Why Jeb won’t keep the rest from running

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
(AP/Getty/Reuters/Yahoo News)

All this media handicapping of the unformed Republican field for 2016 is starting to sound like the seating chart for some nightmare family wedding where no one can stand to be near anyone else.

If Huckabee really does RSVP, yes, then surely Cruz and Santorum can’t both come too, right? And if Bush sucks up all the space at the head table, then there can’t possibly be room for Christie or Rubio, except maybe at the back. Walker cancels out Perry, or maybe Perry cancels out Pence — I can’t really keep it straight anymore.

I mean, they can’t all be running at the same time, can they?

Actually, they can, and most of them probably will — at least for a while. If you think about how a lot of these guys came to find themselves in power in the first place, then you can see why this may end up being the most crowded Republican field in memory, and why the old rules of presidential politics probably don’t apply.

The last generation of politics has been all about the outsider; if you’re an American under 30, you can’t even remember a national election that wasn’t principally about overturning the status quo in Washington. But that brand of reactionary politics reached a crescendo in the past decade or so. The last three off-year elections — starting in 2006 — were wave elections in which at least one chamber of Congress changed hands.

Those tumultuous, one-sided elections, and particularly the last two midterm cycles, have had a profound effect on shaping the current leadership of both parties (or lack thereof). It’s no accident, for instance, that the only Democrat considered a truly national, galvanizing candidate is a failed presidential hopeful from 2008 who hasn’t held elective office since. The elections of 2010 and 2014 pretty much wiped out any chance the party had of developing a new class of stars.

In a week that marked the passing of a giant like Mario Cuomo, it’s strange to think that the two governors of the Obama era who would seem the most likely presidential candidates are Maryland’s Martin O’Malley and Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick, neither of whom has much by way of national standing. (Cuomo’s son Andrew might have figured prominently, too, were it not for an especially rocky 2014 and his close proximity to the Clintons.)

Among recently elected Democrats in the Senate, you basically have Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, and then a bunch of other folks you wouldn’t notice if you accidentally spilled cappuccino on them at Starbucks.

On the Republican side, though, the last two midterm elections created and solidified a whole new group of what you might call surfer Republicans — candidates for both governor and Senate who caught a powerful wave and never looked back. And this unusual double uprising is bound to upend some of our accepted notions of primary politics, including the one that says only a handful of serious candidates can court the same voting blocs and contributors.

Wave years confer on their victors a different kind of mentality than regular elections do. If you’re a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio, everyone said you were delusional when you first set out to take down a far more established Republican in your state. The sages said you couldn’t possibly raise enough money or get enough attention to win. And then you rode the wave and did exactly that.

Only you don’t tell yourself you won because of the wave. You tell yourself you won because you are singularly talented and full of important ideas and maybe even destined for greatness. (For a good example of this phenomenon, see George W. Bush, who really had no business beating Ann Richards in 1994, except that he too caught a national wave and was thereafter convinced he was an instrument of fate.)

You can’t tell a tea party sensation like Cruz that he can’t run because there are too many other candidates vying in the same space, any more than you can tell a twice-elected governor like John Kasich or Scott Walker that he really should stand down because there’s only room for a Bush or Christie. Once a politician feels invincible, only the voters can disabuse him of the idea.

And while in decades past the sudden stars of a wave election might have had to wait awhile before stepping into the national arena, those days now seem as quaint as appointment TV. As Obama proved in 2008, the time for a celebrity politician to make his move on history is when he’s still new and retains the sheen of outsiderness.

These surfer Republicans probably figure they don’t have the luxury of deferring to others and waiting until 2020, when the mood of the electorate may have shifted — and when they themselves will have been around long enough to be seen as part of the system, rather than its avenger.

Of course, popular wisdom holds that money is the main reason the field has to dramatically downsize itself. There’s only so much of it to go around, after all.

But that, too, is a lot less true now than it used to be, with oceans of small-dollar contributions ready to be raised at the push of a button. What scares these new conservatives isn’t the scarcity of money, but rather the loss of relevance — the idea that a campaign might come and go without them, and suddenly the TV bookers and book agents might stop calling because they’ve latched on to someone new.

It’s not just that celebrity makes you a viable candidate; it’s that only being a candidate assures you of being an A-list celebrity. And that’s especially important if you think you might want to leave politics at some point and host your own version of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” (That existed. Look it up.)

And don’t think all of this doesn’t draw in candidates whose careers predated the last few cycles, too. If you’re Jeb Bush or Rick Perry or Mike Huckabee, you’ve got to look at the upstarts getting all this attention and think to yourself: Hey, what does Paul have that I don’t? Why should I sit this one out and watch while Cruz blusters himself into the vice presidency, just because he happened to run at the right moment in Texas?

My guess is that in the end all the complex seating charts won’t count for very much, and that ultimately as many as 10 Republican candidates could show up for the Iowa caucuses, many of them jockeying for the same constituencies. A lot of these guys have already caught one wave, if not two. There’s really no reason for them to think they can’t catch one again.