So Jeb Bush finally decided to endorse Ted Cruz for president, proving that Neil—who did so two weeks ago—is now the most politically influential Bush brother.
Jeb’s move is part of a broad retreat by leaders of the center right. Mitt Romney got on board the Cruz crew before Utah. Lindsay Graham endorsed Cruz a few days before that—just a few weeks after comparing the choice between Trump and Cruz to the choice between being shot or getting poisoned.
Now, many senior statesmen in the GOP have apparently concluded that getting poisoned is the better option.
In February, I wrote a column called The GOP’s Crump Cancer, arguing that Trump and Cruz are both manifestations of the same problem: A systematic purging of the center right has shrunk the base of the Republican Party, leaving it dominated by conservative populists motivated by economic and cultural resentment. Their anger and anxiety is fueled by professional polarizers trying to make a buck off of turning conservatism into a cult. And so the GOP is increasingly susceptible to the sleazy charms of snake-oil salesmen like Trump and Cruz.
Those two have claimed the support of nearly 60 percent of Republicans for months. They are not outliers. The majority of the party’s members are buying what they are selling.
Chris Christie’s decision to jump on the Trump train was deeply dishonorable in a way that will tar his political legacy and serve as a cautionary tale about making big decisions in moments of anger. But when responsible members of the center right—who know better—start rallying around Cruz as an alternative to Trump, it legitimizes a first-term senator whose only accomplishment is shutting down the government. By most accounts, he makes Dick Nixon seem warm and authentic. He is also a rigid right-wing ideologue, presumably from conviction, but possibly out of political expediency—and it’s hard to say which would be worse.
The problem the Republican Party is wrestling with is bigger than Trump. Bigger than Cruz.
You can tune in to Fox News, where journalists like Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly alternate with Trump-stroking showmen like Sean Hannity, to see how the center right’s accommodation of the far right has come back to haunt it. The idea was to use extremists to boost ratings and generate passion and donor dollars. They kept trying to appease this crocodile, hoping it would eat them last.
Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush—both former governors—should have backed John Kasich as a matter of principle. Yes, Kasich has only won one of the 24 primaries to date. But he’s a swing state governor with a responsible record who wants to unite the party and the nation.
Whatever Romney and Bush say about backing Cruz as the best way to stop Trump, it will still leave them at the convention with a choice between Cruz and Trump.
Backing Cruz means admitting that the center right is dead as a coalition that can win a nomination, if not a general election—and that is an inversion of the way American politics are built to work. A party that refuses to reach out and expand its base is one that is doomed to lose.
For too long, we’ve labored under the illusion that American politics are divided between left and right, liberal and conservative. They are not. The fundamental division in American politics is between Reactionaries, Radicals, and Reformers.
The Reformers have been cast out of this Republican Party. But then this year’s political tsunami seems to indicate that much of the conservative populist base was never motivated primarily by ideas or policy. It was about cultural and economic resentment directed at “the other.”
This was evident during Sarah Palin’s populist “real America” rants. When the GOP gave Herman Cain and Michele Bachman a close look in 2012 but didn’t have time for Jon Huntsman. And this year, the one positive plank that allegedly united the party—a commitment to fiscal responsibility—has been jettisoned by the party’s leading candidates without even a decent Viking funeral.
And because the party has RINO-hunted the center right out of electoral existence, it can no longer rely on them for ballast when crazy comes calling. Congratulations, the inmates are running the asylum.
For those few Reform Republicans remaining, the most interesting question is what to do after the election. Let’s assume that either Cruz and Trump, for different reasons, would lose badly, perhaps even in a Goldwater 1964 landslide. Which candidate’s loss would create the foundation for a real reckoning that could lead to a real rebirth?
A Donald Trump defeat could easily be dismissed by the professional polarizers as inevitable because the Republican Party nominated another “Northeastern liberal.”
But if the Republican Party nominates Ted Cruz, they will have to own their defeat. They will have had their “full spectrum ideological conservative” who defiantly disdains reaching out beyond the base to solve problems with broader coalitions. When that man gets his ass kicked, they will have to look inward.
The man in the GOP leadership who least resembles Trump and Cruz, Speaker Paul Ryan, gave a thoughtful address Wednesday full of implicit rebukes to the conditions that created this candidate selection:
“All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold. We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. We don’t just oppose someone or something. We propose a clear and compelling alternative.”
This is a worthwhile sentiment. But unless those words are followed by actions before—and especially after—the election, they mean little.
The Republican Party this season is reaping what it has sowed. Likewise, changing a culture—which is what Paul Ryan is proposing—takes leadership and time. He has both. But the problem runs deep and Cruz vs. Trump is the result—a contest for the party’s mantle between two unlikeable and un-electable men. By choosing between them, the center right is admitting its impotence under the cloak of political expedience. Instead, they should announce their resistance and focus on broadening their party in the future.