Establishment Republicans seem distraught, if not also startled, by the rise of Donald Trump and the possibility that he will be the party's nominee. They should not be surprised. They didn't intend to, but they created him.
Republicans, for the past seven years, have worked to make the Obama presidency fail. In their efforts to block nearly every major administration proposal, they aimed to produce a lack of confidence in -- and a low approval rating for -- the president. Many have called Republicans "the party of 'no.'" Even Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, has argued that they need a more positive agenda -- they also have to be seen as for something. The refusal to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee is the latest example of the 'no' strategy, with an added twist. In this case, they aren't just saying "no" to a nominee but to even naming one. Yet, viewed from a limited vantage point, the strategy has worked well. Obama's approval ratings are low, and Democrats have lost control of both the House and the Senate.
The strategy of "no" viewed from a wider vantage point, however, has had three unintended consequences. The first came from the faulty assumption that gaining control of Congress would allow Republicans to achieve a strongly conservative agenda. That's the promise they made to the voters who threw Democrats out of office. Unfortunately for them, they found that the president could also pursue a strategy of "no." While he lacked the power to succeed on many of his proposals, the framers of the Constitution gave him the power to block theirs, and he used it. The result: conservative Republicans found that their party's promises were hollow.
The second unintended consequence has been nearly explosive voter anger in both parties -- but especially among Republicans. Ineffective at making progress on a host of national problems, the parties have proven quite good at casting blame on each other, stoking the fires of anti-government sentiment. Not surprisingly, the approval rating for the President is just 49 percent. But the approval rating for Congress is only 15 percent. Nearly 7 of every 10 people polled think that every member of Congress deserves to be defeated in the next election, including nearly 4 of 10 who want their own representative thrown out.
The third unintended consequence is that a majority of Republic primary voters have turned on their own party. They don't just want to deny a Democrat the White House. They want to deny it to anyone they identify as an "establishment" Republican. In short, the policy of 'no' has convinced their own voters that traditional politicians can't govern. Only an "outsider" is worthy of leading the nation, almost irrespective of his views, experience, or personal characteristics. Republican primary voters are saying 'no' to the "party of no." This has enabled Donald Trump to rise. It has also fueled the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz. He has cast himself as the true conservative as well as an outsider, a claim backed by the antagonistic role he has played in the Senate against his own party and its leadership.
And so we have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz promising to rescue the nation, even if it tears their party apart. This seems to delight Democrats, who see it as the inevitable payback for Republican obstructionism. Yet Democrats may be playing their own fool's game, assuming that Trump and Cruz will be easy Republicans to beat. They reason that Americans will never elect someone who they claim is (choose your word(s)): extremist, egocentric, insulting, ethnocentric, inexperienced, vulgar, distasteful. They should not count their chickens. This is an election year in which emotion has put reason on the back burner -- and emotion is thus far sending Republicans to the polls in greater numbers than Democrats.
The rise of Trump and Cruz is the result of political miscalculation -- the failure of the Republican party to think long term about the implications of a strategy and its possible unintended consequences. The focus on winning by saying "no" is now creating losers. Sadly, the chief losers are Americans and their belief in the possibility of effective, collaborative, respectful government. But those losers may include the political parties themselves, who, pardon the pun, may soon get "trumped."