Friday, July 22, 2016

As Cleveland Showed, The Big Republican Split Is Between Leaders and Voters

The primary purpose of a national convention—now that the actual selection of the nominee is completed beforehand by primary voters—is to foster party unity and put it on display, thus earning positive attention from the news media that will in turn engender heightened support and enthusiasm from partisan identifiers and persuadable independents in the mass electorate. It's fun to watch and kibitz over the quality of the speeches and the competence of the stage management, but most of the hour-to-hour proceedings are soon forgotten (OK, Clint Eastwood's empty chair is an exception). The big picture is what's important: what is the state of the party at the start of the general election?

It's clear from the events in Cleveland that Republicans remain a divided party. The single most dramatic moment of the entire four-day convention occurred at the end of Ted Cruz's speech Wednesday night, when the runner-up presidential candidate, building to a rhetorical peak, danced on the edge of an expression of support for Trump before exhorting his audience instead to "vote your conscience" for candidates who are true to constitutional principles, clearly implying that Trump himself did not meet this standard. The media immediately seized on Cruz's behavior as a signal not only of disunity but of political incompetence—why had the Trump campaign allowed Cruz to speak without securing an assurance that he would endorse the nominee?—and a furious Trump reignited a row with Cruz at a bizarre press conference today that defies easy summary or explanation.

The Trump-Cruz feud will consume most of the post-convention media attention, but the convention itself revealed a more fundamental, and probably more important, divide. In one camp are a majority of Republican delegates, activists, and voters, who are firm supporters of Trump (whether or not they voted for somebody else in the primaries) and highly motivated to defeat Hillary Clinton. In the other camp are the vast majority of the party's top elected officials, both past and present, who have serious reservations about the Trump candidacy and wish to limit their association with him. From beginning to end, the proceedings in the Cleveland formed a picture of a party leadership trying to cope with the fact that a presidential candidate is being forced upon them unwillingly by their own voters.

The many Republicans who harbor various degrees of qualms about Trump have responded to his nomination in different ways. One faction, including Mitt Romney, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and the Bush family, remains openly unreconciled to Trump; these leaders failed to appear at the convention, whether due to their preference or Trump's. A second group, consisting of many Republicans from politically competitive constituencies, is not explicitly opposed to Trump—in fact, some have endorsed him—but pointedly declined to attend the convention as a means of signaling their distance from the candidate (Marco Rubio, running for reelection in the "purple" state of Florida, recorded a brief taped message of support for Trump that was shown on Wednesday night).

That left the convention itself to be dominated by a third set of officials: the nominal Trump supporters. These politicians showed up in Cleveland to address the nation on behalf of the presidential ticket, but their speeches almost to a person spent more time attacking Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than praising the virtues of the Republican alternatives. References to Trump, when they occurred, were brief and strikingly muted. Mitch McConnell advocated on behalf of an unnamed "Republican president" whose role would be merely to sign the legislation passed by a Republican Congress. Paul Ryan's speech mentioned the name of his party's nominee only to argue that "only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way." (Traditionally, predictions of future partisan governing success take a more confident tone.) Scott Walker's case for Trump rested on the premise that "any Republican" would be a better choice than Hillary Clinton.

These and other speeches communicated a message that was clear enough. Most leading Republicans view Trump as a poor candidate facing near-certain defeat in November, and they appear worried that any public expression of impassioned support for his campaign risks tainting them with political or historical embarrassment. But for many Republican delegates, activists, and voters, a Trump loss is far from inevitable and a Hillary Clinton presidency close to unthinkable. The persistence of this internal schism is likely to have implications for Republican politics for the remainder of the campaign, and may even outlast it.

As for Cruz, it will take some time before we know whether his big bet will pay off. Cruz is transparently wagering that Trump will eventually be so thoroughly discredited among Republicans that his own ostentatious refusal to endorse Trump before a national audience will be interpreted in retrospect as an honorable devotion to principle. But Cruz is sometimes prone to tactics that are too clever by half, and his own reputation among Republicans as a poor team player has cost him in the past. Even if Trump turns out to be a disaster for the party, it may turn out that the Paul Ryan approach was savvier: give a pro forma endorsement to the choice of the Republican electorate while simultaneously acting like you think it's a big mistake.