My PBS colleague Mark Shields recently reminded me of the old saying that Democrats fall in love but Republicans fall in line.
Democrats have historically liked presidential nominees they can go gaga for, even if they lack experience: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy. Republicans on the other hand like to nominate the guy who’s paid his dues and already lost a presidential run: Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
So far this year, the parties have switched love languages. Democratic voters have become responsible and middle-aged, telling pollsters they want experienced pols who can work within the system. Republicans are embracing their inner adolescent.
By a majority of 64 percent to 30 percent, conservative Republicans tell pollsters they want their candidate to be an outsider. Republican governors in the debates reel off long data-filled paragraphs about their accomplishments, and you can feel the entire Republican electorate doing the bored valley girl eye roll.
Republicans radiate more alienation than the sophomore class at a Berkeley alternative high school. They have also entered a weird post-material political space. Many Republicans show little interest in candidates who offer proposals, but flock to the ones who offer outrageous self-expression.
Donald Trump has emerged as the prankster narcissus. It doesn’t matter that he might not be able to find Syria on a map; he offers America hair, boasting, misogyny and insult. There’s no woman who can’t be reduced to a physical object. The socially insecure rise and applaud as he insults the people they’d never have the guts to take on themselves.
Republicans used to be split between economic and social conservatives. But this year the big fight is tactical.
One group wants to rip up the political process and disrupt everything. Renounce the Iran deal on Day 1, no matter what our allies say. Ignore the Supreme Court and effectively disallow gay marriage. Shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. Magically deport the 11 million illegal immigrants.
This is more or less the Bobby Jindal-Ted Cruz wing. (During those milliseconds when Trump is capable of entertaining a policy thought, he wanders into this camp.)
The others, like Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and Jeb Bush, live within the confines of reality. You can’t actually defund Planned Parenthood or end Obamacare if you don’t control the White House. Offending every global ally on the first day of a new administration might have some nasty knock on effects. You can’t actually erase the 14th Amendment and end birthright citizenship.
Over the summer the burn-down-the-house crowd had an amazing run, but if this week’s debate is a sign of anything, it is that the party is going to go off on a different trajectory. The outsiders are about to slide. Trump’s Don Rickles act wears thin. His ego may be galaxy-sized, but his policy ignorance is a void that overspills the known universe. He’s the Wizard of Oz. When the bluster curtain falls down, what’s left is pathetic.
That doesn’t mean the party will snap back to its old establishmentarian tendencies. Bush had several moments to deliver a devastating blow — like challenging Trump for going after his wife — but he couldn’t quite turn them into hot-blooded signature moments. Three hundred and fifty years of WASP reticence have left habits of gentility and emotional guardedness that inhibit him, just as they inhibited his father.
When Trump attacked him for his bilingualism, Bush retorted, “Well, I’ve been speaking English and I’ll keep speaking English!” This is not exactly a killer retort. It’s a nice guy’s impersonation of a killer retort.
Instead, the party will veer on a course midway between outsider and establishment. It will probably end up with some hybrid candidate — sharp of tongue, gifted in self-expression and yet still anchored in the world of reality.
That’s where Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio come in. So far, Fiorina has looked like the most impressive candidate. She has a genius for creating signature moments. (“If you want to stump a Democrat, ask them to name an accomplishment of Mrs. Clinton’s.”) But her spotty record at Hewlett-Packard probably means she can’t start at the top of the ticket.
Rubio is young and thus uncorrupted, and he is a genius at relating policy depth in a way that is personal. He has clarity of mind and can sum up a complex subject — Russia, the Middle East — in a way that is comprehensible but not oversimplified.
This debate was one moment in time, but you can see the vectors of where this campaign is headed. This is no longer Bob Dole’s or George H.W. Bush’s GOP. But it’s not going to completely lose its mind, either.
It’s going to be somewhat the same, but edgier and more renegade. Right now, Rubio, Fiorina and maybe Chris Christie are best positioned to occupy that space.
David Brooks became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and is currently a commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.”