The GOP Establishment's Not So Happy New Year

For the established Republican order, the vista presented by this new year is filled with bewilderment and foreboding. For the last 28 years of presidential primaries, the consultants, donors and loyalists who constituted the party's so-called mainstream have taken it for granted that, in the end, the "most electable conservative" would once again ward off insurrection by the Visigoths of the GOP's outer reaches. This serene state of self-assurance has come to an abrupt and unseemly end.

The only surprise is that they seem so surprised. Over that span of time the meaning of "conservative" has moved ever rightward in the gravitational pull of evangelicals, gun rights absolutists, economically and socially threatened whites and, most recently, indignant Tea Party adherents who, collectively, have come to dominate the primary electorate. In the House, the Visigoths have already breached the wall, unhorsing John Boehner and hemming in Paul Ryan; in the Senate, the leadership avoided a similar fate only through the contentious stratagem of fighting off the Tea Party in primaries.

Yet despite the fevered passions of those on whom they have come to depend, the establishment's ever more dubious premise was that, at least in presidential primaries, its base would continue to settle on the candidate most congenial to the party's grandees. But how unruly those passions might be had already surfaced in 2012, when Mitt Romney was dragged into the malarial marshland of the right, merely to ward off the unlikely trio of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. Instead of giving the establishment a president, this ordeal contributed to Romney's defeat by compelling him to take highly conservative stands unattractive to the electorate as a whole.

Fearful of a recurrence, for 2016 the party cut down on debates and condensed the primary schedule, hoping to spare the next "electable conservative" such a protracted and damaging gauntlet. As public opinion expert Peter Hart points out, and as the GOP professionals well appreciate, the party's image among the electorate as a whole is negative, not least because of the hard-line stance on social issues -- such as gay marriage and reproductive rights -- embraced by the party's base. Thus a post-election autopsy by the Republican National Committee emphasized the party's urgent need to expand its demographic appeal in presidential elections, notably to Hispanics and women, whose disaffection was another ingredient in its primary-driven defeat.

Too little, and way too late. Four more years of frustration with the political classes has left the base seething with negative feelings of anger and distrust, the visceral instinct that the only way to stop America's perceived downward spiral is by cleaning house. Far from wanting to expand its appeal to minorities, many of these voters resent them. And so the GOP's electoral Frankenstein has at last escaped the lab, running amok in the form of the two-headed monster Donald Cruz as its creators shrink back in astonishment and horror.

Summoned by the monster's virulent roar, nativism and rigid social conservatism dominate the Republican landscape. Suddenly nothing works as party strategists intended -- there is no consensus establishment choice, and the monster has rudely shouldered aside more acceptable prospects in a headlong lurch toward the primary season, leaving Dr. Frankenstein to pray that its two heads start devouring each other. In short, the formerly smug and powerful are reduced to depending on luck.

To kill the monster, they will need a lot of it. The rise of Ted Cruz was predictable enough -- he is simply a more ruthless and calculating version of the right-wing candidates who came before him. Completely contemptuous of the establishment and anyone else who stands in his way, and fueled by a recent surge in campaign contributions, Cruz is a demagogue to watch.

But the true agent of disaster is the uncontrollable Donald Trump, not simply because he has harnessed the equally predictable outrage of a primary electorate inflamed by toxic GOP rhetoric, but because his amorphous appeal has stunted the growth of the presumptive mainstream candidates. In an age inundated with social media, he is the candidate of trash talk, each noxious phrase made to go viral.

Alienated by years of hostile attacks on government and its elected leaders, of whatever stripe, the GOP base is ready-made for Trump's siren song of resentment -- nativist, self-congratulatory, and utterly free of content save for the anti-immigrant venom which propelled his rise. 2015, after all, was the year in which Trump tied a presumably grateful Pope Francis for second place as Americans' most admired man.

It still seems probable that Trump will self-destruct -- or that the remorseless Cruz will cast aside his Halloween mask of amity and destroy him. And come the various election days Trump's support may be softer than it now appears: focus groups conducted last fall by Peter Hart indicate misgivings about his temperament and judgment, even among Republicans inclined to favor him. But there is no assurance that his decline will match the accelerated rhythms of the primary season, clearing the path for a challenger to swiftly emerge from the mainstream pool.

