Predicting doom for Democrats and taking Republican-inflated scandals seriously is a job description for much of the media. And while in full pearl-clutching mode over the Democratic frontrunner, as they usually are, they’re missing the real story: The Republican Party, after eight years of plotting the demise of Barack Obama, is in far worse shape than it was the last time it lost the presidency.
What is supposed to be “the best field of Republican candidates in a generation” is being trounced by a birther, a fetal-tissue-experimenting doctor, a disgraced, anti-vaxxer CEO, and the guy who is only known for shutting down the government.
Oh, yeah, the birther is also an anti-vaxxer.
It’s only August, but the Republican right is on the verge of duplicating or tripling down on every mistake its leaders told themselves not to make after they lost last time, while inventing new flubs beyond the imagination of mortal satirists. Sure, the Koch network has doubled its spending commitment from 2012 to close to a billion dollars and it’s difficult for any party to hold the White House for three straight terms. But conservatives are at war with themselves, while their candidates are spouting nonsense and purposely alienating precisely the same voters they need to be winning over.
Why aren’t the media pointing this out?
“I know that it’s disturbing to read columns that portray the entire field as a bunch of cranks,” The New York Times‘ Paul Krugman wrote. “But it would be a dereliction of duty, basically an act of dishonest reporting, to pretend that they aren’t.”
So let’s do our duty and point out why this August is even worse for Republicans than the summer of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain.
1. Donald Trump is the most anti-immigrant frontrunner of a major party imaginable.
Birtherism made him a conservative hero. Xenophobic rants where he simultaneously promises to bring back jobs from China and cut wages in America speak to a real angst among the white working class that has been battered by conservative and neoliberal policies. But it’s Trump’s promise to deport 11 million immigrants that is most corrosive to the Republican brand. His newly released immigration plan would have denied citizenship to a couple of his competitors and wives. To even have a chance of winning Florida, the GOP needs to do at least as well with minorities as it did in 2004 — pre-Katrina, before the conservative backlash on immigration.
Immigration isn’t the only issue Latinos and Asian-Americans care about, but even Mitt Romney’s embrace of “self-deportation” conjured up images of broken families. Trump seems to be vowing to deport even U.S. citizens who had undocumented parents. The idea of mass deportations may appeal to a large segment of GOP primary voters, but we rarely discuss how suggesting people be jammed into buses and trains damages a party that’s spent decades relying on the frame of smaller government. Promoting a police state powerful enough to turn humans into cargo marked for destinations unknown, combined with promises to close marijuana shops in Colorado and Washington, while seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade so miscarriages can be investigated as murders — these eccentric ideas may well combine to taint the party’s image, possibly beyond repair.
2. Real conservatives know Trump is their worst nightmare.
Simply put: 2016 is the most important election of our lifetime, especially if you’re a GOP donor who sees the chance of building a solid majority of seven conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Many of these high-powered donors and establishment figures see Trump for what he is: a thin-skinned megalomaniac who holds few if any conservative beliefs beyond the basic impulse to make himself richer. Even scarier to them is seeing a guy who can go to war with hives of villainy like Fox News and RedState — and win.
When establishment conservatives face off against Trump supporters, it’s like turning over a rock and releasing the hate-infested, bigoted microbes that grew in the dank, moldy environment of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Understandably, they’re disgusted by what they’ve created, and some sense of justice deep in their collective conscience likely fears that they deserve to be consumed by it.
Watching as Trump validates every Democratic argument against Scott Walker’s jobs record or Carly Fiorina’s lack of business acumen must feel like a repeat of Newt Gingrich’s highly successful assault on Romney’s business record at Bain Capital. But the difference is that Trump isn’t playing with Adelson’s money, and he isn’t dependent on Republican benefactors to keep him in the .01 percent.
Trump has little to no chance of winning the GOP nomination, but he has a decent chance of leading the polls even as the establishment candidate racks up the delegates necessary to win. The damage that would do to the party is as impossible to imagine as Trump’s ridiculous campaign itself.
3. Jeb Bush is flailing.
It may seem insane that your name is Bush, and you think the Iraq War is a winning issue for you. Well, George W. Bush left office with about 30 percent of America thinking he was doing a good job. And much of that 30 percent will vote in the GOP primary. W. remains much more popular with America and the GOP base than Jeb has ever been. He may have lost two wars and failed to prevent 9/11 or the financial crisis, but he never backed Common Core. And while Jeb’s willingness to pass immigration reform mirrors his brother’s — and Ronald Reagan’s, for that matter — W. was a master at hiding his disdain for the GOP base. He would never suggest, as insultingly as Jeb did, that the GOP nominee must be willing to lose the primary to win the general election.
But Jeb Bush is certainly nailing the first part of that equation. He looks squeamish onstage next to Trump, and stiff as he comes out against spending on “women’s health.” Suddenly he’s realizing that he was doing better before, when he couldn’t come up with a good answer on Iraq — mostly because Democrats were attacking him. So this week he decided to try some more lying about Iraq while endorsing torture. This doesn’t differentiate him from the GOP field, but it does remind the base that it’s kind of a family tradition for him.
4. There could be a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood.
Opposing Planned Parenthood and shutting down the government would be fantastic issues for Republicans — if there were no such thing as general elections. The GOP base is demanding that Republican leaders make a principled stand, much as they did in 2013 against Obamacare. But the difference is that Planned Parenthood is popular, much more popular than any politician or political party, especially in swing states.
Such an act of extremism against women’s health — one year before the election that will decide the fate of Roe v. Wade — would be a dream come true for progressives, which is why Republican leaders are vowing to avoid it. But given the energy that this phony issue has developed among the conservative base, and the fear of an approaching GOP primary, the party’s leaders on Capitol Hill may be upstaged by Ted Cruz once again.
5. Obama and Obamacare are failing to fail, magnificently.
In 2011, Republicans were running against a president who had passed a controversial health care reform bill that had seen few benefits roll out. Now, four years later, 15 million Americans have gained health insurance while the economy is in the middle of the longest private sector job expansion in history. Obama’s second term is on pace to see the third most jobs created in any presidential term ever. And this is the term when Obama’s most transformative policies — the first new taxes on the rich and the full rollout of Obamacare — went into effect.
Promising to take health insurance away from 15 million Americans is still popular with the GOP base, but former Bush speechwriter David Frum gets that this promise may not play so well in the general election.
“More than 80 percent of those who have gained coverage under the ACA were pleased with the coverage they got,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “Everything we know about voters tells us that they are much more motivated to protect something they already have than to vote to gain something new.”
Frum presents ways Republicans could vow to improve Obamacare. None of them — especially changing the funding mechanism to a carbon tax, which would be awesome — would ever be embraced by a GOP presidential candidate. It is true that Frum, a native of single-payer Canada, has long dissented from conservative orthodoxy on Obamacare, but he gets why Romney lost.
Mitt’s Obamacare paternity was baked into his numbers when he won the primary. His indelible betrayal of conservatism as Massachusetts governor kept him from truly veering to the center in the general election. But what happens next summer when a conservative Republican candidate realizes that he actually can’t vow to destroy Obamacare and win? Will the base forgive him before November for turning reasonable?
Never count the GOP out. After a decade of wrecking nearly everything it touched, it only took them six years to win back Congress. And a country that has made horrible choices out of fear of terror and foreigners could do it again, especially when voters lack the protection of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for the first presidential election since 1968. Conservatives are on the verge of a massive rebuke or a ridiculous vindication. And if you look at what they’ve learned — and failed to learn — since 2012, it’s easy to see which is more likely.