Republicans should be upbeat. They control by large margins the state legislatures and governorships. The Supreme Court is a bit more conservative than liberal. The House and Senate are both run by Republicans.
President Obama, after veritably wrecking his party, has for some time scarcely polled above 45 percent in approval ratings — even after borrowing $8 trillion to spread the wealth, pandering to spec
ial interests, echoing nonstop the assertions of his iconic status, and blaming all his failures on his predecessors and opponents.
In addition, parties usually do not succeed in winning the presidency for three consecutive terms. Nor do orphaned presidential elections — ones in which the incumbent president or vice president is not running — usually go to the party that currently holds the White House.
In addition, the Democratic presidential field is particularly weak. There are only two serious candidates — and neither is too serious. Bernie Sanders was never a registered Democrat, but was a proud Cold War–era socialist. Hillary Clinton has usually flubbed up on the stump anytime she has run a national campaign. Anywhere there is a Clinton, a scandal looms nearby. There is still some chance Ms. Clinton may have to go for a humiliating Petraeus-style misdemeanor plea-bargain deal for flouting federal law.
In contrast, the Republicans have fielded a number of experienced and competent candidates. In terms of “diversity,” the field that includes Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio “looks more like America” than does the Democratic field, which is made up of monotonously geriatric white people. Not one of them is an outsider; not one is under 50.
But amid the sunny optimism came the perfect storms of the outsider candidates Trump and Carson, compounded by Tea Party insurrectionists like Ted Cruz. While the Tea Party’s grass-roots crowds were considered useful (though expendable) shock troops in the midterm elections that broke the Obama surge, they somehow forgot to fade before their establishment betters, who supposedly could more authoritatively take over the new Republican surge.
Certainly, we are told, an old pro like John Boehner should never have been driven out by Constitution-thumpers who do not appreciate the nuanced contours of bipartisanship. And why won’t the rabid base just leave Benghazi alone (as if House and Senate leaders on their own initiative would have learned that Ms. Clinton used a private server and was lying about the catalyst for the Benghazi attacks hours after four Americans died)?
The Republican consultant Rick Wilson recently summed up the current angst when he dreamed that the GOP establishment should discover a way to “put a bullet” in frontrunner Donald Trump. Was that idiotic remark supposed to sound cool? Wilson added that one of the most worrisome things about the Trump ascendancy was his illiberal intention of shutting down illegal immigration. The donor class, Wilson warns, “can’t just sit back on the sidelines and say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, this will all work itself out.’” Wilson apparently believes that America would otherwise have been glued to the Republican debates to see whether Jeb Bush had outpointed John Kasich.
The nearly crowned, but now fading, Jeb Bush complained out loud that he did not necessarily need the aggravation of running for president against volatile outsiders, and that the Republican malcontents could vote for Trump for all he cared. Tea-partiers and outsider bulls had apparently wrecked the establishment china shop.
New House Speaker Paul Ryan seems just as put out. He listed all sorts of petulant conditions that had to be met before he would deign to become Speaker of such an unruly and fractious group as the House Republicans.
Establishment Republican op-ed writers for the New York Times and the Washington Post periodically lambaste Tea Party/talk-radio/populist conservatives, who do not properly appreciate the sober and judicious essence of the traditional establishment. They lament that such boisterous disrupters have listened to too much Rush Limbaugh and have not read enough Edmund Burke. And the raucous tea-party people have tarred by association the more thoughtful Beltway Republicans with charges from liberals of being nihilists, nativists, and racists. The conservative base apparently was not supposed to have resisted raising the debt ceiling (in Senator Obama fashion) or to have favored a border wall in reaction to 10 percent of Mexico entering the U.S. illegally. The proper Republican response is former House Minority Leader Bob Michel’s style of conciliation, which slows down now and then the inevitable slide to statism.
The meteoric rise of outsiders and political novices Donald Trump and Ben Carson has panicked the Republican establishment. Both draw big crowds and poll strongly, but how so, when both are completely unschooled in politics? When their rise is coupled with the implosion of proven governors like Scott Walker and Rick Perry, and the anemic showing so far of other stalwart Republican governors like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich (weren’t governors the ideal can-do candidates?), what is the establishment to do? The presidency has never seemed so close — and yet so far away.
