The well-heeled Republican establishment types would like to put the tea party in its place. They may need tea party votes, but they don't want the far right to dictate party strategy or otherwise represent the party nationally. They want to win and get their deregulation and tax cuts, not get bogged down in the fever swamps.
The New York Times reported in December, "Dozens of the Republican Party’s leading presidential donors and fund-raisers have begun privately discussing how to clear the field for a single establishment candidate to carry the party’s banner in 2016."
Jeb Bush effectively jumped in the race shortly after that report. He appeared poised to lock up the GOP establishment, as he is plenty conservative, yet is the only one in the potential field who doesn't look like he came out of a clown car.
But now that Mitt Romney has strongly signaled he's getting in too, the establishment risks being fatally divided, throwing away a golden opportunity to put down the tea party rebellion.
As I have written elsewhere, the Republican establishment typically gets its way in primaries by consolidating around one candidate while the conservative base splinters among many. Not since Ronald Reagan in 1980 has that dynamic been reversed, with unified conservatives triumphing over a divided establishment.
The Republican electorate appears ready to go establishment yet again. A review of all the national Republican primary polls from December shows that the aggregate support for establishment candidates (defined as anyone who has shown any degree of willingness to part ways with the tea party, specifically, Bush, Romney, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Bobby Jindal) ranges from 50 to 53 percent. The tea party candidates (Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum) combined range from 33 to 40 percent support.
But in a jumbled field, candidates can win primaries with less than 40 percent of the vote, and often do in the early rounds. If neither Romney nor Bush, both of whom should be amply financed, can force the other out after the first few primaries, or if none of the lesser establishment options catches fire, the "base" could unify around a tea party type and squeak past the big boys.
That's a big "if," because as of today, the tea party wing is even more divided than the Establishment wing.
For all of Ted Cruz's grandstanding, he can't muster up more than 6 percent in any national poll. The tea party bench is so weak that a neurosurgeon who has never run for office before outpolls most of his ideological travelers nearly every time.
Of course, what the field looks like today isn't what it may look like at the end of it all. The Democratic 1992 field was derided as lackluster, with big names like Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley and Al Gore taking a pass. But Bill Clinton survived a barrage of attacks and came out the other end in a stronger place.
The question for Republicans is: can they have a primary process that sharpens the winning campaign, instead of one that drags it into right-wing oblivion?
The Republican National Committee is trying to seize control of the debates away from the media, a dangerous strategy that could leave potential weaknesses unexamined and unaddressed. But you can't blame them for trying to do something to prevent a race to the pandering bottom.
Both Bush and Romney grasp that the party is weak on economic solutions that appeal to the 99 percent. The manifesto of Bush's new "Right to Rise PAC" acknowledges that income inequality is a problem: "We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility." The eventual policies may not meet the challenge, but Bush is ahead of some of his rivals in recognizing the economic problems that persist.
Romney, in making the case that this time will be different, is suggesting that poverty will be a main focus of any campaign. But at the same time, he's saying he will run to Bush's right.
Such two-steps can be pulled off by deft politicians – Bill Clinton began positioning himself to the right of Cuomo then swerved left to dispatch Paul Tsongas. But recent Republican nominees haven't had the same dexterity.
While establishment candidates tend to win the day, they are also susceptible to the rightward gravitational pull of the party's base, damaging their general election prospects. If the race to move right turns Bush and Romney's anti-poverty pitches into Republican right-wing rehash, another stale helping of deregulation and tax breaks for the wealthy, then they shouldn't bother.
Little is ever certain about presidential politics, but it is safe to say that no one in the Republican field is going to get a free ride, and no one power broker can dictate the outcome. It will be up to the candidates if they want to use the process to test out ideas that break from the Republicans' failed past, or if they are too afraid of the "base" to do anything but pander harder.