The Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary are only a few weeks away; and it is likely that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump will win those first two primary states. This is not altogether surprising, and will not guarantee either of those candidates the nomination, but it will make the road to the nomination much tougher for the rest of the field. It is worth noting that the last time the GOP nominated somebody who did not win either of those two critical early states was 1964, when presidential nominations were a very different process than they are today. Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump, while not at all sure things, must be considered strong candidates for their party’s nomination.
This is a frightening thought for many on the left who view Senator Cruz as a bitter religious fanatic, and Mr. Trump as a slightly unhinged nativist. Others in the Democratic Party are anticipating Hillary Clinton winning a resounding general election victory against either of the two GOP frontrunners. In recent weeks, however, the Republican establishment has grown increasingly concerned about what might happen if either of these two are nominated. David Brooks, the lead scold of the GOP, has expressed concern about Ted Cruz’s “ugly” world.” Alex Castellanos, an oft-quoted Republican strategist has argued, “Mr. Cruz would not only cost us the general, he would cost the GOP the future. Trump is not a Republican and he is not a conservative.” Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, deemed a Trump victory “the worst outcome for the (Republican) party.”
In all of these comments, two sets of concerns emerge around the candidacies of Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz. The first is that they would lose badly to Ms. Clinton, or lose by perhaps a smaller margin to Bernie Sanders, and would, in general, lead the GOP to a poor showing in 2016. The second is the concern that both of these candidates would repel the very voters—young people, Latinos, independent women—the Republicans need to remain competitive in the face of the demographic evolution of the U.S.
The question of electability should be on the minds of the GOP leadership, whatever that means in 2016, as the party must avoid losing its third straight presidential election for the first time in well over half a century. In this regard, it is easy to see Ted Cruz leading the GOP to a Goldwater-like debacle. Like Goldwater, Mr. Cruz is an uncompromising conservative who lacks the genial political skill of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Moreover, Mr. Cruz’s deeply Christian infused conservatism, something which Senator Goldwater did not share, could pose another disadvantage in a general election.
Mr. Trump has a very different political profile than Mr. Cruz, departing from conservative orthodoxy on issues involving foreign, and even economic policy. Moreover, Mr. Trump rarely mentions religion and does not have roots in the fundamentalist Christian community. Nonetheless, many in the GOP believe that he would be an erratic general election candidate who would have a difficult time reaching swing voters.
Determining who is, or is not, electable is not as easy as it seems. As late as 1979, many Democrats were hoping the Republicans would nominate former California Governor Ronald Reagan.
There is another side, however, to both these arguments. First, it should be remembered that the establishment Republican candidates who sought the White House in both 2008 and 2012 lost in elections that turned out not to be very close. It is easy to see how nominating Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Chris Christie could lead to a similar outcome for the Republicans this November. Moreover, determining who is, or is not, electable is not as easy as it seems. As late as 1979, many Democrats were hoping the Republicans would nominate former California Governor Ronald Reagan who they believed was simply too far right to get elected. More recently, in mid-2007, many Republicans viewed Barack Obama, due to his name and background to be unelectable. Mr. Trump, for example, could implode and lose badly to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but he also has a much better chance of expanding the GOP electorate than Mr. Christie, Mr. Bush or Mr. Rubio would.
The concerns raised about the tone set by Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump, and the view that they have introduced ugliness and intolerance into politics is a different story, and one deserving scrutiny. Given the actions and image of the GOP over the last eight years or so, these statements by the GOP establishment can be likened to a person who litters his house with old newspapers, dried leaves and kindling, sprinkles it with lighter fluid, invites a bunch of smokers over and then blames the guy who accidentally drops a lit match when the house goes up in flames.
The Republican establishment encouraged, or at least enabled, the vitriol and bizarre claims that have now helped catapult Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz to the top of the polls. This is the same establishment who very rarely spoke out against birthers claiming President Obama was not a U.S. citizens, allowed, perhaps even facilitated the discussions of death panels, and comparisons between Mr. Obama and Hitler that were common in the Tea Party movement. Moreover, when posters were brandished comparing our African American President to a monkey, or other obscene forms of racism, little was heard from this GOP establishment. Given all that, can anybody be surprised that these sentiments are now being exploited by GOP presidential aspirants.
The GOP establishments supposed outrage at Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz, are the crocodile tears of a leadership who didn’t say anything for too long and is now being driven by guilt at what they have wrought, and a lingering fear that what remains of the American political center is a bit too tolerant, cautious and calm to be drawn to that kind of politics.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.