WASHINGTON – Reince Priebus, the beleaguered and balding Republican National Committee chairman, was asked a few days ago about his mane.
“How much gray hair do you think you’re going to have by December?” CNN’s Jake Tapper inquired.
“Gray is fine,” the party boss replied. “I just want to make sure I have hair.”
Alternatively, he could try a Whig.
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This could be the first time in 160 years that a major American political party splits, and Priebus, the young technocrat from Wisconsin brought in to improve the Republicans’ infrastructure, is in over his head.
The Whigs were essentially undone by their inability to agree on slavery; the attempt to satisfy both sides, with the Compromise of 1850, caused Northern and Southern Whigs to part. Though the current situation is quite different, Republicans are now split by their own moral dilemma: whether to embrace as their nominee a man who stands for isolationism and ethno-nationalism and who disparages women and minorities. Priebus is preaching party unity above morality.
If the party accepts Trump, it could consign itself to political oblivion by antagonizing women, minority groups and immigrants. If it accepts Ted Cruz instead, it risks a riot by the Trump populists and the loss of all but far-right voters. And if Priebus and his fellow Republicans try to rally around a mainstream figure such as Paul Ryan, they could salvage the party in the long run but would risk alienating the majority of this year’s GOP voters.
“Well,” Priebus said in a radio interview Thursday with former Republican senator (and Trump booster) Scott Brown, “I haven’t started pouring Bailey’s in my cereal yet, but I’ve certainly considered it.”
In fairness, there is no good option for Priebus now, except perhaps to resign if Trump secures the party nomination. His defenders point out that each time he disagrees with Trump, the criticism only emboldens Trump supporters, as it was likely to do again after Priebus said Monday that the Colorado GOP convention’s decision to award all 34 delegates to Cruz was not “a crooked deal,” as Trump charged.
But Priebus failed to act to stop Trump when he could have, or to coordinate Republicans to clear the field for a mainstream alternative. And now he compounds the damage by sticking with the same moral neutrality and happy talk of GOP unity that allowed the situation to develop.
After the Jan. 14 debate, in which Trump said he would “gladly accept the mantle of anger” and traded charges with Cruz about their constitutional eligibility for the presidency, Priebus tweeted: “It’s clear we’ve got the most well-qualified and diverse field of candidates from any party in history.”
In the Feb. 13 debate, Trump blamed George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and said Bush “lied” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Trump, Cruz and Marco Rubio took turns calling one another liars, and Rubio ridiculed Cruz’s Spanish skills. “Our well-qualified & experienced candidates continue to put forth serious solutions to restore prosperity & strength to America,” Priebus tweeted.
And after the March 3 debate, in which Trump spoke about the size of his genitals, Priebus tweeted that “Republican candidates are the only ones offering the course correction voters overwhelmingly want.”
Priebus sounds like a fortune cookie when he says “the impossible is always possible with unity.” But unity behind bigotry?
This all might have turned out differently if Priebus, and other Republicans in positions of responsibility, had turned against Trump sooner. In January, he called the Trump-dominated debates “a good thing for our party.” He said he was “100 percent” sure he could rally the party behind either Trump or Cruz. He has since praised Trump for bringing “millions of new voters to our party.”
With four in 10 Republicans saying they wouldn’t get behind Trump in a general election, it’s clear he would lose the party more votes than he gains. But Priebus is still talking like a fortune cookie. “With unity the impossible is possible; with division the possible is impossible,” he informed Brown in Thursday’s radio interview.
Priebus spoke about the wonder of his role. “It’s unbelievable to be in the middle of history that will be talked about forever,” he said.
But history is unlikely to remember kindly a Republican chairman who turned the party of Lincoln over to a populist demagogue or to an ideologue loathed even by Republican colleagues. Hopefully those twin menaces will be enough to wig out Priebus – before his Republicans get Whigged out.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.