A look at the calendar explains why. After Iowa and New Hampshire, between February 20 and March 5 Republican contests occur in 18 states that are overwhelmingly southern, otherwise conservative, or open to Trump's insurrectionist appeal. Altogether, these first 20 states will select roughly 990 delegates out of 2472, out of which only half -- 1237 -- are needed to clinch the nomination. In this volatile season, prognostication is dicey -- in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, Cruz rose as quickly as Ben Carson fell. But it is very hard to see a natural path through these early states for the mainstream contenders -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie or John Kasich.

Which means that New Hampshire is not merely critical, but potentially fateful. Often the state has been the bulwark that saved mainstream candidates from the vicissitudes of the Iowa caucuses, which this year are poised to give Cruz a rousing liftoff. But while New Hampshire's more moderate profile makes Cruz unlikely to win there, Iowa should give him a bit of a bump, and going forward he is positioned to be the chief beneficiary of a Carson tailspin.

More ominously, as of now Trump has a significant lead in the polls of New Hampshire primary voters, and his lack of political definition gives him a broader ideological reach, especially in a year roiled by concerns about national security. The establishment's fondest wish is for a precipitous Trump collapse in New Hampshire, leaving the field wide open. At this point there is little sign that such a game changer can happen so quickly. This leaves the establishment desperately hoping that one of the four mainstream candidates can emerge as a strong consensus alternative.

This is always possible in a primary process where momentum shifts as swiftly as perceptions, transforming voter preferences and abruptly dooming candidacies. A poor showing in New Hampshire could kill off two or more contenders -- including at least one of the two most plausible long-term hopes, Rubio or Bush.

In tacit acknowledgment of this, the Bush campaign has canceled television advertising to invest in beefing up their organization in Iowa and New Hampshire. Seeking to rally conservatives, Rubio has called for a constitutional convention to enact a balanced budget amendment and impose term limits on Congress and the Supreme Court -- hoping, obviously, that voters are not aware that this is a political impossibility. In the next five weeks all this maneuvering may yield a survivor. By finishing lower than expected, Rubio could collapse; conversely, by exceeding his dramatically lowered expectations, Bush could reverse his decline. And a dismal finish in a state where they have staked their hopes would finish Christie and Kasich.

Still, it is equally possible that the four contenders will split what now appears to be about 40 percent of the expected primary vote, yielding no obvious savior. Recently, both Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have been going after Rubio, even as Trump, Bush and Rubio go after Christie. These attacks will intensify even as negative ads proliferate, increasing the chance of mutual damage and fragmentation. Further, as Hart notes, in a year where national security matters, none of the contestants has credentials that would elevate him above the others. And whatever happens in New Hampshire, every one of them has significant problems going forward.

Take Marco Rubio. Given the implausibility of Trump and Cruz, he has until recently been deemed the smart money favorite, a verbally facile fresh face who has worked assiduously to become a magnet for big donors. No doubt of his debating and stump skills, or his positioning as a superficially persuasive voice for foreign policy hardliners. But he is not wearing as well as he might.

Insiders are murmuring that beneath the surface of his oft -- repeated and uplifting biographical speech there is, well, nothing much and no one at home. This is not a helpful reading of a one-term senator with little accomplishment, a spotty voting record, suspiciously mutable positions, a leisurely campaign schedule, an acolyte's eagerness to please wealthy political benefactors, and a demeanor which verges on the callow. His flip-flop on immigration has tarred him with opportunism without pacifying the anti-immigrant base.

Whatever Rubio's gifts, it is far from clear that he can strike sparks with primary voters in an angry and ideological year. And the downside of soaking up soft money is that it seems to have distracted Rubio's campaign from sufficiently organizing in key primary states. Among the early primaries, it is hard to pick one for Rubio to win, including his home state of Florida, where another switch -- this time favoring bondholders who are among his donors -- threatens to alienate 1 million or so Puerto Ricans.

Despite wide expectations that Sheldon Adelson and his millions would come to Rubio's aid, this has yet to happen, perhaps because Adelson's wife Miriam is reportedly drawn to Ted Cruz. And the relentless Cruz has zeroed in on Rubio as his principal competitor, working overtime to trash him with the base. Even should he be viable after New Hampshire, well before he reaches Florida Rubio could be a dead man walking.

