The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Republicans’ Three Stooges Syndrome

The current crisis of the Republican establishment can best be explained -- as so many things can be explained -- by "The Simpsons."

In the Season 11 episode "The Mansion Family," lovable plutocrat C. Montgomery Burns visits a doctor and is told that he is "the sickest man" in the world. He's being kept alive only because the many diseases inhabiting his body are canceling each other out. After demonstrating this by trying and failing to shove some stuffed toys through a tiny door, Burns's doctor dubs the problem "Three Stooges Syndrome."

Now: The people running down the "establishment" lane of the Republican Primary are not viruses. They are not even bacteria. (It occurs to me that this analogy has some problems, but it's too late to hit the brakes.) Right now, though, the four Republicans with the strongest claims to that lane -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich -- are all counting on one or more of their compadres to fail. Until that happens, none of them are getting through the door.

The problem's been evident for months, and arguably it dates back to the failure of Bush to grab momentum. The donors who made Bush the best-funded establishment candidate and the pundits who refused to write off a Bush comeback have taken their sweet time reacting to this. In August, some told the New York Times that the rise of Trump was great for Bush, as none of his competitors could get traction in the media. "Trump has set the Republican Party on fire," Alex Castellanos told reporter Jonathan Martin. "You’re going to have to grab the biggest blanket you got and throw it, and right now that’s Jeb."

In September, after Bush seemed to vanish into the drapery at the first Republican debate, Slate's Jim Newell warned the establishment that it had "made the mistake of paying the contractor in full before he’d begun the job." Bush simply had too much money and institutional support to bail out. The punditocracy's reaction to Bush has reflected that, giving him endless chances to prove that the skills that elected him in Florida can get him out of his slump. In October, the job went to Mark Halperin.

And this weekend, the job went to Bill Kristol. "Bush may be a little less dead than everyone thinks," Kristol told ABC News. "He needs to run ahead of Christie and [John] Kasich in Iowa, and then again in New Hampshire. If he can do this, he stays in as the sober, experienced candidate against Trump, Cruz and Rubio."

That brings us to what we'll call the game theory of the establishment lane. Increasingly, Republicans are saying that Iowa both (1) has a habit of giving victories to guys who don't win and (2) will clarify the race by humbling Trump. Right now, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are in a race for first place, with no "establishment" candidate winning even half their support. Thus, people like Kristol are revisiting the idea that Iowa offers "three tickets" to New Hampshire -- quietly increasing the number of tickets. Right now, Bush already leads Christie and Kasich. But there's a hope that Iowa will give enough of a boost to some "establishment" candidate to allow him a New Hampshire breakthrough.

Is there evidence for that? Not really, because there's no precedent for such a crowded "establishment" lane in New Hampshire. In a revealing story about the party's "New Hampshire nightmare," theories abound on how Christie or Rubio can break out. The hope for some clarity comes from a Tel Opinion poll of 500 New Hampshire voters, finding that if Rubio got the establishment lane to himself, he'd command 28 percent of the vote to Trump's 30 percent.

You can spot the problem. That poll assumes something can take down Christie, Bush and Kasich before the primary. Iowa? No, wait -- that's the place that's supposed to clarify which of those three can make it to a fight with Rubio.

The ridiculousness of this -- the Three Stooges nature of it -- might lead people to realize what's at stake. New Hampshire sends only 12 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The history of people merely performing well there, then staying in the race until it's clarified, is as rich as the history of the state producing a nominee. (The last president who won the primary en route to the nomination was George H.W. Bush in 1988.)

At some point, if Jeb Bush clearly has the money to last into March (as he says) and if Rubio is clearly in a stronger position to compete after New Hampshire, the "nightmare" might be unavoidable. There are simply too many candidates waiting for dominoes to fall -- and too many who can write off Trump votes as flukes.

Still, it's striking that only the establishment is really having this problem. In 2008 and 2012, insurgent social conservative candidates peaked late, winning Iowa and some further caucuses and primaries, then petering out for lack of cash. This year was supposed to be the year that social conservatives, instead of waiting too long to endorse a champion, collected themselves in time to win the primaries. And it has been. Cruz has benefited from that. No one is talking about where he needs to place in New Hampshire.