How Reince Priebus Handed Donald Trump The Republican Party
Racist political opportunist and billionaire businessman Donald Trump won the Indiana primary last night, effectively securing the Republican nomination despite near constant punditry predicting he would not. Meanwhile, Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, told party followers it was time to fold and help elect Trump to the White House.
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) May 4, 2016
He backed up his pronouncement today on cable news, even if it was lukewarm. “You know what, I think something different and something new is probably good for our party,” said Priebus on CNN, seemingly uncertain that Trump would result in anything other than catastrophic defeat. “Look, I don’t think anyone predicted what happened. So, look, we’re here. We’re going to get behind the presumptive nominee.”
The RNC chairman had previously struck a different tone prior to the current debacle unfolding inside the Republican Party. Just a week ago, he said that the party’s nominee needed to exceed the 1,237 delegate count, otherwise there would be a contested nomination. “You need a majority,” said Priebus. Referring to the congressional vote on the Affordable Care Act, which initially looked like it would fall short by a handful of votes, he said, “We didn’t say, ‘Oh he’s almost there, let’s give it to him.’ He had to get a majority.”
The current catastrophe facing Priebus and his party is one of his own making. When the nomination process first started, there were 17 candidates, many of whom had thrown themselves into the ring for several election cycles. After early polling showed a Trump surge, Priebus did nothing to “thin the herd,” as Scott Walker advocated when he suspended his campaign in September.
“Today I believe that I am being called to lead to help clear the field,” Walker said at the time. “With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately, and I encourage other presidential candidates to consider doing the same.”
Even after the Republican donor class began “encouraging” candidates to end their campaigns, Trump’s anti-establishment war continuously put Priebus (and the Republican Party) on the defensive, forcing him to fend off accusations of establishment meddling in the nomination process. “It’s a crooked deal,” said Trump following the Colorado primary, after the state’s 34 delegates went to Ted Cruz.
“Reince Priebus should be ashamed of himself,” he said to The Hill in an interview. “He should be ashamed of himself because he knows what’s going on.”
But Priebus didn’t push back at any point, instead delivering meek responses to all of Trump’s transgressions in the name of party unity, possibly out of fear that he would upset the ever-growing contingent of Trump supporters inside the Republican Party. “Given the year we have, you know, I honestly don’t take it all that personally,” he said to Politico shortly after Trump’s outburst about the delegate allocation process.
In a separate interview, he said, “This is going to blow over. I believe this is some frustration that has bubbled.” He even appeared on CNN to reassure the American public that he wasn’t at odds with Trump. “I don’t sit here and internalize the charge, because there’s nothing the RNC can do about it,” he said.
At the start of Trump’s campaign, before he amassed the following of disgruntled Republican voters he now commands, Priebus framed the interest Trump was generating as a good thing for the Republican Party.
“I think it’s a net positive for everybody and I think it’s an indicator that there’s a lot of folks out there who are sick and tired of Washington and Trump has tapped into that,” said Priebus on Milwaukee radio. “When you have 30 million people watching [the first GOP debate], not to mention the fact that we have 16 other incredible candidates out there, I think we are showing America that we are the young, diverse party, offering a whole slew of options for people and that’s a good thing.”
When Priebus did try to stop Trump, he was accused by Bruce Ash, chairman of the RNC Rules Committee, of having tried to prevent changes to the Republican convention rules that would make it harder to have a contested convention.
The final nail in the coffin of the old Republican Party was Priebus’s tweet last night. Until this morning, John Kasich had not announced that he would exit the race. The RNC chairman’s announcement that Trump was the presumptive nominee upended months of his own claims that the RNC was an impartial arbiter governing the party’s nomination process. if anyone believed that before, they surely don’t now.
There were numerous factors contributing to Trump’s rise that were outside of Priebus’s control. But Priebus had options, if he wanted to save his party: He could have reprimanded Trump for his repeated attacks on the institutions of the party he wanted to represent as the nominee, or for the wild rhetorical excesses that have become associated with his campaign. But Priebus decided not to.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr