This has been one crazy political week. It has been so tumultuous and, in some ways, so calamitous for the Republican party, that we may be witnessing a fatal rupturing of the GOP.
The week began with Donald Trump disastrously equivocating before making an outright repudiation of the Ku Klux Klan and ended with elements of the Republican establishment declaring war on Trump. In between: on Tuesday, Trump won primary contests in seven more states; on Wednesday, the GOP's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, delivered a blistering attack against Trump declaring that he had to be stopped from winning the 2016 nomination; and, on Thursday, the four remaining Republican candidates met in Detroit for what can only be called "the ugliest, dirtiest, meanest, and, at times, most childish presidential debate" in recent history.
There is no question that the GOP establishment is alarmed. Their leading candidate is most certainly not a conservative. In fact, he has taken positions during this campaign that not only violate conservative orthodoxy, many of them also fly in the face of common sense (building a wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it, imposing a 35% tariff on Chinese imports, to name a few). More than that, Trump is an embarrassing vulgarian whose life-style, values, and language offends the sensibilities of the Republican elite. And so, they are panicking. And their panic is compounded by the fact they see no clear path forward.
Early on, the GOP leadership tolerated Trump. His no-holds barred "tell it like it is" style excited crowds, especially appealing to economically insecure and politically vulnerable white working class voters. There were no alarm bells going off since the establishment had seen this dynamic play out in past elections with the likes of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the entire Tea Party enterprise. The GOP knew how to play this game. First, they fired up the white working class with a combination of social issues (abortion, gays, "Christian values") and fear of the "other" (blacks, illegals, and Muslims) and then they co-opted this energy to help their establishment-supported candidates win.
One Republican strategist told me early on that he feared confronting Trump because he didn't want to lose the support of the voters Trump was bringing into the GOP. Much the same was said this week by former Education Secretary William Bennett--"We've been trying to get white working class into the party for a long time. Now they're here in huge numbers because of Trump and we're going to alienate them? I don't get it. Too many people are on their high horse".
The problem, of course, is that the Trump movement has gained such momentum and its leader has such a massive ego that he can't be so easily co-opted and may even win the nomination outright.
The next source of the establishment's panic is that they have no alternative candidate. Many had hoped Jeb Bush would emerge. He didn't. Others placed their money on Chris Christie. Not only didn't his campaign go anywhere, but his contempt for his competitors so outweighed his loyalty to the establishment that after withdrawing from the race he endorsed Trump. Those who backed Marco Rubio have looked askance at his demeaning and sometimes crude anti-Trump antics--which have diminished him as a serious candidate. John Kasich, the most serious of the contenders, has offended the conservative wing of the party with his unorthodox positions on immigration, health care, and gay rights. This has left Ted Cruz, whom the party leadership dislikes almost as much as they dislike Trump, since Cruz has also made his reputation by railing against the establishment.
With no clear alternative in the field, the task of taking on Trump fell to Mitt Romney. Not only did the former Republican nominee deliver a withering attack on the current front-runner, Romney also laid out scenarios that would deny Trump the nomination. Romney suggested that if all remaining candidates remain in the race and continue to accumulate delegates, Republicans could go to their convention with no single candidate having the delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot. In such an "open contested convention", new candidates could emerge (even Romney himself) and multiple ballots could take place until one candidate would receive the needed majority.
There are two problems with this scenario. In the first place, Romney, though respected by the leadership, is not the ideal messenger for this anti-Trump crusade since he represents the face of the very same establishment that Trump and Cruz have been campaigning against. And should the anti-Trump forces see their candidate defeated by what they will view as a "GOP establishment fix", the concern Bill Bennett has expressed will no doubt play out. Polls of Republican voters have shown that while 20% will not vote for Trump if he's the party's nominee, another 20% say they will not vote Republican if Trump is not the nominee.
And so, mid-way through this primary season, the GOP is in a "damned if they do, damned of they don't situation". How it plays out isn't clear, but one thing is clear--Republicans have a serious Trump problem that will redefine their party in 2016 and beyond.
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