Grand Old Party becomes a Grand Old Mess

April 19, 2016

As the Republican Party heads for a possible contested convention, party leaders have no one to blame but themselves, says Alan Maass.

HOW DID the first party of Corporate America and Wall Street become such a colossal clusterfuck?

The Republicans could be headed for their first contested nominating convention for either major political party in almost half a century if frontrunner Donald Trump doesn't have a majority of the delegates when the convention begins in Cleveland in mid-July.

Trump will probably have the most delegates. But he has been losing ground in recent primaries, making it more likely that he will fall short of the majority that would guarantee him victory. He is expected to win big in the New York primary on April 19, snapping his recent losing streak. But Trump still has a long--and increasingly uphill--road to get to the majority needed to lock up the nomination.

What happens if Trump doesn't win on the first ballot at the convention? A majority of the delegates will be free to vote for whoever they want in the second round--and given the hardening of opposition against him within the party, Trump probably won't win over more votes to get himself over the top. In fact, operatives for Trump's main rival Ted Cruz are reportedly maneuvering at the state level to get delegates selected who would abandon Trump and vote for Cruz on a second ballot.

Republican presidential contenders Trump, Cruz and Kasich
Republican presidential contenders Trump, Cruz and Kasich

The long and short of it: If Trump can't get 1,237 or more of the convention's 2,472 delegates to vote for him in the first round, the odds are good that someone else will become the Republican presidential nominee.

NORMALLY, THE prospect of a contested convention with multiple ballots for the presidential nominee would fill party leaders with dread. The chaos on the convention floor and frenzied backroom maneuvering would be a prime-time embarrassment--and a crystal-clear statement that Republicans couldn't care less about who got the most votes from the millions of people who cast a ballot in the primaries.

But nothing about the 2016 race for the Republican nomination has been normal in any way. So it probably shouldn't be a surprise that party leaders and the big money donors behind them are hoping for a contested convention--if that's what it takes to stop Trump.

The latest scheme: A group of billionaires with longtime ties to the GOP is pouring money into a super PAC hilariously named Our Principles, whose express purpose is to exploit the party's bizarre rules to stack the July convention with delegates who will abandon Trump at the first opportunity.

Trump has made a fool of himself lately bellowing about how the delegate system is "rigged" against him. "It's a rigged, disgusting, dirty system," he told supporters last week in Albany, N.Y. "And then when everything is done, I find out I get less delegates than this guy that got his ass kicked." Trump may be confused about the delegate system, but he's not wrong about what his opponents are up to.

This follows the early months of the primaries when more than half of all negative campaign ads aired on TV by candidates and their backers--$70 million worth out of a record $132 million through early April--were directed at Trump. Meanwhile, Trump had only spent $16 million on television commercials of any kind.

And yet this off-the-charts level of negative ads had very little effect. For example, some of the biggest attack ad buys came in Florida, where Trump went on to crush home-state Sen. Marco Rubio, the choice of many "respectable" party leaders, by a double-digit margin.

Trump's drop-off in recent primaries is more likely his own doing. His shoot-from-the-hip bluster has gotten more erratic than ever--like when Trump announced that women who obtained an abortion illegally should be put in jail or otherwise "punished." "There has to be some form of punishment," Trump told MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Even anti-abortion fanatic Ted Cruz got to shake his head and chastise Trump on that one.

More importantly, though, as the loser candidates of the primaries--the Chris Christies and Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios--have dropped away, Trump hasn't picked up as many of their supporters.

He has a loyal base among Republican voters who respond to the billionaire's message that America used to be "great," and he'll make it that way again by stopping "them"--his long list of scapegoats includes immigrants, Muslims, racial minorities of all kinds, women who don't know "their place," and on and on. Parts of that base are genuinely frightening, and Trump is giving them confidence by legitimizing some reactionary and racist ideas.

But it's notable that Trump isn't building on that base as quickly as might have been expected. Even now, with the primaries down to a two-and-a-half-man race against Cruz and John Kasich, Trump has had a hard time winning an outright majority of voters in recent contests.

