WSJ’s Riley: Next Time, Let Party Insiders Choose the Candidates

Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush
The Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal‘s estimable Jason L. Riley argues Wednesday that given the internal dissatisfaction with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the party should “Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room,” and let insiders pick next time.

Riley argues that in the year of the political outsider, Democrats benefited from a system that was rigged to prevent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) from taking the nomination from Hillary Clinton. “[S]uperdelegates,” he says, “helped the Democratic Party police the nomination process in a way that the Republican Party failed.”

It is easy enough, though unconvincing, to point out that what Riley is advocating is fundamentally anti-democratic. Indeed, he sees that as the main advantage of the “smoke-filled room”: the people sometimes make bad choices. There is a trade-off, he says, between an open nominating process and an effective one:

…efforts to reduce corruption and further democratize the process have also weakened the influence of party leaders in ways that made coordination, accountability and party unity much more difficult … the reality is that politics is about organization, and political insiders know how to organize, how to turn out the vote, and how to pick capable candidates who are less likely to polarize and more likely to win.

There are plenty of questionable assumptions that go into Riley’s analysis — such as the anticipation that Trump will lose (the election isn’t over yet), or that Clinton is, in fact, a more effective candidate than Sanders would have been. (As radical as he is, how many criminal investigations has he faced?)

But even if we assume, for argument’s sake, that Riley’s argument has merit, there is one fundamental problem with which he fails to grapple: namely, that the Republican Party establishment is uniquely incompetent, divided, and out of touch.

Donald Trump rose to the top of the field of 18 candidates for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important was that the establishment was torn between two candidates: former Florida Jeb Bush and his protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Bush represented a proven record of fundraising, and winning. He had been a successful governor, and speaks Spanish. But he was a Bush, in a country tired of Bushes.

Rubio represented the future — a Latino candidate who checked all the boxes on social and fiscal issues, and who had fought hard, if in vain, for immigration reform. But he was inexperienced, and it was not his turn.

The Bush-Rubio divide prevented the establishment from settling on a candidate. The dysfunctional nature of the rift was highlighted by the fact that the two are both from the same state, and their ambitions still could not be reconciled.

Moreover, both Bush and Rubio were soft on illegal immigration. Bush favored a position best described as “amnesty,” while Rubio had been burned by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” bill, which failed to separate legalization from border security.

In other words, the party establishment took for granted an immigration policy to which much of rest of the party objected. Either candidate would have struggled to unite the party for that reason alone.

Riley may be correct that a party establishment does have an important role to play in the nomination process. But it cannot function in isolation from the party base, nor can it guide voters if it cannot make up its own mind.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.