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Nicholas Confessore on the GOP's Self-Important Conservative "Kingmakers"

Liberal magazine writer turned Times reporter writes on conservative activists: "They still see themselves as indispensable kingmakers without whom no Republican can win the nomination, let alone the White House. As a result, Mr. McCain has emerged as a genuine threat. Should he win the nomination over their opposition after all, the kingmakers would be dethroned."

Sunday's Week in Review section led with Nicholas Confessore's "The Vanishing Establishment."



Confessore is a young liberal political writer turned Times reporter. (To take just one example: In November 2004 he wrote "keeping down the black vote is really quite an old Republican game" on the American Prospect blog TAPPED.) While Sunday's piece is an interesting review of political history, the parts about the "conservative establishment" are rather overdramatic and conspiratorial; he seems overly eager to portray conservative "kingmakers" as suffering from a false sense of entitlement.


Establishment influence is even less apparent on the Republican side, a stark contrast to 2000, when party chieftains anointed George W. Bush as the Republican nominee, locking down important endorsements and donors before a single primary was held. The current front-runner and presumptive nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, is viewed as an apostate by influential figures on the right, like the talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and the evangelical leader James C. Dobson. Both have fiercely denounced Mr. McCain and threatened to withhold their support if he is the nominee.


Mr. McCain's critics are frustrated not only because they believe he has defied conservative doctrine on issues like taxes and campaign finance reform, but also because they view him as someone who has cozied up to the other side. "There's always been a paradox with him," said Ryan Sager, a conservative columnist and author of "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party." "On paper, this guy should be a solid conservative, but he's engendered so much dislike among conservatives for having endeared himself to the liberal establishment."


That word again. For the right, the establishment has even more complex associations than for the left, because the founders of modern conservatism were the first to speak routinely of a "liberal establishment" a like-minded elite that was said to exert undue influence over Congress, academia, the news media and more. (In his essay, Mr. Rovere noted tartly that conservatives of his time, including the editors of National Review, evidently believed the establishment to include "just about everyone in the country except themselves.") Many of the conservative groups and leaders who oppose Mr. McCain are the same ones who decades ago felt that their own party's establishment was dominated by a few secret "kingmakers" who steered presidential elections toward moderates like Dwight D. Eisenhower, as Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the Eagle Forum, wrote in her influential book "A Choice Not an Echo."


Insurgents like Mrs. Schlafly emerged as a potent force in the 1964 primary, gaining the nomination for Barry M. Goldwater, and went on to form the conservative establishment that dominated the Republican Party for the next 40 years. They still see themselves as indispensable kingmakers without whom no Republican can win the nomination, let alone the White House. As a result, Mr. McCain has emerged as a genuine threat. Should he win the nomination over their opposition after all, the kingmakers would be dethroned.


"What goes around comes around," said Morris P. Fiorina, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University. "It's a self-appointed establishment to a great extent, and I think all along they overestimated their own importance."