These are some anxious times for the Republican Party. Given 17 candidates running for the presidential nomination in a year when the fundamentals looked pretty good for a return to the White House, the party rank and file are apparently narrowing the GOP’s options to (arguably) their two weakest prospects, the repellent Donald Trump and the extremist Ted Cruz. Considering the high stakes of this year’s elections, that’s bad enough, and could get worse if trouble at the top of the ticket spreads downward to Senate and even House races.
But many Republicans fear (and many Democrats hope) that the convulsions of the 2016 nominating process could represent a definitive life-and-death crisis for the GOP, especially if Trump triumphs in Cleveland. One of the vanquished candidates, Senator Lindsey Graham, put it most bluntly last August: “If Donald Trump is the nominee, that’s the end of the Republican Party.” Meanwhile, Democratic observers have frequently accused the Republican Party of inviting this disaster through decades of race-baiting and culture war, suggesting the GOP is reaching a just and predictable nadir where it could languish divided and defeated.
You never know, but history and logic should tell us that in our two-party system, presidential-election disasters rarely have produced long-term declines for either party: 1966 was a banner year for Republicans, and 1974 an even better year for Democrats, two years after presidential debacles. Democrats won eight net Senate seats and recaptured that chamber in 1986, two years after Fritz Mondale lost 49 states. Even more recently, a terrible 2008 presidential election for Republicans quickly led to its best midterm showing in decades. RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende offers up a variety of past cries of despair about the permanent damage supposedly wrought by one electoral catastrophe; they were all premature.
But doesn’t Trump represent a more basic challenge to the ideological underpinnings of the Republican Party? Yes, and it’s one that will be quickly and thoroughly consigned to the dustbin of history if the ticket goes down to ignominious defeat. Short of victory, the outcome most orthodox Republicans want most is to be able to blame defeat on Trump and cast a terrible anathema on anyone who utters his name with anything less than contempt for years to come. The silver lining of a Trump nomination that defies conservative ideology is that conservative ideology cannot be held responsible for making Hillary Clinton president.
A Cruz nomination and defeat would not have the same silver lining, though it would also be rationalized as attributable to the candidate’s high-profile advocacy of extremist tactics for advancing conservative ideology. He’d be cast as another Goldwater, when the times called for another Reagan. But there would still be no particular need for any “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party,” which could pick up right where it left off in 2013 with Reince Priebus’s “autopsy report” calling for a less threatening profile for conservatism.
Best of all for the GOP, it probably would not have to wait very long for a comeback. The more House seats it loses this November, the more House seats will be vulnerable to being recaptured by Republicans in 2018, when pro-Republican midterm turnout patterns and the near-universal phenomenon of the party controlling the White House losing House seats in midterms will all but guarantee some GOP gains, particularly if congressional Republicans recapitulate their Obama-era success in obstructing presidential leadership. Meanwhile, the 2018 Senate landscape is one of the most heavily pro-Republican election years in living memory, with Republicans only having to defend 8 of 33 seats up that year (even as Democrats defend 4 seats in states Obama lost twice). The ideological divisions of 2016 would likely be forgotten amid the party-wide war cry of resistance to the administration of Hillary Clinton.
The more you think about it, what really might trigger a Republican crack-up would be a Donald Trump nomination and victory in November. Then the hegemony of orthodox conservative ideology would be threatened by a Republican in the White House, wielding the power of the presidency. Then it would be Republicans, not Democrats, facing a midterm backlash against the party controlling 600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And then it would be Republicans blamed for the real-life consequences of Trump’s irresponsible policies.
It’s no wonder so many big donors and Establishment Republican pooh-bahs are talking about focusing on down-ballot races in November. They may be sorely tempted to take a dive in the presidential race if they can mitigate the collateral damage. They could then repossess the battered GOP and start working on the great comeback of 2018.