Nate Cohn surveys the Republican field for the Times and says it comes down to a Jeb Bush vs. Scott Walker race. Cohn follows the political scientists who think the choices of party leaders -- the "invisible primary" -- are crucial, which he thinks rules out candidates like Ted Cruz who have little elite support. He also discounts candidates who are what he calls "factional," that is, dependent on support from only one sort of Republican, without broad appeal. Thus Huckabee and Santorum are evangelical candidates, Rand Paul is a libertarian candidate, etc. He extends the concept by making Chris Christie a candidate of the moderate faction, which seems a little odd to me, but maybe moderates really are just another faction these days. The only other candidate who gets a nod from Cohn is Marco Rubio, who fits his criteria of broad appeal across various factions plus friends in the party leadership. So far, as I have said, I have not been impressed by Scott Walker's campaign; he just doesn't ignite the passions of the right wing base in the way that I think would be necessary to beat the Bush machine. To me, then, this formulation gives the advantage to Bush, setting up a Bush vs. Clinton rematch.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who has been right about politics as much as anyone else over the past decade, says almost exactly the same thing as Cohn. And like me, he has been so underwhelmed by Walker's campaign that he gives Bush a big advantage.
Part of me believes Cohn and Marshall are right, and nothing ever really changes in politics -- after all, Mitt Romney got the nomination in the midst of Tea Party fervor, so maybe it is the bosses who decide. Another part of me is not sure. Romney did win the nomination but only after a serious struggle against a very weak field; in the end there simply was no plausible alternative. This year there seem to be several real alternatives. Ted Cruz is a much better Tea Party candidate than anyone who ran in 2012, and organization on the right has made a lot of progress since then, which ought to allow him to raise plenty of money. If Walker can't solidify the Tea Party behind him the stage is set for Cruz or someone else to mount a serious challenge from the far right. Meanwhile there are other mainstream candidates out there, like Rick Perry and John Kasich, who have establishment credentials but seem more in tune with the average primary voter than Bush. I have the notion that Republican primary voters are in the mood to deliver some body blows to the party elite, by voting for anybody but Bush, pushing him down to the middle of the pack in Iowa and South Carolina and maybe derailing his train. We'll see.