Among those Republicans willing to acknowledge the coming calamity that is Donald Trump, an epidemic of “if onlys” has broken out.
“If only we had nominated Marco Rubio …”
“If only we had nominated Ted Cruz …”
“If only we had nominated Bobby Jindal …”
OK, maybe not so much that last one. But you get the point. Republicans came into this election cycle confident that they had a strong field of candidates from which to choose, a weak probable opponent in Hillary Clinton and a great chance to finally retake the White House. Then, the story goes, along came that Trump creature to ruin it all.
On a human level, you can understand why that story is appealing. In almost any disaster, you can look back in regret and find a way that it could have been avoided, a moment at which things might have gone differently. If only you had just left the house 30 seconds earlier or later, you wouldn’t have gotten into that car wreck. If only the course of the Titanic had been 50 yards to the south … that kind of thing.
But in this case, I don’t think the story is true, and those conservatives who comfort themselves with the “if onlys” risk missing the real problem.
The story isn’t true first of all because the problems plaguing the Republican Party are not of Trump’s making. Long before he entered the race, the party was deeply dysfunctional and at war with itself. Republicans didn’t trust each other and often seemed to dislike each other. They certainly hated and undermined their own national leadership, despising Mitch McConnell and forcing John Boehner to resign in frustration as speaker. The job of trying to run the GOP House had become so toxic that they had to beg and plead with Paul Ryan to take it, and he relented with great reluctance.
And long before Trump announced his candidacy, the GOP base and its media-entertainment wing had explicitly rejected the recommendations of the RNC’s post-2012 “autopsy”, which had stressed the need to broaden the party’s appeal to women, younger voters and minorities in an era of profound demographic change. The GOP core had zero interest in such outreach; it was itching to refight the same battles that they had fought and lost before, but this time without euphemism or restraint.
In that kind of atmosphere, any candidate who counseled a different course — Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham — stood no chance whatsoever of getting the nomination.
And the political reality is that a bitterly divided party unpopular with voters and insistent on defying demographic realities would have had a tough time winning in November even without Trump at the top of the ticket. The race might be closer and the down-ballot prospects would not be so dire with someone else as the nominee, but I doubt the final outcome would have been different.
Again, Republicans are going to tell themselves something different, and I understand that temptation. But if you look honestly at the two men whom they most often offer as alternatives to Trump, my conclusion becomes stronger not weaker.
Look at Rubio. He dropped out of the race back in March after he got creamed by Trump by 19 percentage points in Florida. That simply does not happen to a candidate capable of winning on the national stage, not in his home state and in his own party. It could never have happened to Ronald Reagan in California, to Bill Clinton in Arkansas, to George Bush in Texas. It would even be inconceivable for John McCain in Arizona or Al Gore in Tennessee. But it happened to Rubio. The campaign exposed him as vacillating, immature and opportunistic, and every bit the “Little Marco” that Trump labeled him. Voters saw that, and responded.
That’s even more true of Cruz. When he left the race in May, he did so with a favorable/unfavorable polling average of 32/57, and his popularity has declined even further since then. His unctuous personal style and uncompromising, outdated social conservatism will never appeal to a national general-election audience. Even at the height of the culture wars, the GOP had never nominated a candidate like Cruz, and a style that couldn’t work in the previous quarter-century is certainly not going to work in the next one. Cruz is one of those politicians fated to remain very popular within a limited band of voters and very unpopular outside that group, and that’s not the description of a future president.
The bottom line is that Trump is not the cause of the GOP’s difficulties. He is a prominent symptom of them, and in many ways magnifies them. Post-November, he will also be a scapegoat for them. But he did not create them. The GOP base and the general-election electorate look at the world very differently, and the things that you have to say and do to appease the GOP base in the primaries will make any candidate a difficult sell in a general election, which is conducted outside the bubble, among voters not already thoroughly immersed in the cramped world view of the modern, meaning archaic, Republican Party.
Until that changes, the outcomes won’t change.