Post South Carolina, Where Does The GOP Stand?

As the Republican primary wraps up in the South Carolina, three candidates have emerged as the strongest contenders for the Republican presidential nomination: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.  Save for Donald Trump, it is the race that analysts had predicted for months, and the one the GOP deserved—a battle between the more centrist, neoconservative Establishment Rubio (though, notably less “Establishment” than candidates from previous elections) and the more Tea Party-oriented Cruz, attempting to cobble together the coalition that led Ronald Reagan to victory in 1980. Donald Trump’s continued presence—and success—is an indelible stain on what would otherwise be a great battle between these two ideologies. It is time that stain be removed.

Make no mistake, Donald Trump will not be overcome by reasoning with the cult of useful idiots who fawn over his empty platitudes, eagerly consume the bigoted views he represents, and fail to make any distinction between saying something that is “politically incorrect” and the thuggish bravado usually limited to third world dictators. Ironically, Trump and his lot are the product of the very Republican Establishment that opposes them. They are the result of a generation of intellectual default by Republican leadership. Right-leaning Americans who watched the wayward drift of their country under the Obama administration looked to the GOP for a forward-looking ideological message only to find themselves empty-handed. Instead, they were met with pragmatism and two failed attempts to win the White House in which the candidates stood for nothing in particular except a vague notion of a government only somewhat less involved in their lives than what the Democrats would want. Is it surprising—four years after Romney and eight since McCain—that when the Establishment employed the word “ideologue” as a slur and treated principle as stubbornness, Republican voters at large were captured by the first thuggish strongman to mirror their anger and vitriol, no matter how hollow his words?

Without a consistent, individualist message from the right, it seems that many Republican voters have reverted to the intellectual shortcut of collectivism: “us versus them.” The seeds of such collectivism have lingered beneath the Republican Party for decades. Republican politicians still defend their policies more often on the basis of appeals to the good of the community, the family, the church, the business, or the “nation” (variously defined) than on the basis of individual rights. Too many still hesitate to openly embrace the rights of the individual as sacred, and political strategists certainly find currency in grouping Americans into more easily mobilized blocs rather than encouraging them to think of themselves as unique individuals who reap the benefits and bear the costs of their respective decisions.

The Establishment used this collectivism to their advantage years ago. They called it the “Southern Strategy,” expanding their “Big Tent” to moderate, Southern Democrats disaffected with the Democrats’ policy toward desegregation. In recent years, those lingering sentiments most frequently manifested themselves in a nativist xenophobia toward Hispanic immigrants. Instead of simply taking a stand on the issue, the Establishment chose to sidestep it, preferring an easy path to reelection over effecting true change. They deluded themselves into thinking that reform could happen in backrooms and through “Gangs of Eight” rather than where it must take place: in the minds of the American people. By neglecting this cultural battle, they have lost it—at least temporarily. The damage they have done cannot be undone in the next few weeks, as would be necessary to draw supporters away from the demagogue now exploiting and exacerbating the intellectual injury.

But the Republican Party is not without hope. While it cannot convince those whose minds are closed to reason, with sharp strategizing and a resolute focus on “the big picture” they can still overcome the mindless masses they have spawned. To do that, the field must narrow and coalitions must form.

Right now, a significant portion of the Republican electorate is locked up in lower-polling candidates—namely, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich. These candidates need to spend this weekend taking an honest look in the mirror and asking which path forward will be best for themselves and the values they seek to promote.

While Dr. Carson has run an admirable campaign and introduced fresh ideas into the race, he will not be the nominee. As is often the case in presidential primaries, Dr. Carson’s support peaked in October and November of last year but tumbled quickly following the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. His foreign policy credentials were probed, and voters found them to be wanting.  His poll numbers fell, and the Iowa Caucuses—where he had once led—bruised him with a fourth-place finish. South Carolina has just handed him a sixth-place finish. His campaign for the presidency is, for all intents and purposes, done. It is up to him to pull the plug, but his most recent speech yesterday evening indicates that he has no intent to do so.

Jeb Bush has always embodied the kind of Establishment pragmatism that has placed the GOP into its current predicament. His support for extensive government intervention in education was fatal from the outset, and his own awkwardness and timidity early in the race caused him to quickly cede ground to Rubio, his former protégé in the Florida Legislature. However irrational it may be to judge a candidate by the record of his family members, Bush’s last name (which his campaign conspicuously tried to avoid throughout the race) has burdened rather than bolstered his support. This is due in no small part to the fact that the Republican Party has, since the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, become more weary of the sorts of altruistic, foreign entanglements to which his brother’s presidency is forever tied. Revealing the wisdom of a veteran politician who knows when to fold and how to keep the respect of his party, Bush chose wisely after last night’s results to drop out of the race, giving candidates like Cruz and Rubio and opportunity to pick up his donors and voters. Hopefully his gracious departure will be recognized and appreciated in the future by a GOP in desperate need of a narrower field.

