Those Renegade Republicans

Almost half of the GOP’s voters are saying: Let’s start from scratch.

An anger persists: Party rebel Pat Buchanan upset a sitting president in the 1992 New Hampshire GOP primary.
Ron Sachs AFP/Getty
Sept. 8, 2015, 5:38 p.m.

Is the Re­pub­lic­an Party go­ing rogue? It’s hard to look at the opin­ion polling in the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion con­test and con­clude any­thing else. As un­ex­pec­ted as many of the de­vel­op­ments on the Demo­crat­ic side have been, it doesn’t hold a candle to what is un­fold­ing among the Re­pub­lic­ans. 

Clearly, something pro­found is hap­pen­ing in the usu­ally staid and or­derly party. Don­ald Trump is in first place not only in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, but in na­tion­al polling as well, av­er­aging more than a quarter of the vote. Ben Car­son, the re­tired neur­o­lo­gist, is now in second place in Iowa and na­tion­wide, and in a stat­ist­ic­al tie in New Hamp­shire with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a more tra­di­tion­al can­did­ate. That Jeb Bush is av­er­aging single-di­git per­form­ances in both cru­cial states and na­tion­ally is just as per­plex­ing.

Should we see this as a re­bel­lion against ca­reer politi­cians and the GOP es­tab­lish­ment? Or, is roughly 40 per­cent of the GOP elect­or­ate throw­ing a tem­per tan­trum? The an­swer is: both.

Not quite half of the Re­pub­lic­an Party is made up of so­cial, cul­tur­al, and evan­gel­ic­al con­ser­vat­ives, tea-party ad­her­ents, and pop­u­lists. None of them ever cared much for the party es­tab­lish­ment in the first place. This 40-something per­cent of the GOP isn’t only more vis­ible and vo­cal than the slight ma­jor­ity of con­ven­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, they are also like­li­er to vote in caucuses and primar­ies. That mag­ni­fies their im­port­ance.

But more than that is go­ing on in the Grand Old Party. This is my the­ory: Dur­ing the past 35 years, since Ron­ald Re­agan entered the White House, Re­pub­lic­an voters have watched in quiet dis­may as the fed­er­al debt and the size of gov­ern­ment kept grow­ing, not only un­der Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ents but also un­der Re­pub­lic­ans—Re­agan and both Bushes. Much of that happened while Re­pub­lic­ans held ma­jor­it­ies in one or both houses of Con­gress. 

The ca­reer politi­cians who con­sti­tute the party’s es­tab­lish­ment have dis­ap­poin­ted many Re­pub­lic­ans. Con­ser­vat­ives (and nu­mer­ous non­con­ser­vat­ives) hated the Troubled As­set Re­lief Pro­gram, which Pres­id­ent George W. Bush pushed through in re­sponse to the 2008 fin­an­cial crisis. The so-called bail­out of banks stoked their pop­u­list ire; few of them seemed to ap­pre­ci­ate that the emer­gency ac­tion might well have pre­ven­ted the U.S. and world eco­nom­ies from slid­ing in­to a second Great De­pres­sion. Most con­ser­vat­ives and Re­pub­lic­ans des­pised the Af­ford­able Care Act and, un­aware of the in­ner work­ings of Con­gress, couldn’t un­der­stand why Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­it­ies haven’t rolled it back. 

In­creas­ingly, they’ve seen their own lead­ers as in­ex­tric­ably bound up with everything they hate about Wash­ing­ton. Thus, the tea party was born. As a con­sequence, something else died—the de­fer­ence tra­di­tion­ally af­forded to the party’s es­tab­lish­ment, in nom­in­at­ing as its stand­ard-bear­er who­ever was next in line.

This isn’t the first time the anti­es­tab­lish­ment pieces of the party have shown a will­ing­ness to look out­side the box. Re­call 1992, when con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Pat Buchanan up­set Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush in the New Hamp­shire primary. In the 2012 cam­paign, then-Rep. Michele Bach­mann of Min­nesota and pizza mag­nate Her­man Cain surged in the polls around this time, fore­shad­ow­ing what is hap­pen­ing now.  

Even if a sub­stan­tial share of Re­pub­lic­ans hold shake-’em-up views, does this ex­cuse their sup­port for two can­did­ates who al­most seem proud at know­ing so little about gov­ern­ment and pub­lic policy? The voters who ad­mire Trump or Car­son seem not to care. Al­most daily, Trump ex­poses his lack of fa­mili­ar­ity with is­sues (al­though ra­dio host Hugh He­witt’s ques­tions about dip­lo­mat­ic trivia were cheap shots). In the Fox-sponsored Re­pub­lic­an de­bate, the mod­er­at­ors’ open­ing ques­tions to Car­son ex­posed his ex­pert­ise as pretty much lim­ited to med­ic­al sub­jects. Des­pite his win­cing per­form­ance, his poll num­bers im­proved.

“How could they do any worse than what we’ve had?” That’s how one of my broth­ers-in-law ex­plained this lack of con­cern about the two polit­ic­al out­siders’ lack of ex­per­i­ence or policy depth. He wasn’t re­fer­ring only to Pres­id­ent Obama, but also to past Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers. It’s as if al­most half of the Re­pub­lic­an Party is de­clar­ing a polit­ic­al Chapter 11 bank­ruptcy, want­ing to start from scratch, no mat­ter the im­plic­a­tions.

