Politics & Policy

Change or Die: Will the Republican Party Listen to the Voters or Fade Away?

Trump at an early campaign rally in Phoenix, July 12, 2015. (Charlie Leigh/Getty)

About an eon ago, David Brooks coined the memorable phrase “status-income disequilibrium.” It diagnosed modern elites, politicians in particular, whose jobs endowed them with power that dwarfed the attendant financial compensation. It would seem quaint to fret over SID today, grubby pols having turned the monetizing of “public service” into an art form for which the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation is the national museum.

Ah, but there’s a new SID in town. Those closely following the GOP presidential sweepstakes have doubtless noticed the haggard Beltway Republicans in its throes: Status-Influence Disequilibrium.

The condition was in evidence Tuesday night, as Donald Trump rolled up another series of primary victories. Bewildered GOP strategists groped for a silver lining, in chorus with commentators who wear establishment sympathies on their sleeves — and never more openly than when denying that there is any Republican establishment.

Solace was sought in the triumph of Ohio governor John Kasich, who managed to win his home state primary with less than 50 percent of the vote, denying Trump a sweep of the night’s five contests. The glow was not exactly like “feeling the Bern.” With this victory, Kasich ran his record to one win and 28 losses (in the Kasich spirit of Christian charity, I’m just counting states and ignoring losses piled up in D.C., Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and so on). As competitors go, Kasich is the ’62 Mets. Yet, Ohio became a ray of establishment hope: an aberrational win by a candidate already mathematically eliminated from contention somehow means the home team still has a shot.

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Not a shot in the person of Governor Kasich, of course. Leading GOP lights are disappointed but they are not delusional. John Kerry, they know, has a better chance of winning the Republican nomination than John Kasich. The latter, instead, is a placeholder for a whimsical conspiracy: If, before the July convention in Kasich’s Cleveland backyard, no candidate has gathered up the 1,237 delegates needed to prevail, the party establishment (which conveniently controls the convention rules) could conceivably rig the proceedings, anointing some preferred deus ex machina — Paul Ryan? Mitt Romney? John McCain?

To pull this off, it would be necessary — though by no means sufficient — for vanquished also-rans like Kasich to grab and hold the few delegates they can, keeping Trump under the magic number. Success would mean party leaders keep control of what they see as theirs. They know rigging the convention is a far-fetched idea — though not so far-fetched in this cataclysm of an election cycle that they will dismiss it out of hand.

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Indeed, it may not even be the most outlandish flyer out there. A #NeverTrump contingent — Republicans resolved never to vote for the Donald, no matter how objectionable the opponent — met this week to bat around the possibility of launching a third-party run. The group is well-intentioned, led by very solid conservatives with strong establishment ties. But like the “rig the convention” fantasists, they might as well cut out the middle-man and name Hillary Clinton as their alternative candidate.

If Trump wins the GOP nomination, he will already have beaten very strong conservatives in an electorate more conservative-friendly than the one that will vote in November’s general election. While a rigged convention would cause the GOP to be abandoned by Trump supporters, a third-party gambit would induce many conservatives to flee the party. Either way, the Democrats would win. Were that to happen, the righteously indignant #NeverTrump crowd would pat themselves on the back for sticking to their principles . . .  but would they still feel that way when Elizabeth Warren was sworn in to fill Justice Scalia’s Supreme Court seat — while the second President Clinton (assuming she hasn’t been indicted) vets her next two or three Supreme Court nominees during downtime from the Muslim Brotherhood Reset?

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The Republican establishment knows all this. So for now, party leaders pooh-pooh these unlikely schemes. Their goal is more modest: to preserve their viability by framing the narrative in which the ongoing 2016 nomination chase is understood. Thus, Tuesday night’s oft-repeated storyline: The Non-Trump.

Trump’s dominance, the story goes, is an illusion. Yes, he has a lopsided lead, but he has won only about 37 percent of the votes cast. Because of sundry state delegate-allocation rules, this has computed to about 48 percent of the delegate haul, roughly 673. But that still means he’d be losing nearly two-to-one among voters, and by a significant number of delegates, if he were running one-on-one against The Non-Trump.

#share#The Non-Trump is a composite character: sort of like President Obama’s girlfriend in Dreams from My Father, except non-fictional. Collectively, The Non-Trump’s delegate haul is 738 — Cruz (411), Kasich (143), and the candidates who’ve suspended their campaigns: Rubio (169), Carson (8), Bush (4), and one each for Fiorina, Huckabee, and Paul. (Chris Christie, Trump’s new man Friday, hatched a goose-egg, which may seem like nothing but is better than he could do in New Jersey right now.)

