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.
It’s silly to pretend that those of us writing about the GOP nomination race don’t have a vested interest in a drama without end. This is to say that we have no interest in the resolution that the whole of the Republican Party wants badly even as its individual parts resist it.
Although Newt Gingrich has dominated the headlines since Saturday night, what happened in the South Carolina primary is less about Gingrich’s rise than it is about Mitt Romney’s fall. The right's determination to find anyone other than Romney—illustrated over the last eight months by the hot flashes of support for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain—has become desperate to the point that evangelicals supported a twice-divorced man who, by the account of one of his discarded spouses, aspired to manage a small harem. Moreover, they’re so frantic to be rid of Romney that they implicitly sanctioned Gingrich’s attacks against the former Massachusetts governor's personal financial gain.
That the biggest story of the New Hampshire Primary has, in the 36 hours since, received relatively little comment attests to our perception of politics as a game of colliding strategies rather than a psychodrama. If nothing else, this coming electoral year we’re about to get a lesson in the strange Oedipal dynamics between fathers and sons. Ron Paul is running for president. He’s not just running for president up until next week’s South Carolina Primary or the Florida Primary at the end of the month; he’s not running through March or June or even up until the combustible convention days of September when the Republican Party meets in Tampa. Ron Paul is running for president forever, which includes—unless he dies first—next November 6.
Even on past occasions when the result of the Iowa caucuses appeared to be an aberration—and whether eight votes divides relevance from irrelevance this year remains to be seen—it has set the tenor of the subsequent campaign. Four years ago, both Democrats and Republicans had a sense of voting for something (which itself was an aberration), with Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama representing the prospect of new national possibilities to different people in different ways. It’s hard to imagine how Tuesday’s result could establish more viscerally the sense of people voting against something.