Prospects of a 2016 GOP Crackup

As they say down south, it’s time to throw the dead cat on the table.  The 2016 presidential election is about a year off.  As of now, all sides on the right side of the nation’s political divide can agree on one thing: the GOP is a fractured affair.  Is a GOP crackup in the offing?  A crackup similar to what the party experienced in 1964?  Is Trump going to play Goldwater to the establishment’s Rockefeller?  Or will Rocky’s incarnation prevail this time?

What happens to the GOP, if after a long, contentious elections process, Republicans fail to produce a nominee?  What if Republicans produce a brokered convention, instead?  Given that no Republican now (that includes Trump) commands anywhere near majorities in state polls, a brokered convention should be on the radar.  It would be the first time for Republicans since 1940.  Then, Wendell Willkie, a New Deal Lite dark horse, was picked by delegates as the party’s nominee.  The popular Thomas Dewey, the crime-busting Manhattan D.A., drew the short straw.  Willkie was trounced by FDR, who secured an historic third term. 

If there’s a brokered GOP convention in 2016, will the candidate selected be a “consensus” nominee?  That is, acceptable to the party’s principal factions (the grassroots and establishment)?  History suggests that a brokered convention isn’t inclined to go for Trump or Cruz.  A convention-picked nominee is more certainly a moderate or centrist.  Does the name Marco Rubio ring a bell?  Maybe Kasich?  Not Jeb!, who’s damaged goods.  Could Carson serve as a compromise candidate?  Would Rubio or Kasich be a deal breaker for the grassroots?

The road ahead for the GOP is fraught with perils.  The breach between the Republican establishment and grassroots is greater than 1976.  1976, when Ronald Reagan came within a whisker of denying President Gerald Ford the GOP nomination.  Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in an election that closed only in the final days. 

But there’s no Reagan around today.  Reagan, every bit the savvy pol, papered over differences with Ford, sufficiently to give the appearance of unity.  There were no Republican Congresses (Houses, at minimum) then that had so failed the very voters who gave the GOP its majorities.  There was no leftist president, Barack Obama, who acted to not just expand government, but transform society, doing so with little resistance from establishment Republicans.  There’s a train of abuses that the grassroots have suffered in recent years that makes rapprochement difficult to conceive.    

We read last week of rumors of war.  The GOP establishment talks of swapping neatly tailored blue suits for war paint and loincloths.  The weapon: Super PAC attacks.  The aim: stopping Trump from securing the GOP presidential nomination, provided Trump gets on a roll, which in a crowded field is problematic.  The establishment’s ire is sure to be directed at Ted Cruz, too, if Cruz rises in the polls.  Cruz, who, having enough of cave-ins to Obama, fired off devastating broadsides at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his lieutenants.

Short of the establishment war-making on grassroots’ favorites, the hope persists among establishmentarians that somehow the “Romney Strategy” will work again.  The strategy goes that the conservative vote is fragmented.  The establishment’s choice wins pluralities in early state contests.  The field winnows.  The establishment candidate picks up momentum in the closing contests, given he’s considered inevitable.  (Washington’s GOP consultants are repackaging Romney’s approach as “political lanes” because concocting new ways to say old things is good for business.)

Why the Romney Strategy isn’t working this time is that there’s no moderate consensus choice.  Jeb! has disappointed.  Rubio and Kasich, principally, are competing with Jeb! for the same voters.  Romney had a clear shot at the establishment vote in 2012.  Then there’s Trump, who’s been a phenomenon with staying power.  Trump heading for a collapse seems vain, a vanity which even establishmentarians and rank and file GOP voters have begun to shed.  Trump’s numbers are dipping in Iowa -- political day-traders make much of the daily ups and downs -- but Trump’s trend is what counts.  Nothing indicates that Trump is sinking.

Recent polling claims that majorities of Republicans believe Trump or Carson could win the presidency.  Note that 7 out of 10 voters who believe Trump can win a general election, and 6 out of 10 who say Carson can, reflect the grassroots (let’s peg it at 70% based on Romney winning 30% or so of the vote in the early 2012 nominating contests).  That leaves a third of the base - establishment voters unpersuaded about Trump or Carson.  And what about the GOP’s elite, who can choose to sit on their hands or -- worse -- “make war” should Trump win the nomination? 

Parties typically win elections when unified (however uneasily).  Trump could draw new voter segments to his candidacy in the 2016 General Election and rally long-disaffected voters (the nation’s white working class, for instance) who’d more than compensate for drop-offs in establishment voter support.  In fact, finding more voters in critical swing states is a must, in any event.  But a candidate who keeps his base largely intact makes the work of winning less daunting. 

Conversely, an establishment candidate is a nonstarter among the grassroots.  The argument -- clichéd, though understandable -- is that Hillary hatred will motivate grassroots voters past whatever grudges they hold for establishment Republicans.  This reasoning doesn’t permit for the intensity of resentment that the grassroots has for the establishment.  It may be greater than the antipathy for Hillary. 

A word about the Clintons.  Grassroots revulsion with Bill was very much motivated by his shady ethics and law-breaking more than his policies.  Hillary is no less ethically-challenged.  She leans more left than her husband, though the suspicion (nay, conviction) on the left is that Hillary is as much about taking care of Number One and lining her pockets as is Bill.  Hillary ain’t really down for the revolution. 

A Hillary presidency would indeed produce bad picks for the Supreme Court and there’d be left-tilting policies (the context has shifted from Bill’s 1990s), though the left has it right: Hillary’s less ideologically driven and more about calculating her advantages.  Nonetheless, President Hillary and First Gentleman Bill (an oxymoron if there ever were one) would be bad news for the nation. 

A critical question: “Can differences and festering distrust between the GOP establishment and grassroots be overcome long enough to defeat Hillary and the Democrats next November?”  If the grassroots gets its Goldwater, will the Republican establishment take its marbles and go home -- or worse, fifth-column the party’s nominee?  Or if the establishment gets its Rockefeller, will Hillary’s nomination be sufficient for the grassroots to hold its nose and vote for the establishment’s choice?  Or will the grassroots take a walk? 

The future is unknowable, of course, and events can transpire in ways that render better outcomes than seem likely now.  But the sober-minded wonder: Is something similar to 1964 about to happen again?