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This Year’s Republican Primary Is a Gamble Seven Years in the Making

Republicans have been demanding an anti-Obama for years—and tonight, they'll begin the process of nominating one.


It took until the eve of the Iowa primary for the political commentariat to comfortably acknowledge something that’s been staring them in the face for months and months: Donald Trump is heavily favored to both pull off a victory in Iowa—the one early state where he’s tended to underperform in polls—and win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

How did we get here? How did the party that has recently been led by country-club candidates like Mitt Romney and Bob Dole come to be overtaken by a performance artist whom these former nominees detest? There are many answers to this question, some of which go back decades, but you don’t have to go back decades to see how the Trump phenomenon might’ve been avoided.  

This year’s GOP primary has frequently been framed as a referendum on the party’s response to Romney’s defeat in 2012. After President Obama’s reelection, Republican Party leaders conducted an election postmortem and determined that the GOP’s fatal liability was its hostility to a variety of Democratic-leaning demographics, immigrant communities in particular. That report was the jumping-off point for a long and ultimately failed legislative effort to reform the country’s immigration system, provide a citizenship guarantee to America’s vast undocumented population—and allow the GOP to demonstrate a newfound respect for non-white voters.

In the Senate, where constituencies are diffused across states, a comprehensive bill passed handily. But it met fierce resistance from conservatives in the House, who forced votes on a variety of symbolic, immigrant-hostile legislation, while blocking comprehensive reform. When hostility to amnesty developed into the right’s signature obsession, the bill’s chief Republican pitchman, Senator Marco Rubio, turned his eyes to the presidency and abandoned his own undertaking.

Congress’s split verdict on immigration reform left the Republican Party’s post-2012 identity unresolved, and the ensuing presidential primary thus became a referendum on whether the GOP would hew to the RNC’s faltering recommendations, or fish instead in the deeper and unknown waters of disaffected white voters.

In this schema, Trump represents one pole of that debate, the fractured Republican establishment represents the other, and the two are waging battle over nothing less than the future of the Republican party. Will the GOP continue to be the party that reliably advances business interests with a socially conservative affect? Or will it turn Trumpism into a new governing doctrine that is less solicitous of donors and more solicitous of xenophobes, white nationalists, protectionists, and nativists? 

Distilled to their essence, those are the stakes of this primary for the Republican Party. The fact that primary elections begin in Iowa only complicates matters for the Republican establishment. The Iowa GOP is dominated by anti-immigrant sentiment. One of its most influential figures is Representative Steve King, a Ted Cruz supporter, who’s helped set the party’s xenophobic tone by describing immigrants in subhuman terms. It should thus come as no surprise that Cruz and Trump lead the Iowa polls, while Marco Rubio, the only establishment candidate who appears even minimally poised to challenge either, is stuck in a distant third. 

Immigration is obviously a huge part of this story. But to truly understand why the deck seems so stacked against the establishment—why Trump, rather than a faithful partisan, enters the Iowa caucuses a clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination—you have to look back beyond 2012, to Obama’s first campaign for president and the GOP’s reaction to his election. 

President Obama’s early years were defined by productivity and, in equal measure, by the Republican Party’s massive resistance to it. The GOP’s immediate, almost unthinking rejection of nearly every Democratic initiative, beginning with the Recovery Act (a bill every single House Republican opposed in the face of a looming depression), was an outgrowth of a political strategy more than of ideology. Republicans, to be sure, seek lower taxes, less redistribution, and fewer regulations over the long haul. But before Obama was elected, there was a wide enough range of opinion within the GOP to imagine modest bipartisan cooperation—not just to pass economic stimulus, but to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reform immigration policy, vastly expand private health insurance coverage, and advance other generational reforms.

The maximalism of the GOP’s obstruction reflected not just the party’s ideological median, but its political determination that Obama’s presidency should be a failure. When Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s admitted that his singular aim was “for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he raised eyebrows, but it was the outgrowth of an airtight logic. “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together,” he told The New York Times six years ago, “because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is OK, they must have figured it out.”

Under this theory, Obama would be merely collateral damage in the Republican fight against insurgent liberalism. And it nearly worked. His approval ratings sank, Republicans swept the 2010 midterms, the economy wheezed and wheezed into 2011, and for a time it appeared as if the Democratic Party’s burst of activity would be halted and reversed. But, as we know, the plan failed. Obama rode modest economic growth and the GOP’s tone-deaf business class pandering to reelection, and took his second-term oath hoping that the party’s massive resistance would give way to more level-headed partisanship. 

At that point, Republican elites desperately wanted to lead a more sober opposition—to pass immigration reform, and abandon legislative hostage taking. But the die had been cast. To their continuing chagrin, McConnell and the rest had already set the party on its strategic path into the next presidential electionone that would be marked by the same kind of hostility and paranoia that had come to define conservatism in the Obama era.

