Which way for GOP?

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Newmakers

Debate: Where the Republicans Are Headed

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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The Republican presidential race appears to be between front-runner Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the second-place vote-getter so far. What does this mean for the GOP, both in the short term and the future? Bloomberg columnists Francis Wilkinson and Ramesh Ponnuru try to figure it out.  

Wilkinson: I don't see why a Trump nomination should necessarily shatter the party (though it could). I don't think a Cruz nomination would be nearly so disruptive.

The Trump phenomenon does highlight two profound vulnerabilities in the GOP, however: its demographics and its relentless distribution of gains to the very top, both of which are unsustainable and both of which exist without him.

Trump exacerbates the first problem -- his alienation of Hispanic voters could have awful effects if it's not reversed -- while potentially moving the party to deal with the second.

As a card-carrying reformicon, are you ever so slightly encouraged that his candidacy might finally reorient party elites away from donor maintenance and toward policies that bolster the middle and working classes? It seems to me that parties can turn pretty sharply when their backs are against the wall. And policies that benefit the middle could have the ancillary benefit of opening the GOP's path to demographic expansion as well.

Ponnuru: You are asking me to look beyond November when I cannot quite see my way to the summer convention yet.

The questions you raise about Hispanic voters and about Republican economic priorities are important ones. But I think that when people think about Republicans’ “shattering,” they have in mind a massive defeat this November, and one that, by exacerbating internal divisions, leaves the party ill-equipped to recover. A Trump nomination could well have this effect.

Even if Trump loses big, his supporters might blame that loss on the treachery of Republican “elites,” a group that will be redefined to include all Republicans who oppose him. I agree that a Cruz nomination would be much less likely to divide the party in this way.

I agree, as well, that Republicans should champion economic priorities other than tax cuts geared toward high earners. They also need to find a new approach to immigration. In my view that should involve reducing total immigration levels, or at least not increasing them; granting legal status to illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions; and making that legalization contingent on the achievement of control over illegal immigration.

But I thought a new approach to Republican economics was clearly indicated after the 2012 elections, when exit polls showed that President Obama beat Mitt Romney on the question of whose policies would help the middle class. Republican officialdom generally didn’t agree, judging by their actions. And while I think the public at large would find the immigration policy I just outlined reasonable, it is not clear that any sizable Republican constituency with an interest in the question would want it. The Republicans who oppose increased immigration levels also tend to be dead-set against legalization under any conditions.

So as kind as you are to suggest that I have reason to be slightly encouraged, at the moment I don’t see it.

Wilkinson: Well, I'm trying to make myself feel better, too. As long as we're going to have a two-party system, I prefer two functional parties capable of governing -- just in case.

If Trump is the nominee -- and it's getting hard to imagine he will be denied -- I find it unlikely that he will pick up enough Democratic votes to compensate for his losses among Republicans and independents. Hillary Clinton will not feel compelled to treat his gibberish as respectfully as Republicans do, since she has no need for his voters, or even the capacity to attract them.

I am not blind to Trump's obvious demagogic talent. The man has a special sort of ugly. But I think the general election will be a difficult and probably humiliating experience for him. I just don't believe American political culture is sufficiently debilitated to permit the election of such an obvious fraud.

This said, I suspect that far from dropping him like a rock, as Mitch McConnell suggested, many GOP office-holders will paper over their differences with him as the path of least resistance (always the first option in politics, no?). They can always trash him after November to reclaim their dignity.

There has been speculation for years now that the GOP would only reorient itself toward the center after nominating a hard-right conservative and then watching the electorate reject such a nominee. More mainstream and moderate Republicans would then be able to say, "See, we told you so," and begin pushing the party back to the center. I confess it sounded plausible to me.

But even if Trump is nominated and crashes, he robs moderate Republicans of that argument. The right wing will still be able to say, "If only we had nominated a true conservative . . . ." 

It might be the worst possible outcome: The party crashes yet the central conflicts remain unresolved. What, though, if Cruz sneaks through to claim the nomination?

Ponnuru: I think that Republicans would have a higher chance of winning in November with Cruz than with Trump, but with a lower variance in outcomes -- because Trump is, of course, a bit of a wild card.

In part that’s because Cruz would have significantly more support from Republican voters and officeholders than Trump would. Some Republican politicians would worry that Cruz was leading them to defeat: They have been warning as much for a long time. But those politicians would not feel a great need to distance themselves from him, any more than congressional Republicans felt they had to take explicit steps to separate themselves from Bob Dole in 1996 even though they knew he would lose.

If Clinton has a large lead over Trump, and especially if she builds one early, they will be much more likely to abandon him. And, as I said earlier, the recriminations would be correspondingly more bitter after a Trump defeat than after a Cruz defeat.

This is all speculation (informed speculation, I think!) about the future. But it’s impossible to speak confidently about electability even in the past. If Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum had been nominated in 2012 and lost, would conservatives have concluded that they had gone too far right and decided to moderate? Or would they have attributed the defeat to the candidate’s idiosyncrasies, and vowed that next time they would nominate a more likable version of one of them?

Or think back to that Republican “autopsy” in 2013. Even after the relatively moderate Mitt Romney lost, some influential Republicans thought that the lesson of his loss was that the party needed to move to the center -- by which they meant, make a deal on immigration and downplay social issues, but stick with the party’s existing economic message. I thought that this advice was mistaken at the time and said so, but it wasn’t crazy.

Both the party elite and conservative activists (for lack of better terms) have a tendency, in other words, to assume that election defeats mean the party should do what they already would prefer it do. In the case of the elite, this means moving away from stances that make them uncomfortable; in the case of the activists, becoming more purely conservative. The inability to observe counterfactuals makes it hard for parties to resolve these debates.

But as long as we’re speculating, let me ask you a question: Can you see a plausible scenario where Democrats lose the White House this fall?

Wilkinson: Can I imagine trouble for a relatively unpopular Democratic nominee who's saddled with dynastic baggage, nettlesome investigations and a cohort of impassioned enemies who have been trying to destroy her for more than two decades? Why, yes, I believe I can!

My operating assumptions are as follows:

  1. Clinton defeats Bernie Sanders and generally manages to consolidate/incorporate his vote.
  1. No criminal charges result from the e-mail/server controversy stemming from Clinton's tenure as secretary of State.
  1. No especially damning government report/evidence is issued condemning her actions related to that controversy.
  1. No deadly terrorist attack consisting of a) radical Islamic attackers or b) an incursion over the Mexican border or c) both (!) occurs before Election Day.

None of those outcomes is guaranteed. And if any of those assumptions proves incorrect, then the real fun hasn't even begun. Absent something of that nature, however, I don't think Trump can defeat Clinton, and I think Cruz would be very unlikely to.

Speaking of which, how would a Cruz nomination influence the GOP?

Ponnuru: A year ago, I would have said that Cruz's election to the presidency would be a revolution in the Republican Party. But Trump has put that prospect in a different light.

A Cruz presidency would accelerate pre-existing trends: The Republican Party would become still more ideologically cohesive. A Trump presidency, on the other hand, would be a rupture, and the party's definition would be up for grabs.

Would it remain oriented, even in the imperfect way it has been, toward free markets and limited government? Would it make an ideology of its sociology? Or would it just become an adjunct of Trump's personality? I don't know the answer, and I would rather not find out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net