With just weeks to go until the Iowa Caucuses, McKay Coppins’ The Wilderness is a welcome Baedeker to the personas that populate the 2016 Republican contest. Written months before the primary season, the author looks at top-tier GOP contenders Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, the disappearing Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, flameout Bobby Jindal, and Paul Ryan, a man better suited to be Speaker of the House than President. The book reminds the reader that the candidates are avatars of the GOP’s warring factions, while delving into who these presidential aspirants actually are.
Although The Wilderness is easy on policy, Coppins catches his subjects and their inner circles saying the darndest things. The author’s portraits are light-handed, but withering. Florida’s Rubio comes across as boy with man-sized ambitions, and a tropism for other peoples’ money. Coppins rehashes the senator’s credit card problems, but also nails Marco pinching himself over his own good fortune. In the book’s telling, Rubio exclaimed to a friend, “It’s amazing … I can call up a lobbyist at four in the morning, and he’ll meet me anywhere with a bag of forty thousand dollars in cash.” Talk about candor.
With this kind of history, Rubio is a poster child for mandated candidate disclosure of a decade’s worth of FICO scores. It’s only fair that our would-be presidents answer whether or not they can get their credit swagger on. Heck, if they can’t manage their own checkbooks, why should they be allowed to pick our pockets and pry into our tax returns—without first giving We the People the opportunity to judge for ourselves? Fair is fair.
The author likewise sheds light on why Jeb has been unable to connect with the Republican base—and it’s not just about immigration. Rather, Coppins captures the unearned sense of entitlement that has come to pervade the latest iteration of Bushworld. The Wilderness accurately depicts Jeb as not understanding, let alone internalizing, that the Republican Party was not clamoring for a third Bush presidency, and that regime change was no longer the only option on the GOP’s foreign policy menu. As for primogeniture, fuggetaboutit.
To drive the point home, Coppins records a blunt exchange between Jeb and W after the younger Bush kept tripping over the wisdom of the Iraq War. Apparently, Bush 43 laced into his brother, saying: “Stop with this [crap] … Say whatever you have to say.”
Jeb has since taken his brother’s advice, but from the looks of the polls not all that many folks are listening. Having started at the center of the Republican debate stage, Jeb has been steadily pushed toward the wings. At this rate, Jeb is on course for being the next John Connally—the 1980 Republican hopeful, Nixon Treasury Secretary, and ex-Texas Governor—who spent millions, but could barely snag a single convention delegate.
Coppins can’t be blamed for putting the Republicans under a microscope. The 2016 GOP field is interesting and entertaining, if nothing else. The Republicans possess none of the somnolence and certainty that mark Hillary Clinton’s coronation quest. More to the point, neither the Republican base, nor the candidates themselves, seem to place much stock in deference to their so-called betters—or to each other. Think of the GOP as a raucous Congregation of Dissenters, where Bible and the U.S. Constitution are the sacred texts, where authority rests with the laity, and just what constitutes the hierarchy is very much in doubt.
If Eric Cantor, the then-House Majority Leader, could lose his seat in a primary challenge as he did in 2014, then no national Republican is truly safe. As The Wilderness records, moments after Cantor was history, Brent Bozell, a movement conservative, founder of the Media Research Center and nephew of the late William Buckley, issued a press release that directly challenged the GOP’s pooh-bahs and the status quo: “Eric Cantor’s loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment … The grass roots are in revolt and marching.”
When the apocalypse and politics get mentioned together in a press release, it is time to take notice, and Cruz and Trump did just that. Building upon his 2012 victory, and his failed effort in 2013 to repeal Obamacare by shutting down the government, Texas’s freshman senator redoubled his efforts to win the hearts and votes of white evangelicals by pushing religious freedom laws.
Then, for the added benefit of those Republicans determined to stick it to the Man and possibly less moved by the Deity, Cruz blasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a liar—on the Senate floor of all places. While Cruz’s colleagues loathe him, he leads in Iowa, and is running second nationally among the party faithful.
Which brings us to Trump. Coppins gets it right in describing The Donald’s efforts to reach out to Sarah Palin and her supporters, and Trump’s penchant for first-person superlatives directed at himself. Looking back, Trump understood that Palin was about white identity politics long before anyone else. Palin’s references to her husband and to herself—“He’s got the rifle, I’ve got the rack”—said it all. No surprise, Trump “gets” and connects with working class and non-churchgoing Republicans.
Coppins also shares his unpleasant experiences of having earned the wrath of Trump and his supporters after having published a less than flattering portrait of the billionaire who would become the GOP’s frontrunner. Welcome to America in the here and now, where the political is the personal, bitterly divided by class, culture, and race, and where no one is immune from internet attack. Technology and diversity bring their own downsides. Little in life is unalloyed.
Likely because of its early publication, The Wilderness fails to come right and say that the Republican fight in 2016 is just as much about the scrum for the nomination as it is a cage match for control of the GOP. Right now, three Republican power centers are competing, tugging, and jostling with each other—the establishment as embodied by Rubio and Bush, the counter-establishment and their guy Cruz, and the Republican working class base.
But, here’s the thing. The GOP doesn’t seem all that interested in the worldly needs of working Americans. As portrayed by Coppins, Speaker Ryan has thrown his soul into the inner city—but that’s not where Republican voters live. Then, to top it off, the Speaker, like much of the GOP field, would “reform” Social Security and Medicare, programs that middle class Americans have earned over a lifetime and rightfully rely upon.
If the Republicans are to exit the wilderness, and resume residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they will need a candidate who can both appeal to the party’s ever-more vocal working and middle class base, and to voters who are turned-off by Clinton’s disconnect from lunch bucket America and her disdain for the truth—but who are still not buying what the Republicans are selling. Whether the GOP can pull it together remains to be seen. November is a long way away.
Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.