Their problem, as in 2012, is that such a strategy is very likely to fail.

The Republican Party’s best hope for winning the White House this year—no matter who its nominee might beis that the general electorate (as it frequently does) will have grown restless with the party in charge of the White House after eight years, and developed an appetite for something new.

If party strategists have a particular model in mind, it’s Obama’s first election, when Republicans were swept out of office and Democrats inherited enormous power, much as Republicans will if they win the presidency this November. Republicans like to point out that voters have only elected the same party to the White House in three consecutive elections one time in the last 70 years, when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1988. But the 2008 analogy actually indicates how risky it will be for the GOP to rely on the public’s appetite for an anti-Obama. 

“Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent,” David Axelrod, an architect of Obama’s 2008 campaign, wrote recently. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.”

Axelrod went on:

As the 2008 campaign began, many Americans and most Democrats saw [George W.] Bush as rash, bellicose, divisive—oblivious to the demands and opportunities of a rapidly changing world. His presidency had come to be defined by the momentous decision to invade Iraq, which became a quagmire.

Senator Obama had publicly opposed the war from the start, which separated him from most of the Democratic field. But more than that, his profile, temperament and approach offered the sharpest departure from those of the embattled, retiring president he would ultimately replace. For those who found President Bush wanting, Senator Obama was the most obvious remedy.

Obama capitalized on something else, too, though. At this time in 2008, Bush’s approval rating was 32 percent and falling. It wasn’t just Democrats who were ready for a fresh face, but the vast majority of the country. The circumstances were uniquely suited not just for a Democrat, but for the total antithesis to Bushism.

Eight years later, the situation is very different. Depending on your preferred source, Obama’s approval rating is in the mid-40s or perhaps as high as 50 percent—and holding steady. Republican leaders and movement conservatives have primed GOP base voters to demand Obama’s antithesis, but the hunger for an anti-Obama isn’t shared by Democrats, or even independents.

Trump represents many things, but more than any Republican candidate, he has shaped his entire campaign around defining himself as an anti-Obama. That’s why he’s the GOP frontrunner. “[M]any Republicans view dimly the very qualities that played so well for Mr. Obama in 2008,” Axelrod added. “Deliberation is seen as hesitancy; patience as weakness. His call for tolerance and passionate embrace of America’s growing diversity inflame many in the Republican base, who view with suspicion and anger the rapidly changing demographics of America. The president’s emphasis on diplomacy is viewed as appeasement…. [W]ho among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr. Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?”

This analysis is undeniable, but it exposes the GOP’s main strategic error. Unlike in 2008, the public at large doesn’t necessarily want a remedy. The electorate is restless, but hardly united, as it was eight years ago, in the view that the current president is a failure.

If polls are to be believed, Trump will win Iowa on Monday night, cruise to another victory in New Hampshire, and never look back. But even if the polls are wrong, it’s striking how badly the massive resistance strategy has hemmed the Republican Party in. If Trump doesn’t win tonight, the victor will almost certainly be Ted Cruz—an equally reactionary political figure. If there’s a surprise at all, it will be an unexpectedly robust performance by Marco Rubio.

But even a Rubio surge wouldn’t suggest that Republican voters decided to turn at the last moment toward an inclusive politics. It’s worth noting that when he was running as the face of the GOP’s more empathic, less resentful future, Rubio struggled and struggled. It was only when his campaign took a turn toward relentless negativity and partisanship that Rubio’s prospects began to brighten. 

“One of [Hillary Clinton’s] first acts as president may very well be to pardon herself,” Rubio said at the Republican Party’s final pre-Iowa debate Thursday night. Completely absent from his performance were his once-frequent nods to his immigrant parents, his humble roots, his student loans, all replaced by a series of Hillary Clinton attack lines. Where Rubio once couched his electability arguments in inspiring biographical details and against-the-odds optimism, on the eve of the caucuses, he has completely abandoned them in favor of more naked appeals. He may not be the antithesis of Obama, but he can pretend to be, and he can simultaneously make a persuasive case to Republicans who are nervous about nominating Trump or Cruz that he’s the GOP’s best bet against another four years of Democratic rule.

If Obama were as unpopular with the national electorate as Bush was in 2008, any one of the three Republican frontrunners would be well suited to stand in as a remedy, and poised to make inroads among Democratic constituencies. It’s possible, of course, that an exogenous shock like a recession or a terrorist attack will bring about such a climate in the coming months. 

But in the climate we actually inhabit, as the first votes of 2016 are cast, Republicans are preparing themselves to nominate the antithesis of an outgoing president that about half the country still likes—and who would be the overwhelming favorite to win reelection if he weren’t term-limited out of the race. It’s an incredibly risky political gamble. And to the regret of the faltering establishment candidates who will be exiting the race in the coming days, the party went all-in seven years ago.