An­oth­er ele­ment that fa­vors Trump and Car­son is that neither cares about polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness. They say ex­actly what’s on their minds and don’t worry about giv­ing of­fense or re­spond­ing to in­con­veni­ent de­tails. They speak dir­ectly to the de­votees of con­ser­vat­ive talk shows who have spent years yelling back at their ra­di­os and TVs. They of­fer this more exot­ic wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party ex­actly what they want to hear.

These factors may help to un­der­stand why Trump and Car­son are do­ing so well, but they don’t fully ex­plain why Bush is faring so badly. Al­though this par­tic­u­lar Bush has nev­er worked or lived in Wash­ing­ton, many con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans re­gard this son and kid broth­er of pres­id­ents as the em­bod­i­ment of everything they hate about the D.C.-based party es­tab­lish­ment. They see his meas­ured rhet­or­ic as a sign of a weak­ness and cau­tion that has ham­strung tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress and the White House. That Bush hasn’t taken ul­tra-con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions on volat­ile is­sues such as im­mig­ra­tion and edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards just cinches his repu­ta­tion in the minds of these reneg­ade Re­pub­lic­ans. 

Not all Re­pub­lic­ans are rebels, however. Na­tion­ally, al­most 60 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans are still the philo­soph­ic­al and styl­ist­ic des­cend­ants of the party that pro­duced Pres­id­ents Eis­en­hower, Nix­on, Re­agan, and both Bushes—the GOP that once ap­proved of Ger­ald Ford, Bob Dole, John Mc­Cain, and Mitt Rom­ney. Even Re­agan, not to men­tion the Bushes, would have trouble meet­ing the GOP’s new lit­mus tests. 

As this Re­pub­lic­an race began, it was widely as­sumed that Jeb Bush would prove to be polit­ic­ally more tal­en­ted than his older broth­er (their two young­er broth­ers hav­ing avoided the fam­ily busi­ness). A cam­paign that raised more money than God was ex­pec­ted to make up for any fail­ure to over­power the field with his skills as a can­did­ate. But the shock and awe hasn’t worked. Bush’s less-than-stel­lar per­form­ances in in­ter­views, on the stump, and in the only de­bate so far—and an elect­or­ate that hasn’t fallen in­to line—has left his cam­paign’s tra­ject­ory breath­tak­ingly worse than polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als had fore­seen. 

At the same time, Bush’s two most-feared rivals among es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans have got­ten off to equally un­im­press­ive starts. Gov. Scott Walk­er was touted early for tak­ing on or­gan­ized labor in Demo­crat­ic-tilt­ing Wis­con­sin yet win­ning three elec­tions. But his sup­port has been dwind­ling. Sim­il­arly for Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida. His an­nounce­ment speech and the threat he posed to Demo­crat­ic dom­in­ance among young­er and minor­ity voters frightened Demo­crat­ic strategists. So far, though, his rhet­or­ic and im­age haven’t seemed to con­nect with the GOP’s con­ser­vat­ive base. 

So, with the party’s rebels fly­ing high and the es­tab­lish­ment in re­treat, what hap­pens next? All sum­mer, Trump’s de­mise has been pre­dicted—wrongly. Still, my hunch is that it is fi­nally about to be­gin, that his act is start­ing to wear thin, even among people who love his rhet­or­ic and fight. Watch for Car­son to be the im­me­di­ate be­ne­fi­ciary. It may soon be his turn in the sun, though wheth­er he can en­dure the scru­tiny—of his grav­itas, not of scan­dal—is ques­tion­able. 

Should both can­did­a­cies fade, it mat­ters a lot which Re­pub­lic­an in­her­its their sup­port­ers once the vot­ing starts early next year. I still think the ul­ti­mate be­ne­fi­ciary of this pent-up fury at the es­tab­lish­ment and at Wash­ing­ton will be Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He ar­tic­u­lates the same views as Trump and Car­son do, but more in­tel­li­gently, and he has enough money and skilled cam­paign staff to pre­vail among the anti­es­tab­lish­ment as­pir­ants. 

Among the tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, the Bush cam­paign is start­ing to air tele­vi­sion ads—and he had bet­ter hope they work. Con­ven­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an voters are still win­dow-shop­ping, but they don’t seem prone to linger be­fore Bush’s win­dow; they just keep mov­ing on. Kasich has shown signs of get­ting trac­tion, par­tic­u­larly in New Hamp­shire; he has already out­per­formed the ex­pect­a­tions that his late start would doom his cam­paign. It was Bush’s poor per­form­ance, the Kasich camp ex­plains, that drew the Ohio gov­ernor in­to the race. 

Party in­siders still have many re­ser­va­tions about Kasich, who is bright and tal­en­ted but tends to be un­focused, un­dis­cip­lined, and oc­ca­sion­ally hot-tempered. Still, after 18 years in Con­gress and in his fifth year as gov­ernor, he is ar­gu­ably the most ex­per­i­enced and qual­i­fied can­did­ate in either party and, ideo­lo­gic­ally, the best po­si­tioned to win a gen­er­al elec­tion—if he can con­trol his own bad habits.

Watch for an­oth­er con­ven­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an to grab the at­ten­tion over the next month or two, quite pos­sibly Carly Fior­ina, the former Hew­lett-Pack­ard CEO. Even New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie might get a second look. If Bush con­tin­ues his fail­ure to thrive, an­oth­er con­ven­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an will surely take his place. His­tor­ic­al pre­ced­ent looks aw­fully shaky these days, but it’s worth not­ing that—with the im­port­ant ex­cep­tion of Barry Gold­wa­ter in 1964—an es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­an has won the party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion in every elec­tion since the end of World War II.

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