If conventional wisdom holds true—no guarantee in itself—then hopefully Trump’s support will plateau at its current levels, having already gained all the voters that would ever vote for him and alienating the rest. He is a sufficiently polarizing figure to believe that at this point most Americans are either Trump lovers or will never be. Though Bush’s voters alone would not have pushed either Cruz or Rubio over Trump in South Carolina, both stand to benefit in later, more purple states—the first of which will be Nevada in a few days. Nevada will be the first test case to indicate which way Bush’s supporters will break. If ideological similarity is any indication, then Marco Rubio should benefit greatly.

Lastly, there is John Kasich. One hesitates to sully even the most deeply entrenched Establishment Republicans by equating them with him. Kasich instead occupies that strange left fringe of the Republican Party occupied by Jon Huntsman in 2012. Whereas the lessons of the past two campaigns have pushed candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio toward distinguishing themselves on principle from the Democrats, Kasich has sprinted headlong in the other direction toward altruism, moral capitulation, and socialism. In expanding Obamacare in Ohio, advocating further shackles on the financial industry undergirding our economy, defending FDR’s socialist New Deal program the Works Progress Administration (!), and invoking religion to justify socialist welfare redistribution schemes, Kasich could more easily pass for a moderate Democrat than a Republican. He has cast his fellow Republicans who stand for capitalistic and absolute property rights as being engaged in a “war on the poor.” He has supported increasing the use of coercively obtained federal taxes for government schools. And his two favorite accomplishments are either a farce or a simple numerical trick—the first being a balanced state budget, which was constitutionally mandated in Ohio, and the second being that his Obamacare expansion costs “less than expected,” despite the fact that it still costs taxpayers billions in additional debt through the federal subsidies that he is using the pay for the program. Such reckless, debt-financed spending does not make one fiscally responsible. Indeed, it makes one just as irresponsible as the president who created the program.

Even on issues where capitalists and conservatives diverge, Kasich’s record has been mixed, at best. While he supports the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn discriminatory bans on gay marriage, his stance on abortion and even minor drug offenses is unnecessarily restrictive.

But on those central touchstones of right-wing politics—on property rights, on the free market, on finance, on socialist redistribution schemes, on fiscal soundness—Kasich has failed. The failure has not been on minor technicalities in obscure, relatively unimportant political issues. The failure has been open and flagrant on some of the most critical policy issues of the twenty-first century.

Fortunately, the Republican Party as a whole is generally to the right of John Kasich, and his low name recognition has proven to be a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Though Kasich may win his home state of Ohio (which the most recent poll from October of last year suggests is far from a certainty), Kasich stands to accomplish nothing but spoil the two viable candidates. Even should he keep enough votes out of the hands of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio to force a brokered convention, no one should reasonably expect him to gain anything from it. A candidate who only wins a handful of states and expanded Obamacare will hardly fare well in a convention full of Republicans trying to find a candidate who satisfies their base and will produce electoral victory in November.

Should Kasich decide to stay in the race much longer, his presence only serves to benefit Trump (unless, of course, Trump’s shared support of socialist healthcare schemes earns him the support of Kasich’s voters). A second-place finish in New Hampshire is not enough to justify his continued presence, especially when one considers that his campaign spent six times more in order to earn a second place finish than it had left in the bank after the primary. His continued presence wastes both the money of his donors and the time of Republican voters. If he truly wishes to have an impact on this campaign beyond facilitating Trump’s campaign and pushing America’s political culture further leftward, the prudent course would be to withdraw and endorse one of the viable candidates (most likely Rubio).

At this point, only four percent of all Republican delegates have been allocated. Ninety-six percent of the delegates remain up for grabs. The race is far from over. But with Trump pulling roughly thirty-five percent of the vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina and twenty-four percent in Iowa, the need to consolidate support against Trump is apparent. Jeb Bush, at least, has recognized this. He realized that to continue in a fruitless campaign would serve to frustrate rather than forward his self-interests and those of his supporters. To continue a campaign under such circumstances would be sacrificial in the worst sense. It is time for the remaining candidates in the lower half of the polls to seriously weigh their options and consider what is in the best interests of the United States come November. The choice is clear.

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