SHRIBMAN | Yes, this is something new - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SHRIBMAN | Yes, this is something new

Updated:

By David Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The day dawned after the Florida and Midwestern political contests with an astonishing, perhaps unprecedented, realization and revelation. In a mature democracy with the experience of more than 50 presidential elections, there now actually was something new under the March sun.

There have been parties riven by specific issues before -- the National Republicans by tariffs in the 1820s, the Democrats by slavery in the 1850s and by Vietnam and racial integration in the 1960s, the Republicans by economic issues in the 1970s. But there perhaps has never before been a party riven by hatred of itself, and the Republican Party that emerged from Tuesday's balloting increasingly seemed like a party at war not so much over issues as a party at war with itself.

In state after state, exit polls showed Republicans dissatisfied with and, in some places, in actual rebellion against, the Republican Party. Even in Ohio, where the candidate who prevailed is the GOP establishment personified -- John Kasich has been a member of the House, an important Capitol Hill committee chairman and a two-term governor -- nearly two-thirds of Republican voters said they felt betrayed by their own party.

In the past, Republicans have fought each other over isolationism (eventually falling in line for intervention quietly and quickly after Pearl Harbor and then insistently after the establishment of the postwar Soviet bloc); taxes (eventually favoring Reagan-style supply-side economics over more traditional balance-the-budget nostrums that often resulted in higher taxes); and race (eventually providing sturdy and indispensable support for integration and voter rights).

In more recent days they have fought over social issues such as abortion and prayer (though these disputes were more about degrees of emphasis than divisions over policy). And they have had range wars that were often characterized (as I did myself a quarter-century ago) as wars for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. But these culture wars -- the phrase belongs to Patrick J. Buchanan, who declared one in Houston at the 1992 GOP convention -- were quaint affairs compared with the civil war that is flaring coast to coast in the Republican Party today.

The challenge for the beleaguered Republican Party -- and also for the Democrats, who seem set on nominating Hillary Clinton and likely will avoid bloodletting at their midsummer national convention in Philadelphia -- is that there is a parallel war going on in American civic life. It is a rebellion that pits the people against politics in general.

These sorts of rebellions are not unprecedented nor even uncommon. One occurred in 1828, when Andrew Jackson defeated incumbent President John Quincy Adams, and others occurred in, among other years, 1920, 1980 and 2008. But this one seems unusually deep. The recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll shows that majorities can't see themselves voting for either Manhattan billionaire Donald J. Trump or Clinton.

This two-dimensional rebellion makes for an unusually complex political season, with unusually significant implications. It has skewered the usual political calculus.

Few states won by Barack Obama, especially in the old industrial belt, will be entirely safe for Clinton, and few traditional Republican redoubts, especially in border states and the agricultural Midwest, will be safe for Trump if he prevails at the Cleveland nominating convention in mid-July.

This rebellion also has upended the conventions of politics, already eroded in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Neither nominee will be under spending restraints and, more than ever, both will be beneficiaries, and targets, of unbridled and unregulated outside interest groups.

Much of that is for another day; the general election is seven months away, and if this campaign has shown anything, it has demonstrated the folly of looking more than a fortnight ahead. (Two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was positioned to be the Republican regulars' greatest hope. He lost his own state Tuesday and withdrew that evening with the grace that some of the remaining pugilists have yet to demonstrate, saying plainly and plaintively, "It is not God's plan that I be (elected) president in 2016 or maybe ever.")

Now the Republicans face new contests and challenges, with the campaign moving to desert tests next week in Arizona (where retired surgeon Ben Carson, now out of the race, led the field in November) and Utah (where Rubio, now freshly withdrawn, led as recently as last month, with Trump in third place). There has been little polling in either place, but Arizona is a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment, which plays to Trump's strength, and Utah is a devoutly conservative state, which may play to the strength of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, but it is also a caucus, which adds a touch of unpredictability.

A caution: If Cruz plans on transforming the remainder of the race into a contest over conservatism, he will face heavy obstacles. Trump outpaced Cruz among voters who said they considered themselves "very conservative" by 23 percentage points in Florida and by 10 points in Ohio.

Trump remains a front-runner with a highly unusual profile. The Republicans nominated a businessman with no political experience in 1940 (utilities executive Wendell Willkie); a rebel with few ties to the establishment in 1964 (Sen. Barry Goldwater, a new breed of Western conservative); and a figure with unconventional ideas in 1980 (former Gov. Ronald Reagan, whose supply-side vision was at odds with the prevailing GOP ethos).

But they have never selected a nominee with the astonishing trifecta combination of no government experience (Reagan had two terms as governor of a large state); few establishment ties (Willkie was the darling of the Manhattan elite, with a campaign essentially run by the chief of Fortune magazine); and few conventional outlooks (Goldwater voted regularly with the party in the Senate, retired as a beloved member of the chamber and sought to take over rather than repudiate the party).

In his victory speech, Kasich said the campaign was "about bringing us together, not pulling us apart," a theme eerily echoed by Clinton, who for the third time in post-primary speeches spoke of tearing down barriers rather than erecting walls. That made for easy applause lines. But the arc of the 2016 campaign bends toward upheaval over unity, rebellion over reconciliation.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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