With the spotlight on Donald Trump’s continuing attacks on John McCain, you may have missed a more traditional skirmish in nomination politicking: the pretend fight between Jeb Bush and Scott Walker over the U.S. deal with Iran.
At issue (supposedly) is whether the new president will start to undo the agreement the first day of his new administration (Bush’s pledge) or whether the new president will cancel the nuclear-weapons agreement and take aggressive action against Iran on his first day (Walker’s position).
This “I mean it more than he does” one-upmanship shows how candidates who have identical positions try to differentiate themselves from the pack and from each other. A classic example was in 1984 when Gary Hart and Walter Mondale fought over which one of them had pledged to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We'll see a lot of faux fights in this cycle, too.
Chris Christie used a different tactic to try to distinguish himself from the herd when he clumsily tried to appeal to Iowa home-schoolers by equivocating over measles vaccinations. With more than a dozen candidates on the GOP side, winning the loyalty of even a very small group in an early caucus or primary state can be important.
No matter what you think of Bush’s or Walker’s or Christie’s strategy, at least it’s healthy for the party, because candidates are forced to make promises to Republican groups.
True, waffling on the importance of vaccinating American schoolchildren isn’t exactly healthy (and fortunately it appears to have flopped for Christie, to the credit of those he was trying to impress), but groveling to party actors is how the nomination process binds candidates to parties, and that’s important for American democracy.
And that kind of politics is a lot better than the running- naked-through-Times-Square approach – when a candidate says something over-the-top to grab the media’s attention, just to pick up a short-term boost in public opinion polls. Most damage caused by this tactic won’t have long-term negative effects for the party, but it doesn’t do the party any good, either.
Walker, Bush and Marco Rubio remain the most likely GOP nominees. They don’t need attention at this point. They need support from party actors. So expect more squabbles among them as each tries to prove he’s the most reliable supporter of every party faction.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.