It is too soon to conduct a post-mortem on the Republican Party’s establishment wing because there are still remnants to be rooted out. Most notably those in leadership positions on Capitol Hill who spend their days alternating between laying prostrate before liberal Democrats and thinking up talking points to try to explain their profound impotence to Republican voters. It has been like walking a tightrope for them, to be certain. They enjoy the perks of power, but have to appease the Washington political establishment. So they are burdened with the balancing act of looking like they are doing something in order to keep GOP voters sending them back while not actually doing anything to disrupt the liberal Democrat agenda and make them and the media say bad things about them and disinvite them from cocktail parties. In other words, being a de facto liberal while claiming to oppose liberalism.
Donald Trump’s landslide victory in Tuesday’s Indiana primary is a game-changer.
In spite of the importance of his victory – his final rival has tapped out, he is now the presumptive nominee, the GOP establishment has been profoundly rebuked by voters – it is the culmination of 28 years of a steadily building revolution.
Now is an appropriate time to review how we arrived at this point.
While conventional wisdom holds that “Republican voters are conservative”, we all know there are enough exceptions to this rule to make that statement untrue. A more accurate statement is that “conservatives vote Republican”. There are far fewer exceptions when stated that way. It is this truism, the lack of any alternative party for conservatives to support, that has bred the contempt of the GOP for its own voters. Knowing that their base had nowhere else to go, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and the Rockefeller wing of the GOP embarked on a campaign of “me too” style of governance where they chased the approval of liberal media by appeasing Democrats and their constituents in the futile effort to cross the aisle. Wage and price controls, expanding the War on Poverty, ending the Vietnam War, trying to solve actual economic problems with phony jingoistic public relations efforts like the WIN (Whip Inflation Now) button campaign. There was no liberal idea too ineffective for the GOP of the 1970s to refuse. Like Charlie Brown repeatedly trying to kick the football with the assurances of Lucy that she wouldn’t pull the ball away this time, the Republican leadership continued trying to be bipartisan while the Democrats and their leftist constituents only became emboldened and responded with a legislative agenda that moved ever leftward. Larger government, higher taxes, less freedom, more bureaucracy. Seem familiar?
With Washington Democrats rushing to the left in an attempt to see how far they could push the boundaries and the GOP leadership chasing after them trying to compromise at every turn, the spiral into the domestic malaise and foreign policy embarrassments of the late 1970s were the fault of both parties. It was against this backdrop that the Republican base began to mutiny. Ronald Reagan challenged the incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976 and came close to unseating him for the party’s nomination. While that attempt was unsuccessful, it took hitting rock bottom in the Carter administration with stagflation, energy crises, massive unemployment, the Iran hostage humiliation and Carter’s inexplicable banning of U.S. Olympic athletes from participating in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games as America’s protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The last effort a liberal tantrum so ineffective and self-defeating that it defies logic even 36 years later. Like punishing your own kids to protest what the neighbor is doing.
In the 1980 presidential race, Reagan was back and the base was determined that he would be the nominee. The establishment selection was George H.W. Bush. In the primaries, the party establishment mocked Reagan and his supporters mercilessly. He was portrayed as a senile, old-fashioned simpleton who stupidly believed in quaint ideas of American power and exceptionalism that were as outdated as he was. The Yale-educated Bush and his base of political insiders insisted that the Midwestern-raised, Eureka College graduate (the horror!) would further crash the economy with his “voodoo economics” and only make the Soviets angry and that he was too unstable to have his finger on “the button”. But Reagan not only swept to the nomination, but led America to an economic and military resurgence and back from the malaise of liberal Democrat and “me, too” Republican policies of the 1970s. In hindsight, his biggest mistake was being talked into taking on Bush as his running mate. Reagan foolishly went along with the GOP establishment’s insistence that he would be demolished by Carter in the general election without a sensible, serious running mate to offset his crazy conservative ideas in which nobody but the kooky fringe of the party was interested.
After eight spectacular years of Reagan leadership, Bush ran for President as a “compassionate conservative”, promising a sharp departure from the boldness of Reagan and a kinder, gentler Republican party that would reach out to liberal Democrats. Americans were having none of it and polls showed Bush losing to Mike Dukakis. Shortly before the 1988 general election, Bush’s handlers made a strong pivot back and promised voters that Bush’s presidency would be “Reagan’s 3rd term”. Bush said all the right things, promised no new taxes and to continue the agenda that had served America so well for the previous eight years.
