Unless there’s a psychic shift in the Republican Party soon, this past Tuesday evening the campaign for its presidential nomination became sui generis. On its face, the race conforms to the establishment-versus-insurgency template that’s characterized past contests, such as the 1976 GOP race in which Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination from sitting incumbent Gerald Ford, and the 1980 race in which Edward Kennedy couldn’t liberate Jimmy Carter of the Democratic nomination, so he stole the party’s heart instead. The dynamic in both cases was that once the party dutifully resolved to remain in its marriage to the dour Gerald Ford or Carter, it had one last doomed fling with heartthrobs Reagan and Kennedy in order not to forget who it really yearned for. What makes the current race singular, however, is that Mitt Romney is the weakest and least convincing establishment front-runner since Walter Mondale and that the insurgency is fractured. Insurgencies are purist by definition and have difficulty abiding human imperfection. This one is of such unyielding zealotry as to divide into three wings, for any one of which neither of the other two is pure enough, with Rick Santorum representing the social-values wing, Ron Paul the libertarian wing, and Newt Gingrich the intergalactic wing (which none of us knew existed before).
A sui generis contest has the potential for a sui generis outcome, which in our lifetimes would mean a brokered convention. Let’s acknowledge that for every political junkie, the brokered convention is a fantasy so opiate as to bypass delirium straight into goofy; at no time in the last 60 years has one come to pass. The arguments this year both for and against such a prospect are the same, and they are this: Everything is about Romney. Santorum and Gingrich haven’t won races, Romney has lost them—twice as many defeats as triumphs, which seems an impossible formula for success and certainly would be if he had lost those races to the same person. With a race now less certain than at any other time, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul all have reasons for staying the course, and at the present rate of disarray and attrition it becomes more difficult to calculate how anyone goes into the convention with 1,144 delegates. Add to this how well these underwhelming candidates reflect what the true nature of the Republican Party has become, and the vision of a convention coming apart in the swelter of August is eminently conceivable.
You would think Democrats would be pleased, and probably they are, but the same imagination that fathoms chaos at the convention might fathom what can come of it, which falls squarely under the heading of Be Careful What You Wish For. If all four candidates limp into the convention not only unelectable but unnominatable, party heavyweights who demurred on this election because either they’re smart enough not to underestimate Barack Obama or smart enough not to overestimate the rank and file’s common sense—the Republican grassroots was no more something to which Christie or Daniels or Barbour wanted to subject themselves than they did to the president, maybe less—might be lured by a fraught convention into believing he’s the one who can save the party. Having avoided scarifying debates where audiences lustily cheered executions and comas for the uninsured, the fifth man marches into the Tampa Bay Times Forum and takes charge, offering a more daunting opposition to Obama than any of the four now vying. We may even test whether the most formidable Republican today, a former governor of Florida with greater skills than either his overachieving father or brother, can transcend his name (or “brand,” as the parlance of the day has it). The brokered convention of legend may leave in shambles any hope the party had against the president, or it could as easily produce the phoenix of Democratic nightmares. Obama’s best-case scenario is six more months of the last six weeks, with one of the vying four clawing his way to the top, carcass by carcass.