GOP's epic trainwreck: Jeb Bush flails and Donald Trump ascends as the party goes further off the rails

As Jeb! drops into third place, Trump gains strength from the disdain of the media and Republican elites

Published July 30, 2015 8:55PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Dominick Reuter/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Dominick Reuter/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

The news keeps getting worse for the Republican Party. Despite its “deep bench” for 2016, Donald Trump continues to dominate in early polling. Yes, that word “early” is important, but this is getting to be humiliating for the GOP – and especially for Jeb Bush.

Not only has Trump led Bush in several national polls, he’s now leading in his home state of Florida, an electoral vote treasure trove that was crucial to Bush’s “story” – that he was the guy who could compete with Hillary Clinton nationally. Trump is also ahead of Bush in recent New Hampshire polls, and catching up to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in Iowa.

Maybe most alarmingly for the guy whose passionless and entitled candidacy rested solely on his perceived electability, Jeb! dropped into third place in the latest Quinnipiac poll released Thursday morning, behind Walker.

Republicans like to console themselves by pointing to 2012, when most of the mediocre GOP candidates took a turn running first in the polls. But Donald Trump isn't Herman Cain.

I’ll admit Trump’s rise, and his persistent lead in the polls, surprises me a little. But it shouldn’t. All the things people think ought to damage him – his attacks on illegal Mexican immigrants and John McCain; his attorney’s claim that marital rape isn’t rape; ugly comments about a breastfeeding attorney – aren’t going to matter to the GOP base. They don’t like immigrants, McCain, feminist talk about “marital rape” or uppity breastfeeding career women.

I suggested Tuesday that Trump might be hurt by attorney Michael Cohen’s bizarre attack on the Daily Beast journalists who unearthed a 1989 Ivana Trump deposition accusing her husband of rape, as well as by his claim that there’s no such crime as marital rape. Indeed, Cohen quickly apologized and Trump moved to distance himself from his close associate and regular campaign surrogate. There was no such reaction to outrage over his comments about McCain or Mexican immigrants. So Trump recognized that he couldn’t brazen through a claim that marital rape doesn’t exist (the attack on journalists wasn’t as big a deal.)

Meanwhile Jeb, the man who was running to save his party from scary guys like Trump, is fading. But maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, either. It took Bush two weeks to condemn Trump’s remarks about Mexicans who come to this country illegally. He quickly denounced his attacks on John McCain, but he’s been otherwise silent about the threat Trump’s right-wing populism poses to his party and the country. Jeb was supposed to be the guy who was willing “to lose the primary to win the general,” but he hasn’t had the courage, or even the apparent impulse, to go after Trump.

Trump aside, Bush's campaign has struggled through one self-created mess after another. With attacks on the minimum wage, Social Security and Medicare, the Bush family scion is making Mitt Romney look like a working class hero.

Yes, as I’ve written before, Bush could still be the beneficiary of Trump’s current dominance, as other GOP candidates struggle to get attention. (Nobody but Trump, Walker and Bush topped 6 percent in this latest Q poll.) He’s got a ton of cash, and the support of GOP elites.  But he’s being humiliated by Trump daily.

There are only so many ways to say the GOP made this mess. Party leaders have courted and advanced the Sarah Palins and Donald Trumps of the world. They’ve tolerated and even encouraged anti-Obama birtherism and the ugliest sorts of nativism.  They’ve let the wingnuts hold the debt ceiling hostage and shut down the government. And they’ve accepted their status as a 90 percent white party without doing anything to begin to compete for the votes of African Americans, Latinos or Asians.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the guy who called illegal immigrants “rapists” and “criminals” is leading the field– two thirds of GOP voters in the latest CNN poll said they support the mass deportation of the 11 million immigrants who are here illegally.

The Republican Party is like an old, ramshackle house long neglected by its owners. A crazy squatter moved in, and now they can’t get him out. For now, anyway, it’s Trump’s house.

By Joan Walsh