It was at this point that our current state of affairs took shape.
In 1988 George H.W. Bush realized that he had to sell himself to voters as a conservative, but immediately began governing as a “moderate”. Which became nothing more than a daily attempt to appease critical liberal Democrats and media who harassed him at every turn. The more he caved on issue after issue in an attempt to be bipartisan, the more they mocked him and demanded additional concessions. There was nothing Bush could not be bullied into doing.
While Reagan and Bush both enjoyed the support of blue-collar workers, this support evaporated as he began pushing the globalist NAFTA. By 1992, Bush had compromised and flip-flopped his way into being challenged in the primary by Pat Buchanan and ultimately lost the general election when a large hunk of disaffected GOP voters cast their ballots for Ross Perot. Add to this the fact that “Reagan Democrats” jumped ship to support the Southern good ol’ boy Bill Clinton, and Bush never had a chance at reelection.
There was profound buyer’s remorse at Clinton’s presidency, though. His first years were marked by Democrat scandals and enough voter disgust that the Republican Party won a historic landslide in 1994 on the strength of the “Contract With America”. A series of promises made by newly elected Republicans. But, once again, GOP voters were frustrated as the GOP establishment proved ineffective, was burdened by scandals of their own and broke the sacred promises they made in the Contract With America. It was another stab in the back to voters. In 1996 a weak and unpopular Clinton was ripe for defeat, but the establishment assured the party that the only way to win was with Washington insider Bob Dole. The results were predictable.
Throughout the George W. Bush presidency the establishment tried everything to play nice with Democrats and only earned derision and the loss of both the House and Senate. As Barack Obama came from nowhere and rode to victory on a tsunami of vague promises, the GOP establishment could only muster a weak John McCain. Who, as every GOP insider does, held as his finest trait his friendship with and tireless efforts to compromise with liberal Democrats. The results were predictable.
For the first two years of the Obama administration Republicans were such a tiny minority that they could do little to stop his agenda. But they promised that they could stop Obama if only voters would give them control of the House of Representatives. In 2010 the Republican base answered, but John Boehner and his establishment cohorts spent their days trying to make friends with Obama and backtracked on their promises, claiming that they didn’t have the power to actually do anything because they didn’t have control of the Senate. After pushing Mitt Romney as the wishy-washy 2012 GOP presidential nominee, with predictable results, the base delivered the U.S. Senate into the hands of Republicans in 2014. Mitch McConnell then joined John Boehner in excuse-making for why they had no power to do anything to stop Obama’s highly unpopular agenda.
This powder keg that blew up the 2016 GOP primaries for the establishment had dual fuses that were lit by John Boehner and his understudy Paul Ryan.
The series of undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood for selling parts of human babies in violation of numerous laws was the first fuse. That Planned Parenthood is funded at all by money forcibly taken from taxpayers’ paychecks is enough of an outrage to most Americans. Especially considering that the dysfunctional and shockingly expensive Obamacare was sold as the solution to every medical need of every American. But to know that their gruesome business was carving up the babies and selling human pieces while collecting hundreds of millions of our tax dollars was shocking and unjustifiable to most Americans. And what was the GOP’s response? A John Boehner shrug. Business as usual. There is nothing that will make the establishment stand up to Democrats. At this point, most Republican voters knew that the party could not be saved in its current form with its current leaders.
In January 2016, the second fuse was lit that assured that Republican voters would blow up the party as it had existed since 1988. Obama and Paul Ryan announced an agreed budget deal. In it, Obama got every penny he demanded and Republicans actually caved and gave him even more than he asked for. Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Dianne Feinstein held press conferences expressing disbelief that Republicans had surrendered everything so easily and so completely. This humiliation was accomplished with large Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans voters properly wondered what the point of Republican leadership could be?
Just as their forebears in the 1970s, the definition of compromise to establishment Republicans and their Democrat counterparts in Washington is liberal Democrats setting the agenda with demands which Republicans are expected to concede most or all in an effort to be bipartisan. Which results in an unending lurch to the left on every issue and, curiously, ever-angrier liberal constituent groups. But it was the dishonesty of the GOP establishment that was hatched in the 1988 Bush presidential campaign that began packing the powder keg with lies, broken promises and naked contempt for their voters.
A love for Donald Trump is not the reason Trump dominated the Indiana primary and will be the nominee. He won, and will be the nominee, because the Republican establishment has stabbed their voters in the back since 1988.