After their defeat in the 2012 presidential race, the GOP commissioned an internal review of what had gone wrong. The report was widely referred to as an ‘autopsy’, and it came to this conclusion: nationally, the Republican Party was “marginalizing itself.” If it didn’t correct, “it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win a presidential election in the near future.” Bobby Jindal put it in fever words; he urged the GOP to “stop being the stupid party.”
For careful observers, the main hangup was this: the GOP primary process was driving candidates too far to the right. Twice in a row, the GOP nominated men who had begun their presidential ambitions as moderates. In 2008, John McCain ran into enormous headwinds and wound up selecting a little-known governor as his vice presidential pick. Sarah Palin quickly energized the base, but she also made it all but certain that McCain would lose the support of swing voters. In 2012, the party turned a moderate former governor of a blue state into someone whom Democrats had no trouble portraying as the avatar of big business and out-of-touch middle aged white men.
(Mitt Romney once clumsily asserted that he was a “severe conservative” – accomplishing the rare feat of simultaneously earning the opprobrium of liberals for describing himself as a conservative and the scorn of conservatives for doing it so unconvincingly.)
Observing that winning the GOP nomination in 2016 was becoming incompatible with winning the presidency, Jeb Bush bravely, but nonsensically, declared that he was willing to “lose the primary to win the general [election].”
The party tried to head off the need with a new format. It scrapped the Iowa Ames straw poll and cut the number of debates. The idea was to have a more orderly process that was heavier on substance and had less of the reality-TV feel that bedeviled the party in 2012. But now, in the early months of the election, those aspirations have turned to ash: it seems that Donald Trump is busy setting brushfires in the grassroots.
Two things conspired to derail the carefully laid plans of the Republican National Committee. First, the appeal of an open presidency has attracted a large, vibrant, and capable field of candidates. That should have been a blessing, but Fox News reacted to this large field by setting exclusion criteria for their first debate that minimized the role Iowa and New Hampshire have traditionally played in weeding out candidates early on. Historically, the first hurdle a presidential candidate must clear is charming and winning over voters in small, intimate settings; this is meant to separate serious candidates from those that who appealing on the surface but hollow underneath. Yet, with so many candidates in the field, the decision was made to limit access to the first debate by using national polling – a decision that has been met with deep skepticism by many pollsters and which has upended the process.
Which has led to the second development and our current national nightmare. For years, Donald Trump has toyed with the idea of a Presidential run – and no one thought he was serious. Over the last political cycle, the Republican party sensed an advantage and embraced Mr. Trump as a political asset. That attention has emboldened him, and Fox News’ decision to nationalize the election early on by relying so heavily on national polls has empowered him.
Now the id of conservative America, which for years has been limited to shouting from the crowd during town hall meetings or screeching on AM radio, is literally centerstage.
Donald Trump’s political fortunes seem to defy gravity, just as his personal fortune defies bankruptcy. It is hard to imagine what more he could say – or what constituency there is left to offend. But it hardly seems to matter. He has nice things to say about single-payer healthcare – that also does not seem to matter. He has been accused of rape – and no one seems to have noticed.
Donald Trump won’t win the GOP nomination, but he has already left his mark. Every day he spends in the race makes it harder for serious candidates to make their arguments – and the more his antics are greeted with the approval of the recalcitrant Republican base, the shyer the moderates will get.
Rather than act as an opportunity for rebranding and as a showcase for the considerable talent of their candidate pool, the Republican race for President is turning into must-see entertainment – precisely the outcome that the grownups wanted so desperately to avoid.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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