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GOP Civil War Is Clinton's to Win

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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If Hillary Clinton wins the election on Nov. 8, as seems likely, and Republicans retain control of at least the House of Representatives, which also seems probable, there will be countless areas of contention between the president and the GOP majority. But there will also be one powerful goal they share: driving the last, bedraggled moderates, and even a few frustrated conservatives, clear out of the Republican Party.  

Donald Trump has done his best to send moderate suburban women fleeing. His campaign vacillates between a general theme of Men Behaving Badly and the more specific genre of Men Behaving Badly Toward Women. His uncanny surrogates Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich remain staples of the cable shows, with Gingrich this week seeking to duck questions about Trump's alleged sexual predations by chastising Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for being obsessed with sex. 

We don't yet know the nature of the war Trump and his campaign chief Steve Bannon intend to wage against the party after November. But the anticipated civil strife will not be a cleanly drawn affair, with Trumpists on one side and sensible conservatives on the other. It will be a battle between pro-Trump reactionaries and anti-Trump reactionaries. The increasingly marginalized GOP professional class, and the neoconservative GOP foreign-policy establishment, will be battling both, seeking to regain lost ground amid a fog of war.

Both Trumpists and anti-Trumpists believe the U.S. faces an existential crisis that requires suspending "business as usual" -- that is, democratic norms and practices -- to empower themselves. The quantifiable distinction is that the anti-Trumpists also want to destroy the welfare state while the Trump faction wants to appropriate it.

Don't expect more than a handful of congressional Republicans -- hello, Senator Lindsey Graham -- to acknowledge the party's responsibility for its presidential fiasco. With the election almost two weeks away, some appear already to have moved beyond it, focusing on new and better ways to make their party a compelling purveyor of lunacy.

It's not just the reckless talk of "impeachment," which conservative media and some Republicans have started even before their target ("Lock her up!") is elected.  

More pressing, it seems, is the need to crush House Speaker Paul Ryan on the grounds that he's insufficiently "conservative" -- a word that has lost all meaning inside the GOP.

In a Bloomberg Politics survey of voters who lean or identify as Republican, 51 percent said Trump better represents their idea of the GOP compared with 33 percent who said Ryan does. One quarter of the party thinks the 70-year-old Trump should be its public face even if he loses.

Perhaps views will shift in the event of a Trump defeat. But as Norman Ornstein detailed in the Atlantic, Ryan's hold on power is precarious. In one of the most remarkable quotes of a remarkable season, a Ryan loyalist, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, told Bloomberg View columnist Al Hunt that perhaps it's time Ryan moved on. “As his friend," Cole said, "it may be best for him to wrap up business and think about his future.” 

Making Ryan walk the plank, as they did with John Boehner before him, might make sense if the party planned to move in a more moderate direction. The opposite is the case. Ryan's ideology demands shrinking Washington to a fraction of its size and cutting aid to tens of millions. Many of his colleagues lack Ryan's eye for detail; they simply want to burn something, anything down.

Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is readying kindling. In the Washington Post this week, the Trump agnostic -- Chaffetz will vote for Trump but won't endorse him, a kind of conservative metaphysics -- promised "years" of investigations into President Hillary Clinton. It's almost as if Chaffetz is unaware that previous years of investigations have led his party to the very threshold of President Hillary Clinton.

Governing is not the GOP's thing; oversight, Chaffetz told the Post, is “where the action is.” Meanwhile, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio said he wants his Select Committee on Benghazi, the eighth congressional committee to investigate the topic, to continue into the next Congress. Why should Chaffetz get all the action?

A Trump failure at the polls may also require new improvisations concerning the Supreme Court. Seeking to regain reactionary mojo lost to Trump, Senator Ted Cruz this week suggested that perhaps deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia shouldn't be replaced at all. Senator John McCain had previously raised the notion of blocking all Clinton court nominees -- as Republicans have blocked Obama's nominee for most of the year -- before McCain backtracked.

The problem, of course, is that Republicans keep losing presidential elections but still want the power over court nominations that the Constitution awards to the winner. Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley has said his Republican colleagues can't stonewall forever. But Grassley is not a courageous man; he will cave if pressure is applied.

To the extent that there is a GOP strategy at work, beyond massive resistance to what America, circa 2016, actually is, it banks on the peculiar unpopularity of Clinton. She is not well liked, and she is even less well trusted. Republicans are hoping to erode her shaky support, and hound and harass her into despair.

But the presidency is a powerful platform. And Clinton, her self-damaging penchant for secrecy aside, is a more skilled politician than many realize. Trump's crusade to alienate a record number of college-educated white women voters seems likely to succeed. A vicious war waged by congressional Republicans against the first woman president may do for women what unscrupulous attacks against the nation's first black president appear to have done for nonwhite voters: moved most of them beyond the GOP's reach.

Republican attacks on a new president will take place while the party's own factions are busy clawing at the broken husk of the GOP. It will likely be an energizing time for the party base, which will want revenge for an election it has been told is rigged. Fox News and Breitbart should be lively.

But many old-school conservatives will be on the outside looking in at the madness. And suburban married women, a Republican constituency, and even some of their college-educated Republican husbands, may find themselves acquiring an unexpected affinity for pantsuits.

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