I think the Republican establishment should be thanking Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
Why? Because the real existential danger to the Republican Party is not Ted Cruz nor is it Donald Trump, it is a viable conservative third party rising up from the grass-roots that is the biggest threat to their existence. Since 1856 was the last year when a major political party was replaced in the US, many of my American readers might be forgiven for being skeptical of my warning. But don’t be. As a Canadian conservative, I have seen it happen with my own eyes.
I keep returning to the Canadian Federal Election of 1993 because it holds so many lessons for the current American political scene. To understand how, a little history is in order. In 1984 federal election, Brian Mulroney won the highest majority government in Canadian history. But in 1993, his successor in the Prime Minister’s office, the hapless Kim Campbell, proceeded to lose in the biggest landslide in Canadian history after a mere 4 months in office. In that year, the Canadian Parliament had 295 seats and the Mulroney-led Progressive Conservative (PC) Party held 169 of them. After election night, they were down to two. You read that right; they retained only two seats. So what happened?
The short answer is hubris. Mulroney’s government took conservative voters for granted, adopting a where-can-they-go-they’ll-just-hold-their-nose-and-vote-for-us-at-the-end-of-the-day attitude. Sound familiar?
To elaborate, after signing the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in 1988, Prime Minister Mulroney did nothing further even remotely conservative. Instead he enacted draconian gun control laws; he instituted a widely despised a value added tax; he ran up huge deficits year after year; and to top it all off, he attempted twice to change Canada’s Constitution. With the latter attempt, the Charlottetown Accord, his MO was to buy off every special interest group in sight. As a result, his amendment would have constitutionally enshrined multiculturalism, left-wing labour laws, socialized medicine, and an apartheid regime for our natives. Through absolutely heroic efforts by a small number of opponents (including a young Stephen Harper), the Charlottetown Accord was defeated in a popular referendum in 1992. Seeing the writing on the wall, Mulroney resigned.
This led to the rise of the genuinely conservative Reform Party, which led to vote splitting on the right for the next ten years. But in the end, a decade of Liberal rule was worth it because for the first time in a long time, Canada had a real conservative party. I know my American readers will find what I am about to say hard to believe, but Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives were even worse than today’s GOP. That’s right, worse. Think of the Republican Party but with no Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Jeff Sessions, or even Marco Rubio. Nothing but interchangeable John Boehner and Mitch McConnell clones as far as they eye can see. It was that bad.
But we got over it, as you will. The new Conservative Party (sans the ‘Progressive’ in its name) was built largely by Stephen Harper from a merger of the Reform Party and the old Progressive Conservative party (with the old PC’s being very much the junior partner in this arrangement).
Now one can object that the US political system is quite a bit different from Canada’s. True, but the two most relevant details that enabled all this are the same. The first is that the Mulroney PC establishment was widely hated and despised by the base (and indeed everybody else). And second, both countries have a first-past-the-post voting system – ideal for vote splitting. The US however has one big advantage. Individual Congressmen are much freer with regard to their own domestic and foreign policy. In Canada, party discipline rules. As a result, all PC Members of Parliament appeared fungible to the public so all were punished equally. In the US, voters can tell the difference between Jeff Sessions and Paul Ryan.
All of this is to say that the most important objective for the Republican leadership should be to prevent a right-wing populist third party from arising. Insisting that Donald Trump declare his loyalty to the Republican Party was OK. But when it started to look like Trump might win, the establishment took leave of its senses. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol promised to leave the GOP and Jeb Bush promised to sit out the election. What fools! If they actually did what they are threatening, they would only be furthering the end of the Republican Party.
There were even reports that the RNC might conspire to prevent Trump from getting the nomination. This would be the absolute pinnacle of folly. Nothing would precipitate their demise more than if the party establishment stabbed the voter-selected winner in the back - and was seen doing so. This would be like Henry Clay’s ‘corrupt bargain’ with John Quincy Adams, which propelled Andrew Jackson to the White House four years later (and created the modern Democrat Party). In order to head this fate off, the GOP must runs its nomination contest absolutely scrupulously. Any trickery, or even perception of trickery, would be fatal because of the little trust the public has in them. If the Tea Party ever thought that the Republican Party refused to give them a fair shake, then it’s goodbye GOP. Another historical analogy would be the 1968 Democratic Convention, which elected Hubert Humphrey even though he had not entered a single primary. As I recall, that didn’t end well for the Democrat Party’s New Deal establishment.
In a recent USA Today column, Glenn Reynolds claimed that the liberals have chosen Donald Trump as their Destructor. For the Republican Establishment, they only have to look in a mirror to see their own Destructor.