Lessons from the GOP Implosion

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Democrats these days are relishing the apparent unraveling of the Republican party. For the past seven years, we have witnessed a party ostensibly unified in its vilification of President Obama, united against any work he might attempt to get through the Congress, dismissive of any overtures to Republicans he might make. From a Democratic perspective, it has seemed that the Republicans have had the upper hand. When Mitch McConnell and GOP leaders vowed on Inauguration Day 2009 to block everything from the President in order to make him fail, they did not stray.

In 2010, the explosion of Tea Party enthusiasm handily won not just the lower house of Congress, but several statehouses too, giving them power over the post-census redistricting process. This locked up the House for years to come. As an example of the power of gerrymandering, less than half of Pennsylvania voters chose Republican Representatives in 2012, yet the party took three-quarters of PA's Congressional seats.

Fast forward to 2016 and we've seen prominent Republican leaders disavow their crude, fascist-talking front-runner in the Presidential campaign. Republicans are horrified that their party is on the verge of selecting Donald Trump, a man with no party loyalty or credentials, one who has used thugs to suppress dissent at his rallies and does not disavow the white supremacists who support him. His appeal only grows and the Party looks doomed. Even though most say they will support him if he's the eventual nominee, they will be hard-pressed to take back their words as Democratic TV spots rerun their own attacks ad nauseum in the fall.

We've become so accustomed to our two main parties, we forget that for most of our history, parties rose and fell and were replaced by others. Prominent former parties included the Progressives, Populists, Socialists, Whigs and Know-Nothings.
The most recent measure of party affiliation shows Independents dominating, with 42% of Americans identifying with neither of the major parties.  Best for neither party to get too cocky.

As recently as the 1960s, the Democratic Party included a large block of Southern Democrats whose ranks included the likes of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace and members of the KKK. After Johnson's Civil Rights Act, this huge block of Democrats turned Republican, courted first by Richard Nixon and then by Ronald Reagan. For the next 28 years, Republicans held the White House all but 4 years.

So how specifically did the GOP lose control? Consider the following:
  • Congressional leadership vowed on inauguration day to oppose everything the President might attempt, not just to press its own agenda. "We can't let you succeed at anything." Outspoken GOP opponents: zero.
  • "Death panels" (to kill off senior citizens) alleged by Sarah Palin in the Affordable Care Act, and echoed by conservative media and even John Boehner. GOP leaders who disputed the claim: zero.
  • President Obama is a Kenyan. Outspoken GOP opponents: John McCain, Rep. Mike Castle--anyone else?
  • Over 100,000 citizens signed petitions to secede from the US since their candidate lost the 2012 election. Even one governor (Rick Perry, TX) came out for secession. 
  • Man-made climate change is a hoax. Of the GOP's 17 original presidential candidates, a few of them acknowledged the science (Christie, Graham, Pataki) but none support actions to reduce it. Of the remaining four, Kasich is all over the map and the other three adamant there's no such thing.
  • The Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists managed to get their fears into the GOP Platform. GOP leaders debunking the claims: zero.
  • FEMA is building concentration camps and has ordered millions of coffins. GOP debunkers: zero.
  • Republican Senators send a letter to an enemy during a time of sensitive negotiations, declaring
    their intent to disavow those negotiations. Republicans who spoke against the letter: zero.
  • The Republican Congressional leadership invites a foreign leader to address the Congress, deliberately to undermine the foreign policy of the United States. Republicans who opposed: zero.
  • Sen. Mitch McConnell announces that the US Senate will not even consider a nomination from the President to fill Scalia's vacant seat. GOP outspoken opposition: Governor Christie has publicly called on the Senate to do their jobs. Though no Senators are bucking the party, a few have hinted at their willingness to do their jobs.
 Since 2010, Republicans have feared being "primaried", thrown out by the voters for not being

hardline enough. This has reinforced even the most ridiculous of positions, publicly shared by every elected Republican regardless of its inanity. Bowing to its fringes has put the extremists in control of the party and left those who actually hope to govern and advance legislation frustrated.

So a party that has refused to disavow even the most outrageous lies and insults from its fringe now finds itself with a leading candidate who exemplifies the worst of the party, a man who echoes the fascist traits we watched in horror eighty years ago. The GOP leadership have three options:
  • Work and spend precious campaign funds to defeat their front-runner in the primaries.
  • Manipulate the convention to deny him the nomination. This could mean a 2016 Republican Convention more devastating than the 1968 Democratic Convention when the party denied Eugene McCarthy the nomination and nominated Humphrey.
  • Allow Trump to take the nomination and declare their support for him.
  • Allow Trump to take the nomination and run an independent against him. The result would assuredly be a Democratic victory.
Today the GOP is reaping what it so carefully sowed. To strengthen the party -- to win statehouses and both houses of Congress -- they sold their souls. They took advantage of the craziness as it grew within their tribe, counting the numbers of votes each outrage could glean for them. There is a price for that.

Sadly though, all of us pay the price. If you believe in the two party system (as I do), you now have a crisis. Parties tend to moderate their various factions, seeking the compromise common ground from their diverse constituencies. They are cautious compromisers. The day the GOP stopped being cautious and stopped compromising, it all began to unravel. They were so busy celebrating how well it was all paying off that they missed the warnings.