Stories abound about how this current GOP presidential primary season, with its raucous debates and dominance by a vulgar showman who has little ideological history with conservatism, demonstrates the collapse of the Republican party. Every day it seems another one of these jeremiads appears on blogs, in newspapers, on radio and television, from both insiders and gleeful observers.
Take a deep breath, conservatives. The demise of the Republican party has been greatly exaggerated. Conservatism–meaning fiscal restraint, small government, and respect for social conservative values–is still alive and well and, most importantly, getting the majority of voters’ support in primaries and caucuses so far.
Don’t be fooled by the man behind the curtain — Donald Trump. As has been pointed out on debate stages and elsewhere, Trump has never gotten the majority of GOP voters’ support in the contests so far, even the ones where he won. In fact, he has a particularly hard time dominating closed primaries and caucuses. He lost Kansas and Maine last night, both closed primary states, and came close to losing Louisiana, probably only pushed over the top by early voters who’d not yet experienced the devastating critiques heaped on him by Sen. Marco Rubio. I agree with my colleague Leon Wolf that Rubio has done this country a great service with his repeated attacks on Trump, exposing him as a scam artist by discussing the businessman’s shady deals, and by provoking the small-minded, ego-driven celebrity to figuratively expose himself on national TV. Thank you, Sen. Rubio.
Repeat after me: Donald Trump never was and isn’t now a true Republican. He glommed on to the party the way Bernie Sanders draped himself in the mantle of the Democratic one. He knew that running in a party — any major party would do — is the only path to possible victory, that an independent run would put him in Ross Perot territory – a loser.
Trump has attracted a lot of new and angry voters to open primaries, that is true. But are these voters conservative or just mad? And can they be persuaded to stick with the GOP even if Trump’s not the nominee? On the former question, my answer is a qualified: “just mad.” These are voters frustrated and irritated with promises from both parties to get the economy moving and to make government, no matter its size, work better for them. On the latter question, my answer is an unqualified: “yes.” I do believe that large portions of these voters can be persuaded to vote Republican in the fall, if their anger is channeled into seeing the differences between a Hillary/Bernie approach and one that will change the direction of the country.
As to the rest of the conservative electorate, try this thought experiment: What if Donald Trump had not entered the race? What would it have looked like? My guess is that Jeb Bush would still never have picked up momentum. There was too much “not another Bush” sentiment among GOP voters, and I doubt that Bush’s performance would have improved much, even without Trump jabbing at him. He always had a deer-in-the-headlights look and attitude about him, as if shocked that his qualifications and record weren’t getting more respect.
As for the other candidates, without Trump dominating the news, it’s possible that Gov. Bobby Jindal might have gone farther, that Carly Fiorina might have garnered enough attention to push her up in the polls, that Chris Christie would have dominated more air time by being the so-called straight talker on the stage. But the others? Both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum fell into the “yesterday’s news” category. Even if you agreed with them, you might have seen them as the been-there-done-that crew without any formula for turning losses into wins. And Ben Carson, the man with the good heart and best of intentions, would still have turned in his weak performances at the debates that would have had him on the same trajectory he’s been on so far…and leading to the same conclusion.
If you remove Trump from the picture, you see a completely different scene — a vibrant and vigorous conservative movement pushing the Republican party past its love of Brahmins to a more populist responsiveness. The two candidates dominating the news for the past week have been Tea Party men, elected with the support and help of that new movement. They represent a breath of fresh air in the party.
Without Donald Trump, you see a revitalized, impassioned and vigorous conservative movement, questioning old practices and meaningless bromides, opting instead for action married to conservative thought. I’d venture to say this party is closer to the outlook of a Ronald Reagan than that of a George Bush (either of them). And that’s not a bad thing.
Take off the black mourning armbands. The Republican party is alive and well.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.