By taking on Trump while the others vacillate, Jeb Bush has newly shown his mettle, and his more effective stump appearances have engendered needed enthusiasm. More than his competitors, he retains a national fundraising and political network which could be reenergized, including in the South, and access to seasoned political talent which could upgrade his campaign. But as suggested by Bush's challenge of Trump to a one-on-one debate, he risks getting bogged down with a master of personal insult, while alienating voters he will need down the road

Another difficulty, Hart suggests, is that too many of these voters already feel that Bush is not their guy. His daunting task is to defy the Zeitgeist in a year when the Republican base treats experience as a curse, persuading them that the qualifications of a successful conservative governor matter in choosing a president.

But either Rubio or Bush is better positioned than their mainstream rivals. Chris Christie is a first-rate political talent and often fun to watch. His ready-made town hall style gives him a shot to do well in New Hampshire, dealing a serious blow to the other mainstreamers. His focus on the state, and his endorsement by its largest newspaper, have made him the latest target of Trump's attacks. But even if he makes a good showing, where next?

Christie is dragging from New Jersey not just baggage, but boxcars full of it -- the bridge scandal, faltering state finances, plunging approval ratings. In the South he has no discernible stronghold, or even a state that holds out clear promise. And his claim that a stint as US Attorney gives him superior anti-terrorism credentials is more rhetorical than real. All of which increases the danger that his Jersey Boy act will wear very thin very fast.

John Kasich has broad experience in Congress and as a governor, and his "ordinary guy" appeal to common sense makes him a viable New Hampshire-type candidate. But something -- perhaps a tendency toward bumptiousness or a failure to shine in debates -- has kept him stuck in single digits. And common sense is not what the party's angry base wants to hear. It's hard to see what delivers from the southern primaries with a discernible pulse.

And yet the establishment needs one of these men -- and only one -- to dispatch the others and survive past March 5 as a truly plausible alternative to Trump or Cruz. After that the promised land beckons -- Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and, ultimately, California. Assuming that it's not already too late, these states offer a genuine, if belated, chance to change the dynamic of the race.

This prospect would be helped immensely if Trump and Cruz were to cancel each other out through the early primaries. But if Cruz skips New Hampshire and takes his campaign straight to South Carolina, he could precipitate a string of southern victories that deals Trump -- and the establishment's hopes -- a serious blow. And if by March 5 either man -- most likely Cruz-- takes out the other while amassing a significant delegate lead, the establishment's dilemma becomes very dire indeed.

At that point, even with more promising primaries ahead, every scenario is problematic for the GOP's erstwhile powers that be. Trump may be both uncontrollable and unelectable. While the establishment might more readily choke down the odious Cruz, he, too, would have grave problems in a general election, and those Republicans fastidious enough to look past lower taxes to fitness for office might find themselves gagging. But what delivers them a nominee more to their liking?

Before March, perhaps, alarmed and ultra-wealthy donors will have put money behind advertising in an effort to bring down the two interlopers, most likely through an independent group that prevents their chosen candidate from being labeled as an establishment tool. But query whether big money, in itself, can peel off voters from the tribunes of outrage in such a contrarian year.

And what of the mainstream alternative, should one of the four emerge. Will huge amounts of advertising suffice to overcome the momentum of Cruz or, perhaps, Trump? With what message does this white knight prevail? How does he distinguish himself as more inclusive and broadly appealing, and yet attract the support of the GOP's ever so restive base? How does he beat back Trump or Cruz without alienating their supporters?

And then there is the Hail Mary of desperate scenarios -- resuscitating Romney, or conjuring a fresher face in Ryan. While labeling this a 100-1 long shot, Hart can imagine an uprising of GOP senators and congressmen unwilling to follow Cruz or Trump off the electoral cliff. In that event, Hart believes that Ryan, not Romney, would be broadly acceptable to conservatives.

But either man would face the same difficulties as a mainstreamer propped up by establishment money -- worse, perhaps, in that the intervention of either could excite a counter reaction. Neither, even if successful, would be guaranteed to hold the party together. And what of the increased risk that one of the thwarted candidates, like Trump, would mount a third-party challenge lethal to the GOP's chances?

Perhaps, indeed, the dominoes will fall in an improbable sequence of good fortune that once more bails out the establishment, or its remnants. But as of now the primary season ahead looks like more than a nightmare -- it may foreordain the final tolling of a death knell that, for far too long, they stubbornly refused to hear.