The New York Times reports:
WASHINGTON — A year ago, Republicans here were shut out of governing but could console themselves with having retained their hold on the party apparatus. This week, they will celebrate the new year having come roaring back to regain the House, and yet they have no semblance of control over the direction of their party and the conservative activists who seem to be steering it.
You can see this dynamic playing out now in the race for national party chairman, a highly un-Republican melee that seems likely to end in the ouster of Michael S. Steele. More to the point, the chaos is only going to intensify, which is why the presidential season ahead is likely to feature the most unruly and flat-out fascinating contest Republicans have staged in 35 years.
We tend to think of Republican presidential campaigns as pretty prim, predictable affairs. A lot of younger voters weren’t even alive the last time Republicans really tore themselves apart trying to choose a nominee.
Most often, as pundits are forever pointing out, the party has embraced the candidate who qualified as “next in line,” or who (like George W. Bush) emerged as a consensus candidate of the Republican elite. The last time Republicans tried to unseat an incumbent president, for instance, in 1996, they turned to Bob Dole, a 73-year-old Senate majority leader who had already run twice for president and once for vice president. It’s hard to get more establishment than that.
Such preordained candidates are often tested but never lose the nomination. John McCain made it interesting for a while in 2008 by essentially blowing up his front-runner status before the first primary votes were cast. But then he righted himself in New Hampshire, proving yet again that Republican voters have a knee-bending weakness for the aging and the ornery.
It wasn’t always this way, though, as any Goldwater Girl (Hillary Rodham Clinton was one) could tell you. The most recent Republican race that really qualified as a thriller took place in 1976, when the unelected president, Gerald R. Ford, barely held off a challenge from Ronald Reagan.