It’s been over four months since Donald Trump took the lead in national polling for the Republican presidential nomination, and in that time the GOP establishment’s panic over Trump’s popularity has been at a constant simmer with an occasional boil-over. Most people (myself included) wrongly assumed that Trump would spike, say something racist and dumb, and then embark upon his inevitable decline. He did spike, and he did say racist and dumb things, but his lead over the “real” candidates has not been relinquished or appreciably dented. Now we’re just three months out from the Iowa caucuses and the strongest challenger to Trump’s dominance is the retired brain surgeon who can’t make a coherent policy argument and just loves talking about Hitler. And so the panic is rising once again.
As the Washington Post reports this morning, Republican establishment types are starting to freak out a bit over the prospect of Trump or Ben Carson securing the nomination and what that could mean for 2016, not just in terms of the presidential race, but for the downballot races. As often happens in these uncertain times, people grope about for a savior to deliver them from ruin. And who better to ride to the party’s rescue than Willard Mitt Romney?
According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney — despite his insistence that he will not run again. Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest.
This obviously isn’t going to happen, and even if it did happen, we’re still talking about Mitt Romney, the guy who struggled mightily to put down challenges from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum before handily losing the general. The GOP will have to look for its Trump-slayer elsewhere, though I suppose Romney is to be commended for having a close and slavishly devoted circle of friends and advisors committed to keeping Mitt-mentum alive.
The more interesting observation in the piece comes from South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who diagnoses the affliction plaguing the establishment:
“You have a lot of people who were told that if we got a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, then life was gonna be great,” she said in an interview Thursday. “What you’re seeing is that people are angry. Where’s the change? Why aren’t there bills on the president’s desk every day for him to veto? They’re saying, ‘Look, what you said would happen didn’t happen, so we’re going to go with anyone who hasn’t been elected.’ ”
That’s about as succinct and precise a description of the toxic state of Republican politics as you could ask for. As Haley describes it, the conservative voter’s ideal Congress is one that wastes its time crafting legislation designed to be vetoed by the president. That’s the “change” they’re looking for. It has nothing to do with policy or even competent conservative governance – it’s just anger.
Republicans won their majorities by promising to take down Obama because that’s what conservative voters wanted to hear. But they can’t take down Obama because that’s just not how the political system works. And they’re having difficulty even pretending to take on Obama because there are procedural obstacles and other political considerations to take into account. The result is a cascading downward spiral of anger and frustration that allows “outsiders” like Trump and Carson to make the case that they can accomplish what “politicians” have failed to do.
None of it is tethered to anything resembling reality. Donald Trump can’t make good on his promise to deport all the undocumented immigrants, and eliminating “political correctness” won’t fix America’s problems, as Ben Carson maintains it will. But Republicans created the dynamic in which nonsense like this can flourish, and it’s slowly, inexorably growing beyond their control.