Well, it's déjà vu all over again. Although a new Star Wars episode took the movie world by storm, the 2016 rewrite, retitled "The Establishment Strikes Back," has all the drama. The Republican establishment has not one, but two full-scale rebellions on its hands.
When the Koch brothers used their money to found and fund the Tea Party, they hoped to elect people who would pass millionaire-friendly tax laws. What they got was their very own Frankenstein's Monster.
Ted Cruz is the candidate for ideological purists, fearful of change, who want an unswerving right wing candidate to hold back the tide of social progress and restore "conservative values." There's no love lost between this alliance of Tea Party and social conservatives and more moderate mainstream Republicans, whom they excoriate for compromising with the enemy. They are the core of Republican activism, without whom they have no hope at all of electing a President in 2016.
But their candidate is completely unelectable. A recent New York Times article criticized Cruz for his "reputation for putting himself first." He is so unpopular within his own caucus that recently, not a single Republican would give him the courtesy of seconding a simple procedural motion he had offered, leaving him quite literally standing alone, completely friendless. Mainstream Republicans offer Cruz's willingness to torch everything, including the federal government, as proof positive he is incapable of getting his agenda through Congress. Absolutely no sitting senators or Republican National Committee member has endorsed his candidacy. Respected Republicans like former Presidential nominee Bob Dole have warned the party that nominating Cruz would lead to deep losses across the entire electoral spectrum.
What most people thought was a carnival side-show has become the Republicans' main attraction and the mainstream's other nightmare. Donald Trump is the only candidate with an ego as large as Cruz's. Trump's showmanship and blunt style make his campaign home for the disaffected, who believe that everyone else is getting ahead, and the disgruntled, who think that only an outsider can clean up the perceived mess in Washington. Whatever appeal Trump might have had as a straight-talking outsider was quickly eroded by his offensive comments about Mexicans; his impossible plans for a Berlin Wall on the Rio Grande; his outrageous, misogynistic attacks on Fiorina and Megyn Kelly, and his admiration for Putin. Last week, the very conservative National Review devoted an entire issue to blasting Trump. The magazine wrote of Trump's immigration plan that it "wouldn't survive its first contact with reality," and the array of voices contributing to that issue comprise a who's who of the conservative movement. One commentator went so far as to call Trump " … a tapeworm [who] invaded the schismatically weakened body of the Republican party… ." The rest of this edition was even more unkind toward Trump.
The four men competing to be the mainstream candidate have splintered the party's majority. Unless they can subordinate their own egos for the party's (and, in my opinion, the country's) good, the Republican Party will have to deal with the unthinkable. Next week, Iowans will make one of these two men the Republicans' leading candidate. Most polls favor Trump to win there and also one week later in New Hampshire. The front-loaded primary calendar may give Trump all the momentum he needs to secure the nomination. Barring something really stupid (not at all impossible with Trump, or Cruz, for that matter), Republicans will have to take their cues from another old film, "Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to stop worrying and learned to love the bomb," because both of the leaders will blow up the GOP. The same polls having Trump ahead show a troubled Hillary Clinton campaign beating both of these men. Surprisingly, that old Social Democrat, Bernie Sanders wins by an even larger margin. If the Republican Party has a death wish, it will nominate Cruz or Trump, and to paraphrase the 20th century philosopher, Woody Allen: one choice leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray they have the wisdom to choose correctly.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org