaced it with a diatribe against the divisive politics that dominated in Houston. I need not mention that Clinton won handily.

Maybe the most telling moment of this past political week was Scott Walker’s unusual withdrawal speech (these days, candidates don’t actually withdraw, they “suspend,” which means they are still accepting contributions to pay off expenses), in which he encouraged his fellow candidates to consider moving the process forward by joining him in dropping out.

Hardly the usual speech, but then this is hardly the usual year. And the truth is, Walker is right.

If more candidates don’t follow his advice, sooner rather than later, the new rules that were intended to help Republicans recapture the White House may end up making that task even more difficult than it would have been.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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