Tomorrow's forecast: doom.

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In Republican Civil War, Dark Forces Reign

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The Republican presidential debate last night revealed a party markedly different from the one that coalesced, however grudgingly, around Mitt Romney in 2012. The fractures are more numerous, and run deeper.

Senator Rand Paul wasn't isolated in calling the U.S. invasion of Iraq a mistake. Donald Trump and Ben Carson -- the party's two leaders in recent national polls -- unambiguously shared his assessment. Trump also repeated his intention to defy the party's most solemn fiscal pledge, calling for a soon-to-be-detailed tax increase on at least some wealthy Americans.

As the divisions between the party's business wing and its anti-government Tea Party wing have grown, the party has acquired a Janus complex, frequently facing two directions at once, sometimes more. (Trump doesn't represent a merger of the faces so much as a Picasso-like deconstruction.) The debate revealed how starkly different the respective views are.

"We're at a crossroads right now," said former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, speaking of his party. "Are we going to take the Reagan approach, the hopeful optimistic approach, the approach that says that, you come to our country legally, you pursue your dreams with a vengeance, you create opportunities for all of us? Or the Donald Trump approach? The approach that says that everything is bad, that everything is coming to an end?"

Bush declared, "I'm on the Reagan side of this."

He was joined in Reagan land, emphatically, by Ohio Governor John Kasich, who politely refused an explicit invitation to attack Hillary Clinton, touted his success "including people in the other party" and expressed his desire that "our people feel fulfilled in living in Western civilization."

Few of the other candidates seemed even to recognize the sunny side of the street where Bush and Kasich reside. They live instead in a world in which alien terrors compete with domestic horrors for daily domination, where the top Democratic candidate for president "believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts," as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said. (So much for "including people in the other party.") 

Senator Ted Cruz called the White House "the world's leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism." Trump portrayed a swarm of illegal aliens and their criminal "gangs all over the place -- Chicago, Baltimore, no matter where you look."

Carly Fiorina said that three quarters of Americans believe their government is "corrupt," a percentage that will doubtless rise if Fiorina has any say. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee raged against the "criminalization" of Christianity in the U.S. and the "exaltation of the faith of everyone else out there who might be a Fort Hood shooter or a detainee at Gitmo."

As awful as life is in the U.S., it only gets worse abroad. No one likes us. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin pushes us around. The international nuclear agreement with Iran is "catastrophic" (Cruz) and threatens "the survival of Western civilization" (Huckabee). "These are extraordinarily dangerous times that we live in," said Florida Senator Marco Rubio. "On the first day in office, our president could very well confront a national security crisis."

The party out of power is entitled, even required, to paint a dire picture of current circumstance. But the dystopia portrayed by Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee, Rubio and others is a world apart from the land where Bush and Kasich dwell. The question is which universe contains more Republican primary voters, and whether Bush or Kasich can pry Republicans away from the dark side and persuade them to give optimism a fleeting chance.

It's a tough sell. Polls show twice as many Americans believe the country is on the wrong track as believe it's on the right track. About 13 percent approve of the job Congress is doing. Median household income in the U.S. is stagnant and still well below its peak. According to a Pew survey in March, 55 percent of Americans say they break even or spend more than they earn each month, and one-third said their household has no savings. Gallup says half of Americans are very or somewhat worried that someone in their family will be a victim of terrorism. 

Many of these negative impulses are even more pronounced among conservatives. That leaves the so-called establishment candidates with a slightly more complex task than their anger-channeling competitors. Bush and Kasich must not only convince Republicans that they are superior candidates with the ability to win. They must convince them that their sunnier visions nonetheless represent an accurate portrait of the world conservative voters see. Trouble is, in many cases they don't.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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