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The Washington wisdom is that we should see the race in terms of Trump versus The Non-Trump. This means seeing The Non-Trump as the combined fortress of Republicandom, led by the establishment.

Now, about the establishment: Notwithstanding its occasional pretensions to non-existence, it is real and identifiable. To be sure, there is validity in the complaint that the term “establishment” is too readily contorted into nonsense, and even slander. Yet it seems silly to suggest that there isn’t an establishment. The Republican party, one of only two major political parties in a country of over 300 million people, started before the Civil War. Any large, hierarchical, diverse, bumptious, and enduring organization could not endure long without leaders, financial backers, and loyalists. The urge to reject a categorical term because it can be demagogued into an epithet is understandable — just ask any neoconservative. But you’d still need to call the establishment something, and any substitute term — “elites,” “mainstream,” what have you — would soon be subject to the same complaint.

Which gets us to why “establishment” has become so pejorative. “Trump versus The Non-Trump” is the wrong way to analyze the contest. It is actually insurgents versus the establishment, or perhaps anti-Washington versus Washington.

The story of the race is not Trump. The story is the emphatic popular rejection of Republican party leadership.

Trump is such a larger than life figure — a gauche and buffoonish icon of a society that worships celebrity — that it is easy to conflate him with the phenomenon he has tapped into: a seething rage against Washington. Note: I said against Washington, not necessarily against government — Trump supporters include many blue-collar Democrats and the disaffected white working class (including its non-working underclass). Those people do not oppose government in principle. They oppose the self-dealing Beltway racket: the chummy bipartisan congeries of politicos, strategists, big-monied donors, union bosses, special-interest agitators, lobbyists, and stars of the 24/7 political media that is increasingly remote from their strife, that always manages to take care of itself while they struggle. That is the wave Trump is riding, but we shouldn’t confuse the rider with the wave.

Ted Cruz, whom I support, has gathered strength by representing limited-government constitutional conservatism, which is similarly hostile to Washington. It accepts the necessity of centralized authority for a few obvious national purposes — such as border security, which Washington is indifferent to, and national security, which Washington often uses as a pretext to increase its control. Otherwise, though, it wants the Beltway racket dismantled, the imperious regulatory state rolled back, and the bills paid. Like Trump supporters, Cruz supporters want American sovereignty reinvigorated — they are suspicious of multi-lateral arrangements that straitjacket the U.S. under the guise of “global stability.” But they want America to lead, guided by its vital interests, on the international stage, not to withdraw from it. They believe free trade is a boon for American consumers, not the scourge of American workers.

RELATED: Why There Will Be No Trump Landslide in November

The story of the race is not Trump. The story is the emphatic popular rejection of Republican party leadership. Combined, the anti-Washington forces have won two-thirds of the vote and over three-fourths of the delegates — a landslide that is even more impressive if you assume (as I do) that much of Marco Rubio’s support came from conservatives who saw him as the candidate most electable in November (i.e., Rubio was not, strictly speaking, the “establishment alternative”).

It has become trendy to handicap the race in terms of the “Trump lane” (or “populist lane”), the “conservative lane,” and the “establishment lane.” That gives the establishment far too much credit. It had no lane; it was more like a narrow Beltway bike path, snarling traffic and annoying pedestrians. Sure there was an ocean of money, but there was no popular support. That is why serial contenders fell by the wayside (Walker, Graham, Bush, Christie), just as Kasich will sooner or later.

#related#Most remarkable is the SID phenomenon: the higher one’s status in Republican leadership, the less one’s influence over Republican voters, and hence over the GOP nomination battle. SID leads us to a final bit of Washington un-wisdom: the purportedly pressing matter of “uniting the party.” The questions are posed: Can Trump change, can he clean up his act in order to entice establishment support? Can Cruz change, can he mend fences with GOP leaders he has antagonized in order to bring them into his fold?

Again, that is the wrong way to look at it. What needs changing, desperately, is the Republican party. The establishment needs to make itself acceptable to supporters of these candidates, not the other way around. To my mind, Republican leaders owe it to what they are supposed to stand for to get behind Cruz, not because they need to love him, but because it’s the right thing to do — besides being the only way to derail Donald Trump, who would either lose to Hillary or rule like Hillary. One way or the other, though, when the Trump dust finally settles, it will be clear that the Republican party as currently constituted is unsustainable. The people who oppose what the Left is doing to the country want an opposition party. The Republican establishment has shunned that role, preferring to be Washington than to fight Washington. The people are looking elsewhere.

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