The blood is in the water. The game is afoot. And the Republicans are brawling.
Though Democrats are usually viewed as the undisciplined, fractious party, it is Republicans who sharpen their knives and slice one another up when the White House is at stake.
The struggle is between two groups within the GOP.
The establishment finally recognizes that the party must broaden its base. If the party appeals only to white Christian conservatives, it will wind up as a regional party, capable of winning Senate and House seats but incapable of winning a national election.
“We must nominate a presidential candidate who can reach across racial, religious, cultural and ideological lines,” the establishment says, “so the moderate middle is the place to be.”
The far right of the party, especially the religious right, hears this and goes crazy. It says, “We keep nominating moderates, and we keep losing! We nominate John McCain, and we lose. We nominate Mitt Romney, and we lose.”
“It is time to wake up and coalesce around a true Christian conservative who is unafraid to endorse Christian values and talk about God and Jesus Christ,” it says. “This is where America is, and it is where the Republican Party needs to be.”
The establishment has almost always won this fight, by the way. The religious right of the Republican Party has not gotten the nominee it has wanted since Ronald Reagan (who wasn’t religious personally).
“But this time could be different,” the right says. “Hillary Clinton is going to be very vulnerable in the general election. Voters have had eight years of a Democratic presidency, and they are weary to the bone. So this is the perfect time to pick a true conservative, a true Christian conservative, who will take this country back. This is no time to be muddling around in the middle, searching for moderate voters who will never vote Republican anyway.”
So the knives have come out.
As Trip Gabriel wrote in The New York Times on March 25, “fearing that Republicans will ultimately nominate an establishment presidential candidate like Jeb Bush, leaders of the nation’s Christian right have mounted an ambitious effort to coalesce their support behind a single social-conservative contender months before the first primary votes are cast.”
So when Sen. Ted Cruz, a right-wing, Christian conservative, announced for the presidency March 23 (at a Christian university founded by Jerry Falwell, no less), the establishment instantly fought back.
The establishment isn’t called that for nothing. It is established. And the word went out on Cruz: bright, articulate but without any record of accomplishment. A loser, in other words.
Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News Channel: “Cruz talks about ‘you have to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk. You have to have done something.’ But that’s not his record in the Senate.”
And The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is as Republican establishment as you can get, recoiled in horror at the idea of Cruz as the nominee and dismissed him as another — you are reading this right — Barack Obama.
“Can a smart, articulate, 40-something first term Senator trained in constitutional law, who disdains his colleagues and lacks executive experience, make the leap to the White House?” the editorial began. “President Obama proved it was possible in 2008, and now Ted Cruz will try to show that a Republican can do it too.”‘
But though Obama got to the White House, the editorial strongly suggested that Cruz will not. And that’s because the religious right is hopelessly wrong in its assessment of what it takes to win a presidential election in this country.
The editorial said that it is hopeless for a Republican to depend solely on the Republican base to win in 2016 and that a Republican nominee must reach beyond the base, be inclusive and appeal to minorities and the “working class.”
(I grant you that it is an open question as to how closely connected the editorial writers of The Wall Street Journal are to the American “working class.”)
Cruz’s “hard-edged message against immigration” may help him in the Republican primaries, the editorial said, but “it is a dream come true for Hillary Clinton. … Cruz’s challenge will be showing that his polarizing style is a better bet than the conservative governing success that many of the others (in the GOP presidential field) have already had.”
The religious right, however, does not care about sniffy editorials. This time, it believes, the party will finally wake up and smell the blood.
“Conservatives smell blood in the water,” Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, told The New York Times. “They feel they’ve got the best shot to deny the establishment a place.”
Those in the establishment, these conservatives believe, must be elbowed aside like the geezers that they are. It doesn’t matter how much money the establishment can raise or how many voters it can deliver. The Republican establishment does not understand religious America and the true power it has.
“Far too many Christians have ceded the public arena to people that aren’t believers,” Cruz told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
And that is the secret weapon.
“God isn’t done with America yet,” Cruz said at his announcement.
And the religious right isn’t done with the Republican Party.