Last weekend, I joked that Jeb Bush achieved half his goal of “losing the primary” to “win the general” election. Actually, what he said is that the Republican Party needs to nominate someone who can “lose the primary to win the general election without violating [his] principles.” At face value this statement is just plain silly because, as Jeb acknowledged by suspending his campaign, when you lose the primary you don’t get to compete in the general. But underneath his contorted logic, Bush was articulating the core Republican dilemma: how can a traditional conservative win the party’s nomination without succumbing to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racially insensitive sentiment prevalent among the party base and avoid setting himself up for failure with a diverse general electorate? Jeb discovered the hard way that he can’t.
And he wasn’t alone. For months, Republican elites have been at a loss to figure out how to counter Donald Trump’s appeal to the Republican rank-and-file. Waiting for him to fade under the weight of his political inexperience has proved futile. Painting him as a liberal hasn’t worked because Trump’s appeal is not ideological. Money, normally the can’t-fail political resource of choice, has proved ineffectual. No one threw more money at the problem than Bush.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who in her state’s primary put her full weight behind Marco Rubio’s successful quest to become first-among-also-rans, diagnosed the problem last fall:
“You have a lot of people who were told that if we got a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, then life was gonna be great,” she said in an interview Thursday. “What you’re seeing is that people are angry. Where’s the change? Why aren’t there bills on the president’s desk every day for him to veto? They’re saying, ‘Look, what you said would happen didn’t happen, so we’re going to go with anyone who hasn’t been elected.’ ”
This sense of betrayal is understandable, considering the same party leaders desperate to stop Trump have been content to reap the turnout benefits of economic, racial and cultural anxieties stoked in conservative media. In 2010 and 2014, fear of economic dislocation and rapid social change was the backdrop to elections that landed Republicans in charge of the House and Senate and in complete control of half the state governments, which in turn made possible the aggressive drawing of legislative districts designed to lock in their gains. Thus we have the multifaceted Republican dilemma: party leaders need their voters to be motivated, just not motivated against them.
But after being promised – disingenuously – that Republicans would roll back the changes of the past seven years as though the Obama presidency had never happened, who can be surprised that in 2016 those voters might feel a bit used? A significant portion of the Republican base has been primed to be receptive to a candidate like Donald Trump who speaks the language of talk radio and promises to reverse not just the policies of the Obama administration but the changes in cultural values that made them possible. This is what his supporters hear when he promises to make America great again. It is inconsequential to them that he cannot change the country through force of personality any more than Tea Party candidates could change it though legislative obstruction. But it is of paramount concern to former candidates like Bush, who chose to walk softly only to be clobbered by Trump’s big stick and, in so doing, illustrated the existential crisis facing the party’s traditional elites. They owe their share of national power to the anger and anxiety of base voters, but cannot afford for those same voters to make Trump the face of the party to a diverse general electorate. With Trump’s resounding victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, facing a possible Trump sweep on Super Tuesday, establishment conservatives may have little choice but to accept the contradiction in Bush’s riddle: how can a party win a national election when it is being strangled by its base?