The mess the Republicans have got themselves into leaves them facing a likely landslide defeat regardless of whom they nominate for president. So while television, the press and party leaders focus on whether Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or a Sir Galahad to be named later emerges as their candidate, there is a greater, related question lurking. Does about the Republican Party have a future? Or is the Party founded in 1856 no longer Grand, just Old, falling apart, on its way to dissolution?
In its 2016 campaign, the G.O.P. is squandering the political advantages of the recent tradition of changing parties in the White House after eight years and two seriously flawed Democratic contenders. As a result Republicans no longer have a best course of action. Between now and the July convention in Cleveland -- a city that suitably once boasted a flammable mayor and a flammable river -- they can only choose the least worst course of action. It is months and years too late for a best course, only a least worst.
Consider the three Republican choices for 2016:
First, the easy, short-term way out: Nominate Trump, grit your teeth and say "the people have spoken" because he will have won the most votes. Have the Republican National Committee work hard on get out the vote efforts.
The upside is avoiding the Cleveland "riot" Trump cheerfully predicted. Nominating him might entice some of his supporters into lasting loyalty to the Republican Party, if there is one. Focusing party resources and Koch Brothers money on other races just might save the Senate majority. But remember, embattled candidates like Ohio's Senator Rob Portman have to decide whether endorsing Trump or staying silent will cost them more of the votes they don't have to spare.
The downside starts with a 2016 defeat of Goldwater/McGovern dimensions. Nominating the man who opened his campaign by labeling Mexican immigrants as "rapists" would etch in stone the party's current image as anti-Latino, scorning the fastest growing demographic in the electorate. Trump's misogyny would intensify the party's long-standing problems with women voters. With some polls suggesting that a third of Republicans would not vote for him, the stay-at-home contingent will defeat Governors, Senators and Representatives. The damage would be worst in swing states or districts where office-holders don't always regard "compromise" as a profanity. But this could well be a "wave" election (like 1994 for Republicans) that would defeat hard-line conservatives in "safe" seats.
Finally, for many Republicans who joined the party of Lincoln, there would be the shame of having their party nominate someone palpably unfit for the presidency, someone with a substantial racist element in his core of support.
Second, throw everything possible behind Cruz, and however close he can get by himself, then beg, buy or steal enough delegates to get him a majority. Not as easy to do as some commentators assume, but possible.
The advantages of choice two are that it eliminates Trump and arguably legitimates the nominee because Cruz will have won on the rules by ultimately getting the most delegates, being shrewd enough to steal some from Trump. After all, having fewer primary votes did not stop Gerald Ford from defeating Ronald Reagan in 1976. Stealing delegates is unseemly but traditional (see Eisenhower-Taft 1952). Cruz does have a base within the party, the ideological purists. Cruz has adopted every far-right position to be found, while Trump has not adopted them all. In a calmer year, a bad defeat for Cruz might have usefully disproved the right's usual excuse for GOP defeats, that the candidate lost because he was not conservative enough to bring their supposed conservative majority to the polls. But the Trump intervention offers the right a fresh excuse for failure.
But choice two does have disadvantages. The first risk is the "riot" at the convention that Trump has cheerfully predicted/threatened (and which he might be unable to prevent if he wanted). This happens if Trump is denied for anyone. Cruz would almost certainly suffer a defeat about as bad as Trump's, with equivalent collateral damage across the party as thousands of moderates and Trump loyalists stayed home. The depth of Cruz' potential defeat is not yet obvious because he and his views are not as well-known as Trump's. But they will be. Either Democrat would exploit that record. Shutting down the government is not widely considered a qualification to run it, and hard right policy on issues like abortion and same sex marriage has no relation to twenty-first century national opinion.
The third choice is Sir Galahad, the "unity" candidate, his identity still concealed behind his helmet. It is almost certainly too late. But exhaustion after several inconclusive ballots where Trump lost votes but Cruz still could not reach a majority might, just barely, make the quest for an alternative conceivable. There are mainstream Republicans who hope that at that point Trump and Cruz delegates would start thinking about finding an electable candidate. Some of them think John Kasich, despite being by convention time still a distant third in delegates, is Galahad. Kasich has certainly volunteered for the quest. The punditocracy's choice has been Paul Ryan. Even if you dismiss the Speaker's rejection of the very idea, why would he want to antagonize those very conservative House Republicans who made John Boehner's life miserable and already suspect Ryan of believing in -- can you imagine? -- making deals. Or the party might settle on a 2016 loser who at least tried, a wannabe with no political future to risk any more, like Ben Carson or Chris Christie. And Mitt Romney isn't busy.
The pros of choice three: Rejecting two implausible presidents. Maybe, just maybe, avoid a landslide that sweeps many other Republicans to defeat, too. Unlike Cruz and Trump, with their own deficits of charm, Galahad might be able to exploit the electorate's persistent dislike of Hillary Clinton. In a more modest defeat, the party might be making a statement about what it stands for, or at least what it rejects. That could -- just possibly -- shake up party's thinking that leads sensible people (Jeb Bush, for example, on immigration, or most senators on Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination) pandering to the right.
The cons: The risk of landslide defeat remains still very strong. Trouble at the convention would likely be even worse since Cruz backers could join Trump's in resentment at being cheated. Then what would get them to vote in November? If they don't, down-ballot losses would be devastating. Trump would surely make things worse by attacking threatened Republican candidates whom he considered part of the conspiracy that chose Galahad. This approach would also fix on the Republican brand an indelible label of backroom deals that infuriates backers of Trump (and of Bernie Sanders, too). If it does not win the White House, and perhaps even if somehow it does, this maneuver would drive the final wedge between the establishment and the hard right.
Whatever route the Republican Party takes, it cannot expect a rerun of the mid-1960s, when an overwhelming loss by Goldwater in 1964 was followed by substantial off-year gains in 1964 and Nixon's 1968 victory over a Democratic party torn apart by Vietnam and unable to recover from a riotous Chicago convention.
By now the divisions within the party are chasms. Each faction seems to think that if only its hero is nominated, he will win the November election and the rest of the party will fall into line.
Few prominent Republicans want to talk, for quotation or without, about a formal split of the party into two or more. But it is on their minds and they discuss it among each other. At the moment, the Establishment wing, with only the faint hope of finding their Galahad, will at least discuss it when anonymity is promised. They talk about third parties, about political realignment. Yet if they manage to thwart Cruz, their prime instrument to block Trump, then expect his ideological allies to talk the same way.
Now it's the regulars' turn to lament. One operative, a veteran of many winning campaigns, said, "It is too late to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again."
Donald Dwight is a rare quotable on-the-record Republican on the subject, but he reflects what others say after refusing to be named. The former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts who has watched his party move steadily to the right said: "The Republican Party as I have known it, probably dating from when I cast my first vote, for Ike in 1952, exists no longer. We are headed into a re-run of the Whig and Know Nothing parties' 1856 dissolution."