That will likely change in New York, where Trump is predicted to win big and in other states heading toward what looks like the main showdown: the California primary on June 7. Still, Trump could keep winning primaries, but still fall short of locking up the nomination on a first ballot.

THAT MUCH is good news to Republican leaders who oppose Trump as an interloper into their club--an erratic outsider who is playing to reactionary ideas among the GOP base that were tolerated if not actively encouraged when the party leaders could keep it in control.

The media often assume this hostility is a distaste for Trump's vulgar, tell-it-like-it-is style--he says out loud what Republican leaders are supposed to try to keep quiet about.

But that's deceptive. Look back at the various right-wing vehicles that the Republican Party has used to win and hold a mass following--from the Religious Right to the anti-marriage equality bigots to the Tea Party--and it's obvious that Republicans aren't squeamish about open statements of racism, sexism and reaction.

The opposition to Trump has deeper roots--including among the big business interests that the Republicans have always represented. As Charlie Post wrote in an article for Jacobin:

Though not above racist (particularly Islamophobic), misogynist and anti-union politics, the Republican establishment and their corporate sponsors embrace neoliberalism and an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to secure the dominance of U.S. capital across the world. Trump's opposition to "free trade" agreements, from NAFTA to the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his isolationist opposition to the second Gulf War and relative ambivalence toward Israel (the most reliable U.S. ally in the Middle East), is repulsive to the U.S. capitalist class.

Nor do Trump's calls for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants find a resonance among most businesspeople. Capitalists, large and small, want a politically vulnerable pool of immigrant labor available in this country to work for wages and under conditions that those with citizenship rights would not tolerate.

STILL, FOR Republicans and their business backers, this is one of those good news-bad news deals. The good news: Trump might lose the nomination. The bad news: Someone else might win.

Some party leaders harbor illusions that a contested convention could lift John Kasich to the nomination, even though he has only won one primary so far--or even House Speaker Paul Ryan, who hasn't run in a primary at all and who states repeatedly that he will not accept the nomination.

If it isn't Trump, by far the most likely GOP candidate is Ted Cruz--and in a number of ways, he's as much a problem for the Republican Party as Trump.

Cruz is a creature of the Republican Party apparatus, having worked his way up through Texas state politics. But in the process, he seems to have inspired loathing in everyone he's met along the way.

One anonymous operative in George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign gave voice to the broader dilemma for Republicans in an interview last January with Mother Jones: "It's a real quandary...Trump versus Cruz, who to vote for? And it would be a big quandary even if it's Cruz versus Hillary Clinton. That's how much they cannot stand him."

The revulsion that leading Republicans seem to feel toward Cruz isn't random--he's earned it.

Before Election 2016, Cruz was probably best known as the main champion of the Tea Party in the U.S. Senate. In 2013, he struck up an alliance with right-wing House members to block legislation to lift the federal government's debt ceiling--the level at which the government can borrow money to keep operating--unless Barack Obama's health care law was overturned. The U.S. government shut down for 16 days during the stalemate.

The Republicans' Wall Street backers made it abundantly clear that they didn't like the prospect of a federal government default--with untold catastrophic consequences for the world economy--being used as ransom in a high-stakes extortion plot. But Cruz blew up any attempt by Republican leaders such as former House Speaker John Boehner to negotiate an end to the impasse--even though the Obama administration was offering funding cuts and austerity measures that Republicans could only have dreamed about a few years before.

Cruz was one of the main lawmakers who continually undermined Boehner--himself a hard-line conservative and product of the Newt Gingrich-led "Republican Revolution" of the 1990s--until he finally quit being House Speaker in 2015.

After that, Cruz helped lead the charge against Paul Ryan, another conservative who is regularly denounced for caving to the Obama administration, even though Ryan's budgets as former chair of the House Budget Committee set the standards for the era of austerity, far more than the Obama administration's proposals.

For any Republican who wants to see a presidential candidate who can be packaged as a mainstream conservative, with appeal to so-called swing voters, the prospect of a Cruz candidacy has to be even more frightening than Trump.

