Ornstein: Why GOP History May Not Repeat Itself with Trump
Norm Ornstein explains why Donald Trump may not be 2016’s Cain, Bachman or Gingrich in The Atlantic.
Still, I am more skeptical of the usual historical skepticism than I have been in a long time. A part of my skepticism flows from my decades inside the belly of the congressional beast. I have seen the Republican Party go from being a center-right party, with a solid minority of true centrists, to a right-right party, with a dwindling share of center-rightists, to a right-radical party, with no centrists in the House and a handful in the Senate. There is a party center that two decades ago would have been considered the bedrock right, and a new right that is off the old charts. And I have seen a GOP Congress in which the establishment, itself very conservative, has lost the battle to co-opt the Tea Party radicals, and itself has been largely co-opted or, at minimum, cowed by them.
As the congressional party has transformed, so has the activist component of the party outside Washington. In state legislatures, state party apparatuses, and state party platforms, there are regular statements or positions that make the most extreme lawmakers in Washington seem mild.
Egged on by talk radio, cable news, right-wing blogs, and social media, the activist voters who make up the primary and caucus electorates have become angrier and angrier, not just at the Kenyan Socialist president but also at their own leaders. Promised that Obamacare would be repealed, the government would be radically reduced, immigration would be halted, and illegals punished, they see themselves as euchred and scorned by politicians of all stripes, especially on their own side of the aisle.
Of course, this phenomenon is not new in 2015. It was there in 1964, building over decades in which insurgent conservative forces led by Robert Taft were repeatedly thwarted by moderates like Tom Dewey and Wendell Wilkie, until they prevailed behind the banner of Barry Goldwater. It was present in 1976, when insurgent conservative Ronald Reagan almost knocked off Gerald Ford before prevailing in 1980 (and then governing more as a pragmatist than an ideologue). It built to 1994, when Newt Gingrich led a huge class of insurgents to victory in mid-term elections, but then they had to accept pragmatist-establishment leader Bob Dole as their presidential candidate in 1996. And while John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were establishment figures, each had to veer sharply to the radical right side to win nominations; McCain, facing a possible revolt at his nominating convention if he went with his first choice for running mate, Joe Lieberman, instead bowed to the new right and picked Sarah Palin.
So is anything really different this time? I think so. First, because of the amplification of rage against the machine by social media, and the fact that Barack Obama has grown stronger and more assertive in his second term while Republican congressional leaders have become more impotent. The unhappiness with the establishment and the desire to stiff them is much stronger.
Second, the views of rank-and-file Republicans on defining issues like immigration have become more consistently extreme—a majority now agree with virtually every element of Trump’s program, including expelling all illegal immigrants.
Third, unlike in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the clear frontrunner and the only serious establishment presidential candidate, and all the pretenders were focused on destroying each other to emerge as his sole rival, this time there are multiple establishment candidates with no frontrunner, including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. And each has independent financing, with enough backing from wealthy patrons to stay in the race for a long time, splitting the establishment-oriented vote.
The financing, of course, raises point four: We are in a brave new world of campaign finance, where no one candidate can swamp the others by dominating the money race. When establishment nemesis Ted Cruz announced his campaign, he had $38 million in “independent” funds within a week, $36 million of it from four donors. There is likely more where that came from. Some candidates may not find any sugar daddies, or may find that their billionaires are fickle at the first sign of weakness. But far more candidates than usual will have the financial wherewithal to stick around—and the more candidates stick around, the less likely that any single one will pull into a commanding lead or sweep a series of primaries, and thus the more reason to stick around.
Fifth, the desire for an insurgent, non-establishment figure is deeper and broader than in the past. Consider that in the first major poll taken after the GOP debate, three insurgents topped the list, totaling 47 percent, with Donald Trump leading the way, followed by Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. And, as Trump and the insurgents have shown depth and breadth of support, desperate wannabes like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal have become ever more shrill to try to compete. Walker, for example, trashed Republican leaders in Congress for breaking their promise to repeal Obamacare. Walker’s right wing alternative health plan, meanwhile, was trashed by Jindal for being too liberal. And the parade of candidates lining up behind blowing up birthright citizenship has been remarkable.
Sixth, Donald Trump, a far more savvy candidate than, say, Herman Cain, has benefited from the anger in the conservative and Republican base electorate by running a pugnacious, in-your-face, I-am not-anything-like-these-other-clowns race, with his signature position being his extreme, nativist stance on immigration. His adherents have cared little about his positions on other issues; after all, Romney, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, et al. promised them everything and produced nothing. So Ann Coulter, a Trump cheerleader, commented that she would be fine with Trump “perform[ing] abortions in the White House,” given his immigration stance, while other supporters have ignored any dissonance between Trump’s views and their own. Trump has also been the beneficiary of an almost-worshipful press thrilled with his perpetual-motion quote machine, which covers every press conference or town hall, often live on television, and rarely challenges his comments, feasting on every outrageous statement or attack against another candidate or critic. And the blanket press coverage has meant that Trump has not had to spend a dime of his fortune on political ads.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center