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.