According to one statistical analysis which rates all Republican members of the Senate and House on a scale from 0 to 1, based on how right wing their voting record is, Cruz is literally off the charts, even in comparison to past Republican presidential nominees. One of the most infamous Republican right-wingers, Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide in 1964, stands at 0.656 on the scale. On the Democratic scale, by contrast, the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders rates a more moderate 0.523.

And Ted Cruz? He's a 0.943 out of 1--in other words, further out on the fanatical fringes than any Republican nominee in the modern era has ever been.

So it's no wonder that some leading Republicans are reportedly planning to skip the Cleveland nominating convention--to avoid whatever lingering stench that may attach itself to those who attend.

Part of their calculation is the grim fact that all is not lost for the Republicans if Trump or Cruz win the nomination--far from it.

Either Trump or Cruz would start out as an underdog among general election voters. But the Republicans are favored to keep control of Congress--analysts give the Democrats a better chance of regaining a majority in the Senate than in previous elections, but it's still a long shot. The GOP has more power at the state level than at any time since before the Great Depression.

This is the power base that the Republicans have used throughout the Obama years, and the party has certainly succeeded in continuing to drag mainstream politics to the right.

BACK TO the original question: How did it come to this?

The Republicans are facing a crisis of their own making. The party has relied on various right-wing operations like the Tea Party or the Religious Right to build up a popular base for its conservative agenda.

Now Trump has gone around the party leadership to appeal directly to this audience, and his main opponent Cruz scrambled to the top by championing the Tea Party against Republican leaders in Congress. The party establishment is discredited among the popular base it nurtured, and at the hands of the tools used to build it up.

The opposition whipped up against Trump--whose unpredictable behavior threatens to completely discredit the Republicans--may be enough to deny him the nomination. But the cost will likely be handing it to Thing Number 2. As South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham replied in answer to a question about whether he preferred Trump or Cruz, "It's like being shot or poisoned. What does it really matter?"

In those circumstances, it's surprising that Corporate America hasn't done more to intervene in the party that it has historically preferred to represent its interests in the two-party system.

But then again, as the Republicans have lurched into crisis, the Democrats have become a more reliable and responsible pro-corporate party.

In 2008, the Wall Street meltdown and Great Recession brought an end to eight years of George W. Bush that was dominated by the "war on terror." Barack Obama seemed to offer an alternative to the status quo of endless wars, worsening inequality and Wall Street greed.

But the Obama years have been much more a continuation of what came before--certainly more so than the millions of people who put their hopes in Obama ever thought.

Coming into office, the new Obama administration, staffed in its Treasury Department with veterans of the big banks that caused the financial crash, took over the Wall Street bailout developed by the Bush White House and administered it almost without change--while homeowners in danger of defaulting on their mortgages and losing their homes got no help at all.

The "war on terror" got a facelift and a somewhat changed strategy, but the imperial aim to extend and defend U.S. power didn't change.

Obama signed into law one large economic stimulus package in the first months of his presidency, but from that point on, he has championed unprecedented austerity measures, including a wage freeze imposed on government workers and threatened cuts to the most popular public programs, Social Security and Medicare.

And now, the likely nominee of the Democratic Party is Hillary Clinton, who has been considered the favored candidate of Wall Street from long before the primaries got started.

During the campaign--in part under pressure from Bernie Sanders' more left-wing message, but also following standard operating procedure for Democrats--Clinton has sounded more liberal themes, like questioning the era of mass incarceration set off by Bill Clinton's crime bills in the 1990s, which she supported fully.

But even on the campaign trail, she can't help but be the candidate of "No we can't"--from single-payer health care to free college tuition to ending the era of austerity.

If individuals like Trump and Cruz have played a role in pulling the Republican Party further toward the right-wing extreme, the Democrats are responsible for pushing mainstream politics to the right. Their modus operandi has been to give ground to Republicans, then decry the GOP for refusing to compromise, and then give more ground.

It's hard to think of a clearer example of the problem with voting for the Democrats as the "lesser evil" to stop the "greater evil" of the Republicans--you usually end up with the lesser and the greater evil.

Further Reading

From the archives