My first encounter with the phrase “circular firing squad” was in a New York Times story 17 years ago; the California political observer extraordinaire Dan Schnur used it to characterize an ideological rift cannibalizing the Golden State’s GOP.
Since then, the phrase has been overused yet unrealized. But maybe not so in 2016. The firing squad seems locked and loaded. And on Monday, in Iowa, the first round may be fired.
Let’s say you’re a dyed-in-the wool conservative supporting Donald Trump. Setting aside his past embrace of Democrats and his late-in-life conversion on social conservative issues such as abortion, The Donald supports eminent domain and has scant interest in entitlement reform or reining in federal spending.
Ordinarily, those are nonstarters with Republicans. But this is no ordinary election. Some GOP voters seem more interested in punishing the party’s establishment than sticking to principles.
There is a conservative trap door to Trump: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, only his is a doomed cause. If he somehow wins the Republican nomination, a hidden army of conservatives won’t magically appear in November, just as it didn’t for Barry Goldwater in 1964.
If you doubt this, just do the math. As my Hoover Institution colleague and Stanford political scientist David Brady has pointed out, almost all Republicans (93 percent) and self-described conservatives (82 percent) voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, yet it wasn’t enough.
Cruz might bump those numbers, but it’d come at a pyrrhic cost with the 41 percent of the electorate that deems itself moderate and the 29 percent that calls itself independent.
By the way, it’s not just conservatives who’ve lost their bearings. Since early December, nine of every 10 dollars that Jeb Bush’s super PAC has spent on attack ads have been directed at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, arguably the most electable Republican in the field. The Bush strategy is to make it a Donald-Jeb race. Never mind that Bush has a negative image rating only slightly less awful than Trump’s.
So where does that leave the national GOP in 2016? Pretty much where the California GOP has been since 1999 and Schnur’s observation of the circular firing squad.
Since Bill Clinton’s second term ended in 2000, Republicans have managed to elect but one governor – an accident, really, as Arnold Schwarzenegger drew an inside straight of a two-month sprint to office, a perfect issue (an unpopular increase in the vehicle license fee) and a perfect foil in former Gov. Gray Davis.
Arnold breezed into office on a wave of media saturation, star power and anti-establishment anger not unlike Trumpmania. But while some Republicans give Trump a pass for his policy indiscretions, Schwarzenegger soon fell out of favor with GOP activists for working with Democrats and abandoning a conservative reform agenda.
Those purists continue to roam California’s political landscape. Venture into immigration reform beyond building a wall and increasing deportations and you’re branded a RINO. Consider crossing the aisle to support new transportation fees for infrastructure repairs and the label is worse – “traitor.”
Ironically, these angry folks like to fall back on Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism. But much has changed in the quarter of a century since Reagan left office. Social media, cable television news and talk radio have fueled a national dialogue that’s brash, abrasive and preys on raw nerves.
The most successful presidential candidates so far in this cycle – Trump and Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – have benefited from scapegoating – Trump vilifying Muslims and Mexicans; Sanders aiming at Wall Street and the wealthy.
It’s tempting to lay most of the blame at Trump’s feet. But his vulgarity is only a symptom of a national disease. Besides, Trump has long sought to exploit the masses. Over 30 years in business, Trump has vowed to revolutionize professional football, the casino industry, airlines, vodka and board games.
Now, he offers a political revolution that’s likely to crash and burn faster than Trump Air. Thanks to Trump’s salesmanship and a cauldron of national rage against the political establishment, Republican voters might give in to their worst urges.
The vulgarians are at the gates. On Monday in Iowa, we’ll see if they storm the castle.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.