Some Trump-obsessed, hysterical nitwits have overstated the case that the Republican Party may be on the verge of self-annihilation. “If Trump were the nominee,” said one, “the GOP would cease to be.”
That quote would be mine. The mood of the moment (not to mention the rhythm of the sentence) was irresistible. But the Republican Party would probably not disintegrate if either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz were its nominee. The reality is both less dramatic and (for those who wish the GOP well) more tragic.
On the whole, the Obama era has been the best time to be a Republican since Herbert Hoover left office. The 2014 election yielded the highest number of GOP House members since 1928, and the second highest number of GOP senators. There are currently 31 Republican governors. The GOP controls 70 percent of state legislatures and enjoys single-party rule in 25 states.
Real Clear Politics election analysts Sean Trende and David Byler have put together an index of party strength, based on performance at federal, state and local levels. By their measure, Republicans are doing their best overall since 1928. “The Republican Party,” they conclude, “is stronger than it has been in most of our readers’ lifetimes.”
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The overwhelming volume of presidential election coverage creates an illusion that only presidential elections matter. But Democratic decline at the state and local levels has radiating effects — influencing the shape of redistricting, emptying the bench of future electoral talent, and helping undermine the implementation of Democratic initiatives such as Obamacare.
Consider: If Republicans had fielded a strong presidential nominee this year, who managed to win a winnable election, the party’s success would have been more comprehensive than any since 1980. The tragedy is not that Republicans are on the verge of self-destruction; it is that they were on the verge of victory, and threw it away.
This singular failure is not a small thing for the GOP. The patient is brimming with health and vigor in every way, except for the missing head. Either of this year’s likely Republican failures would complicate the job of candidates down the ticket and help alienate demographic groups that are essential to future national victories.
At the presidential level, the GOP has two arguments in desperate need of defeat — two ideological fevers that need to break. The first is the tea party claim that ideological purity is the key to presidential success. Republicans, in this view, have lost recent presidential elections because their quisling candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney, could not turn out 4 million “missing” conservative voters.
That number, it actually turns out, is a myth, rooted in the slow reporting of vote totals after the 2012 election. “There’s no magic formula,” says Dan McLaughlin of RedState, “no cavalry of millions of conservatives waiting just over the hill to save the day.” A Custer-like loss by Cruz — who has shown little ability to expand beyond his narrow ideological appeal — would demonstrate this point.
The second fever is less common in the U.S. than in Europe, but it is a particularly vicious strain. This is the claim by right-wing populists that Republicans need to completely reorient their ideology in favor of nativism, protectionism and isolationism in order to appeal to working-class whites. This was the message of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns starting in the 1990s. With Trump, it is back in full force.
The problem? Aside from the fact that protectionism is self-destructive economic policy, and isolationism is disastrous foreign policy, an attempt to pump up the white vote with nativist rhetoric manages to alienate just about everyone else.
Trump has secured his stagnant plurality in GOP primaries by earning record-level disapproval from the rest of America. If Trump were the Republican nominee, winning states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan would require an increase in the white working-class vote so vast that the math is essentially impossible.
This is now the subject of many conversations among Republicans: Is it better to lose with Cruz or to lose with Trump? Both the arguments for tea party purity and for “white lives matter” nativism are in need of discrediting defeat. Unfortunately, they seem to be the two available choices.
Eventually, Republicans will require another option: A reform-oriented conservatism that is responsive to working-class problems while accommodating demographic realities. This is what makes Paul Ryan so attractive as the Hail Mary pass of an open convention. But, more realistically, it will be the work of a headless Republican Party, reconstituting itself in a new Clinton era.
Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.