For Once, An Actual GOP Civil War

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, looks on during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Ch... Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, looks on during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt) MORE LESS
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The ‘GOP Civil War!’ line is perhaps the most well-worn cliche of progressive journalism, just as the parallel ‘Democratic Civil War!’ is on the other side of the equation. Yet here, for a moment at least, we seem to have a real one, whether or not it speaks to some deeper cleavage that will transcend the individual personalities in question.

Right now in the GOP primary you have two frontrunners – with the edge going to Donald Trump – who both seem to terrify established party leaders, for a mix of reasons ranging from ideology to electability to behavior and tone. But the crux of it is not who supports who so much as which of these two is worst or which – going a bit further – is not just worst but positively unacceptable as a presidential nominee. A GOP pal of mine says we should call it “The War between the Hates.”

We’ve already seen a number of Senators and party leaders come forward over the last 36 hours and say either that they won’t ever vote for Ted Cruz or that they’d take Donald Trump over Ted Cruz. We’ve rounded up some of the examples here. But notably, no one is saying they’re for Trump. Indeed, they’re almost dumping as much on Trump as on Cruz. It comes down to: Cruz is so bad, I’d even take Trump in his place.

Not exactly high praise.

On the other side of the equation, you’ve got National Review out this morning putting the full force of the magazine against Donald Trump. No way. No how. Never. They’ve pulled together a broad cross section of conservative thinkers, editorialists, barkers, everyone. Notably, again, it’s not an endorsement of Cruz. I’m not sure he’s even mentioned in the special issue of anti-Trump essays. The Editors of the magazine are simply saying that Trump is unacceptable for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is that he’s not a conservative, he may not even be a genuine Republican and he’s just flat out ignorant on policy issue after policy issue.

Looking at the schism a bit more deeply we can see some basic differences in the two factions. The most notable of which is ideological orthodoxy versus electoral impact. Though there are now many other outlets and contenders for the label, National Review is the historical organ of the conservative movement. (And unlike some similar outlets it’s managed over the last couple decades to build a digital platform that is a power in its own right.) And Trump as really not a conservative in much of any sense threatens to upset the whole Movement Conservative apple cart. Even if you take Trump’s current positions at face value, they are not conservative in the sense that Movement Conservatives like to understand them. Beyond that, it’s really not at all clear that this campaign trail Trump really believes anything he’s saying as opposed to the various things he said or endorsed or candidates he contributed to over the years.

For committed conservatives, there is a real and I believe justified fear that Trump could come into office, be hardcore for a year or two and then pull what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in his latter years as governor of California. In other words, shape-shift into a sort of moderate, Bloombergesque sort of Republican. Republicans can tolerate than in New York where nothing better is on offer and perhaps in California too. But not in the White House.

For the Senators and party professionals who are going nuts about Cruz the concern seems quite different. On the one hand, they hate him. And for the best of reasons, they know him, which is usually all it takes. More specifically, his Senate colleagues quickly tired of his show-boating, dishonest tactics, and various efforts that aimed at gaining glory for him with base Republicans while leaving them to clean up his mess.

But politicians are grown ups (in some ways at least). Personal antipathy only gets you so far. The deeper issue is that they believe Cruz is so right-wing and so personally caustic that he would not only lose his own bid for the presidency but lose seats for other Republicans who are either in marginal seats or in generally Democratic parts of the country. This is what makes you a professional Republican: the core desire to win and hold seats. In other words, they more afraid of running with Cruz than Trump. He could throw away many of the majorities at the state and federal level they’ve been building up over the last five years.

There, I think, you have the basic split: on the one hand, ideological purity (or even ideological reality) versus who would damage the party most beyond (presumably) losing his own presidential bid.

Perhaps the most telling passage is this one from Jonathan Martin in the Times. It’s with Charlie Black, one of the ultimate DC GOP political operatives and fixers.

Mr. Cruz is viewed by many Republicans in Washington as stubborn and overweening. They say his record of attacking his Senate colleagues and taking relentlessly hard-line positions shows that he would have difficulty unifying the party.

If Mr. Cruz were the party’s nominee, said Charles R. Black Jr., a lobbyist who has worked on numerous Republican presidential campaigns, “what would happen is a lot of the elected leaders and party elders would try to sit down and try to help Cruz run a better campaign, but he may not listen. Trump is another matter.”

“You can coach Donald,” Mr. Black said. “If he got nominated, he’d be scared to death. That’s the point he would call people in the party and say, ‘I just want to talk to you.’”

It’s part the deal-making model, with a sprinkle of the late Schwarzenegger model.

At the end of the day, a lot of these folks feel like they know Donald Trump, both as a type as well as an individual person. He’s been on the margins or more of their world for decades.

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