News & Politics

Media Apparently Unaware That America Has Seen Hotly Contested Primaries Before

First Lady Betty Ford, left, signs autographs as her husband's Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, center, waits his turn. (AP Photo/PB)

Last week I pondered writing a post in which I referred to the GOP primary as a “dumpster fire” in the headline. After kicking it around for a couple of days, I decided not to, largely because I don’t really think that what’s going on is all that awful. Oh, I did for a while, but I’ve reached a point of inner calm about the 2016 primary season that I didn’t think I could achieve without hitting the Irish whiskey for breakfast every day. What changed? I realized I was letting the media hype get to me.

The MSM loves to write stories proclaiming the imminent death of the GOP. Jim Webb can say he won’t vote for Hillary and is considering voting for Trump, and the media shrugs. If two Republicans are spotted dining out and ordering different things for dinner, however, it’s a “Republican Civil War” in the media. In just the past two days, NBC News has wondered whether the GOP will survive this primary, and Reuters proudly proclaimed that the party was in a “tailspin.”

There are two reasons that this kind of thinking is wrong.

The first is that it’s rooted in the notion that the primary contests shouldn’t really be, you know, contested. Each party supposedly has a favorite front-runner, then they go through the motions of having that front-runner challenged. That is sort of how it has been in recent memory.

If your memory doesn’t include the 2008 Democratic primary, of course.

For those currently suffering from severe memory problems, 2008 worked out just fine for the Democrats.

One has to go all the way back to the last quarter of the 20th century for other clear examples of contentious primaries, but there are some of us who still remember them. The 1976 GOP primary ended with the generally well-like incumbent Gerald Ford barely holding off the upstart Ronald Reagan. There was a battle going between moderate Republicans and conservatives for the soul of the party that year (sound familiar?). Sure, the Republicans lost the general, but they rebounded pretty quickly.

The Democrats in 1980 saw a scion of America’s most famous political family at the time challenge the party’s incumbent president. Ted Kennedy refused pleas from the party elders to drop out of the race, and ended up not conceding until practically the last minute at the convention, where he had been working feverishly to get Carter’s delegates released from their obligations.

In both of the above examples, the respective parties lost the general election, but not because they had contentious primaries. The odds on a Republican winning in ’76 after the damage Nixon had done were slim, and Jimmy Carter was the worst president in history. The point is that each party survived. Had social and new media existed back then, the cries of doom and gloom probably wouldn’t have been much different than they are today.

The more salient point this year, however, is the wealth of evidence throughout the United States that the GOP is in anything but disarray. If we are just talking about presidential elections, the party has been a bit of a dumpster fire since 1992. This year, the fire is just roaring louder.

If we are just looking at the primary, how about mentioning the fact that the GOP is seeing record high turnouts while the Democrats have been experiencing drop-offs in numbers almost everywhere?

Which one is in a tailspin again?

Looking across the country, the Republican Party has 31 governors in place, controls a majority of the statehouses, and has majorities in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

All of that was achieved after two spectacularly awful presidential election performances, by the way, and after James Carville said the party was about to enter a 40-year period of exile.

The idea that all of that will be unraveled because this primary season is unruly is patently ridiculous. It might be more believable if the primary participation numbers were lower or falling, but what’s been happening so far indicates that the party is surviving, and quite nicely, thank you.

Am I being overly partisan and optimistic here? Let’s see what hardcore progressive Matt Yglesias thinks:

American politics is filled with stories of nasty primaries and elections which political parties and the countries have made it through without falling apart.

That doesn’t mean I’m completely ruling out the breakfast whiskey for this one, however.