The Washington Times

Now seems to be the point in the epic duel for the GOP presidential nomination at which those who make it their business to analyze and interpret elections are throwing up their hands in confusion, and throwing themselves on the mercy of an electorate whose behavior has regularly confounded them. Although I have more than a few bruises from erroneous predictions this year, the course of events has been anything but chaotic. Let us review.

The GOP establishment – now consisting of a diverse but united group of Republican officeholders, donors, K Street lobbyists, policy experts and activists – settled early on Texas Gov. George W. Bush as their preferred standard-bearer for 2000. On the Democratic side, an establishment consisting of the same kinds of people long ago settled on Al Gore.

The principal reason for the selection of the Texas governor was his presumed electability, the collective judgment first of the party’s popular governors, subsequently confirmed by public opinion polls showing Mr. Bush with a large lead against Mr. Gore. Notwithstanding those polls – which, to be sure, were at least arguably meaningless given the early date and the fact that no real campaigning had gone on – Democrats could find no good reason to look elsewhere than the office of the man who had been vice president through eight years of peace and unprecedented prosperity.

Yet only sitting presidents win nominations by coronation (and not even all of them). Mr. Gore drew one challenger; Mr. Bush, depending on how you look at it, drew several, or none, or one.

Bill Bradley wants to be president and is a credible candidate for that office. On the Republican side, for a long time it was impossible to say the same two things about any of Mr. Bush’s challengers. Mr. McCain, a credible candidate, looked to be smiling his way through a campaign without doing what would be necessary to dethrone the front-runner.

In both the GOP and Democratic cases, we have party establishments fully vested in their chosen candidates, and the importance of this simply cannot be overstated. Party establishments do not go on to reject the conclusions they themselves have reached. Rather, they fight to put down challenges. By the time of the South Carolina primary in 1996, for example, even Republicans acknowledged Bob Dole would likely be a weak challenger to Bill Clinton. Yet they did not quickly search for another nominee; instead, they did everything in their power to shore up Mr. Dole’s bid for the nomination.

The only way around the establishment is by popular vote. Yet this is, if anything, even harder than it sounds. In the first place, the party establishment view does not emerge in isolation from the view of the party rank and file – not unless the establishment is woefully out of touch. In fact, the establishment view generally comports rather well with the rank-and-file view. In the second place, the establishment has clout. Political machines are not omnipotent, but they are relevant in turning out voters. On either the Democratic or Republican side this year, as most years, the victory of an insurgent campaign would be wrenching and have drastic consequences.

Mr. Bradley looks to have lost any traction he might have been gaining among voters against the Democratic establishment choice. Mr. McCain rebounded from a serious loss in South Carolina with a victory in Michigan propelled by non-GOP turnout and proof from his home state of Arizona, at least, that Republicans will vote for him in majority numbers. He remains a long-shot possibility.

But the extent of the turmoil in the Republican Party produced by Mr. McCain’s successes to date is only now becoming clear. Mr. McCain emerged after his New Hampshire victory a candidate transformed: He is now playing to win. In practical terms, that means going after George W. Bush and taking him down.

Could a McCain candidacy have aimed only at the perceived inadequacies of the front-runner? Could a more conservative-sounding John McCain have continued to draw huge crowds and bring new voters as well as rank-and-file Republicans in on the strength of the message that George W. Bush wasn’t up to the task? In short, could Mr. McCain have derailed Mr. Bush while simultaneously preparing the way for the GOP as a whole to embrace the upstart?

In the real world, Mr. McCain seems to have felt he did not have that choice. Mr. Bush is more than a figurehead for the GOP establishment, someone removable at will in the event a more desirable figurehead comes along. Mr. Bush and the establishment are organically conjoined. Hence, Mr. McCain’s attack on Mr. Bush has now become equally a no-holds-barred attack on the GOP establishment. Mr. McCain seems to understand that it is more than just Mr. Bush who must fall if Mr. McCain is going to prevail. The establishment must fall with Mr. Bush.

An equally interesting question is what Mr. McCain does with this “McCain phenomenon” if he happens to lose. Does his political horizon extend beyond 2000? If so, then he needs Mr. Bush to lose in November to set the stage for the Gore-McCain confrontation of 2004.

The outcome may be uncertain, but the real issues and the stakes in this election are clear. Goetterdaemmerung, anyone?