Obviously the Republicans cannot win unless they achieve massive turnouts brought about by uniting establishmentarians and outsiders to derail what would likely be a disastrous Hillary Clinton tenure. If tea-partiers say they will sit at home on election day, or if establishmentarians threaten to vote for Hillary over Trump, the party will lose what is otherwise a winnable election. There are candidates who might appeal to a wide range of voters, but not if they follow the one-hand-tied-behind-the-back script of 2008 and 2012.
The nice guy George H. W. Bush won in 1988 in part thanks to the efforts of the late politico Lee Atwater, whose Southern thunder turned the “competent” Mike Dukakis into an elitist hypocrite and made the far richer, far more privileged, but pork-rind-eating patrician Bush look fingernail-dirty in comparison.
#share#It is the establishment, not the populist base, that must pause and engage in some self-reflection. The bane of Republicans has always been the charge of elitism, not populism. Reagan’s lower-middle-class origins, his genuine ease with the chain saw and weed-eater, and his Western getup reassured working-class conservatives that he was more than a corporate megaphone. Jerry Ford was the circumspect guy who wanted to be liked and was willing to do the necessary compromising to ensure a good try and a dignified loss, while the renegade Reagan thundered about the Panama Canal “giveaway” and proclaimed that we must win, rather than merely not lose, the Cold War.
Nominating white-male, middle-of-the-road, it’s-now-my-turn multimillionaires of the McCain or Romney brand did not work. Both made Bob Dole seem ferocious. They campaigned by Marquess of Queensberry rules — whether naïvely putting off-limits any criticism of the firebrand and foul-mouthed Rev. Jeremiah Wright (a sign of things to come) or demurring to challenge moderator and Obama partisan Candy Crowley’s hijacking of a presidential-candidate exchange.
George W. Bush won two elections — as his father did not, and Jeb probably will not — in part because his Texas evangelical background and folksy charm appealed to blue-collar Reagan Democrats. W. ran as a down-to-earth, normal sort whom you’d like to have a Budweiser with, in contrast to the ponderous, patronizing, and pedantic John Kerry. How strange would it be to see a Republican of modest means in 2016 running against a zillionaire Democrat of the Clinton brand?
Has-been Republican analysts and politicos did not engineer the 2010 and 2014 midterm resurgences. Those revolutions were the work of grass-roots activists, furious at Obamacare, out-of-control spending, the implosion of the U.S. profile abroad, and rampant illegal immigration. The irate folks who turned out to vote Republican — whether those voters were themselves Republicans or not — were not interested in appearing temperate and modest to Beltway pundits, or being praised in a back-handed way by PBS and NPR, or fronting for cheap-labor corporations, or declaring victory by raising taxes and thereby reducing catastrophic serial trillion-dollar deficits to unsustainable half-trillion-dollar deficits.
Instead, the base sees the financial integrity of the United States eroding. These voters feel there is no such thing any more as nationhood when there are no borders and the law is simply adjudicated in terms of perceived social justice. They feel the cultural Left has declared war on their way of life — and so far is winning without much of a fight. They do not see Barack Obama as a genteel and nicely tailored grandee who is a well-meaning incompetent, but rather as a serious social revolutionary bent on fundamentally transforming America by any means necessary, more often illegally than not.
The problem with the Republican establishment is that it has not fully grasped that the Democratic party has become the party of the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, a union based on assuaging the guilt of the former by subsidies to the latter. Those left in between are now increasingly Republican. One party likes big government; the other does not. Liberal voters are people who either can easily afford high taxes or expect not to pay them; conservatives in between must pay what they cannot afford.
If grass-roots conservatives are venting their frustration by championing Trump, if they think Carson is familiar with even the basic contours of politics, if they think the pontifications of Ted Cruz can translate into a 51 percent popular majority, then, yes, they could be naïve. But these are sins of the head, not of the heart, and they are not the problem with the Republican party.
The reason a fine man like Jeb Bush, a nuts-and-bolts, hands-on old pro like John Kasich, and a well-informed foreign-policy know-it-all like Lindsey Graham are going nowhere is that they are perceived as wanting to get along when getting along at this eleventh hour will lead to perdition. The establishment must not write off as Goldwater 1964–style losers those who resurrected their party in 2010 and 2014, but instead see them as idealists and principled reformers who rightly demand a candidate who will not just slow down but stop the steady remaking of America into a cultural and economic socialist state.
It is nobler — and easier — to work with those whose hearts are in the right place than with those who think that their big heads are alone what counts.