The Washington Times

First, it looked like the Democratic presidential nomination was all sewn up, the GOP field wide open. Al Gore was heir apparent, the Republicans uncertain where to go after their 1996 loss. Then it looked like the GOP nomination was all sewn up, thanks to the canny front-porch campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, while the Democratic nomination was up for grabs. Then it looked like both the front-runners might be in trouble -thanks to Bill Bradley’s appeal among Democrats looking for a vessel into which to pour their various grievances over the Clinton-Gore years, and thanks to Mr. Bush’s singularly weak debut on the campaign trail, which instantly elevated the stature of his principal rival, John McCain.

Then it looked like we were back where we started, with Mr. Gore in command but the GOP still duking it out. Until a week ago today, that is. That’s when the truth about this campaign finally emerged – the truth that has been apparent from the beginning but has been lost in the quest for novelty among many of those whose business it is to write and talk about campaigns, as well as in the well-spun enthusiasms of partisans with a dog in the fight.

In both the Democratic and Republican cases, virtually the whole of the respective party establishments united early behind the man they wanted to be the nominee. These party establishments, at this point in our history, well reflect the views of rank-and-file party members; they are not an out-of-touch elite, just the opposite. They are powerful not just because they occupy positions of importance to the party – whether as elected officials, funders, activists, policy types – but from the bottom up, because when they speak, they command the attention of rank-and-file party members.

There have indeed been times, in both the Democratic and Republican cases, when a party establishment has lost touch with its members. An appeal to the rank and file to overrule the establishment can, in principle, work in the event of such a disconnection; the establishment is not omnipotent. But this year was not one of disconnection.

In the Democratic case, viewed from the vantage of hindsight, the Bradley boom coincides quite precisely with the period in which the vice president was looking weak, his bloated campaign unable to move forward. The nadir of the campaign was the Nov. 8 “alpha male” report in Time magazine, the disclosure that feminist author Naomi Wolf had been on retainer to the tune of $15,000 a month and had been advising the vice president on how to – well, accounts vary; let’s just say she included advice on the public image he was projecting.

By about a month later, however – maybe Ms. Wolf’s advice worked – Mr. Gore was looking much stronger and projecting an aura of confidence, his retooled campaign at last moving forward. Mr. Bradley began to fade along with doubts about Mr. Gore. Democratic voters ratified the establishment choice.

The Republican side was more dramatic, of course. But once again, the drama began with the front-runner displaying hitherto unknown weakness. Mr. Bush first skipped a New Hampshire debate for (ill-considered) political reasons, and looked disingenuous when he attributed his absence to his need to attend a Texas event at which his wife was receiving an award. Then, when he did appear, he was hardly the “Terminator” candidate the Austin campaign seemed to be promising. Add some other flubs at public events that fall, and not a few Republicans were nervous.

Sen. McCain capitalized on this new sense of vulnerability. But Mr. McCain’s overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, where he beat Mr. Bush by 18 points thanks to a large independent turnout in the open primary, actually obscured the critical detail: Mr. McCain lost among registered Republicans, but only very narrowly, scoring 38 percent to Mr. Bush’s 41 percent.

Mr. McCain demonstrated that at that moment, he truly did have the ear of his party’s rank-and-file voters – the only possible route around the establishment support for Mr. Bush. This was Mr. McCain’s opportunity. But perhaps overly impressed with his success among independents, Mr. McCain promptly lost the ear of Republicans by failing to direct his campaign at them. He could stay alive until Super Tuesday with his victory in Michigan, but he could not stay alive long losing the GOP vote there 66-29. The GOP establishment had not, after all, misread Republican sentiment.

So we are now, perhaps, about where we ought to be. The nominations have been decided largely on the strength of the views of the respective party establishments, then ratified by the rank and file.

Interestingly, the presumptive GOP and Democratic nominees emerge from this process about even in head-to-head polls. If Mr. Gore loses, the party will blame him for blowing a perfectly winnable election (especially given current conditions of peace and prosperity). If Mr. Bush loses, the situation is complicated by the fact that during the primary season, Mr. McCain had a chance (albeit a long-shot chance) and missed it. Some Republicans will blame Mr. McCain’s insurgency for weakening Mr. Bush; others will wonder what might have happened if Mr. McCain had spent the two weeks after New Hampshire trying to increase his GOP support. In neither case, of course, will the establishment blame itself.