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The GOP in the Desert

With just weeks to go until the Iowa Caucuses, McKay Coppins’ The Wilderness [1] 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.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "The GOP in the Desert"

#1 Comment By Fred Bowman On December 30, 2015 @ 4:37 am

Republican Party “pull it together? Not anytime soon. Unfortunately, America will get Hillary, a DINO who when all is said done, will be a female George W. And the “War Machine” will keep marching on.

#2 Comment By TB On December 30, 2015 @ 8:24 am

The GOP drank from the poisoned chalice of racial politics when it adopted Atwater’s Southern Strategy a generation+ ago and the ricin has run its course. The GOP isn’t in the desert, it’s in a nursing home in northern Florida.

#3 Comment By Johann On December 30, 2015 @ 8:51 am

“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.”

Those middle class Americans paid for the benefits of people retired at the time. There is not enough people with enough wages at the current rate of withholding to pay those same benefits to the new wave of baby boomer retirees. One would like to believe that the most selfish generation could at least understand basic math. Of course, they still want to believe in the fairy tale that we can grow ourselves out of this predicament with even more economic stimulus or some such other overused failed experiments. Or maybe they will start believing one of the Democrat fables – bring in more undeducated immigrants to help pay for their SS and medicare.

#4 Comment By charles On December 30, 2015 @ 9:42 am

Whenever I hear the term “base” I’m not sure I’m thinking the same thing those who bring the term forward are. I think that they are imagining either some pyramid type structure or some columnar or cubic structure with the power residing at the top, and the structure itself being basically homogeneous.

I don’t see that. I see a bigger group of principled people who have traditional values who have common sense and care about the right things, who are tethered to a very small concentrated group of folks who believe they must run things and who believe that they know best. I don’t see an elite group of leaders who hold the same values as the larger tethered group.

The larger group is really concerned about the things that matter. The smaller group is concerned about maintaining their position: they use the tethered group to do just that.

I almost believe that if the country could be split into two with one maintaining the progressive values and extra-constitutional usurpation of the people’s power (elite establishment), and the other (large tethered group) following the path the piper led us away from years ago, that over time the traditional values would win out and survive.

#5 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 30, 2015 @ 10:08 am

McKay Coppins is a liberal little snot. He is not a run of the mill liberal journalist. He is a new media snarkmeister who specializes in producing click bait with sensationalized titles with little substance. That doesn’t mean everything he writes is inaccurate, but I don’t trust him.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 30, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

The horror, the horror. Conrad’s Africa has nothing on our own heart of darkness.

#7 Comment By Michael Sheridan On December 30, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

I’ll be honest. I would far prefer to be voting against Clinton. I don’t think she is an avatar of Machiavellian cunning–in truth, I haven’t seen much sign she is particularly good at politics–but she is not remotely close to being my ideal candidate. However, if she becomes the Democratic nominee, as now seems probable, what choice will I truly have than to vote against her opponent instead? Every Republican candidate currently on offer ranges from the ridiculous to the terrifying and all of them are profoundly unserious. Some few even manage the nearly impossible feat of making the last Republican president look good–well, better–in comparison.

As a party, the GOP apparently has no idea what it stands for anymore, except of course that it must oppose whatever Democrats are for. There are a couple traits I see shared by most modern Republican pols, but they don’t add up to any kind of coherent agenda. Being hawkish is popular, apparently no matter what. But a reflexive pro-war attitude in our leadership gets the country nothing. It doesn’t get us popularity, or prosperity, or resources, or wealth, or even territory (not that I think we should have subject dominions, but they’d at least be something some people might desire). Placing war before diplomacy demonstrably hasn’t made us or our world safer or more stable. It mostly seems like a singularly stupid way to piss away our strength, goodwill, and our young people’s lives.

As for being for small government and against taxes, the other touchstone of modern Republican politics, this is a case of generals fighting the current war as if it were the last. The GOP decisively won the tax fight back in the 80’s. Marginal tax rates at the top that had been sky high ever since WWII were cut in half in Reagan’s first term. The lower class got tax relief too, with the EITC (Reagan was a big booster of that). True, the middle class got more of an illusion of relief, with its marginal rates reduced but payroll taxes greatly increased. But it isn’t the poor and middle class the Republican Party looks out for these days. It apparently wants to increase taxes both on the poor (so they have more “skin in the game”) and on the middle class. Even aside from dodgy flat tax schemes and the like, the common mantra regarding cutting services constitutes advocating for an effective rate increase in and of itself–charging the same amount for less product would be an increase at the grocery store and it’s no different in government. But it’s just a political pose anyway–the most expensive parts of government aren’t things Republican voters really want to touch. So we see a huge disconnect between modern (defining modern as post-Eisenhower) Republican rhetoric on this and modern Republican governance.

U.S. history has been a lifelong interest of mine. So I’m quite sure that, once upon a time, the Republican Party taken as a whole was decisively better than the Democratic opposition. Even some of the Republican Presidents we don’t remember that fondly today were a lot better than the alternative. Calvin Coolidge was definitely the best man running as a major party candidate in 1924. But I don’t see the old Republican Party coming back. It’s barely even a memory at this point. It’ll be interesting to see what replaces it, although “interesting”, more often than not, does not equate to “good”.

#8 Comment By 4Barcatala On December 30, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

I work with many Latinos; the Latinos are largely conservative and Christian. If the Republicans are able to take a more pragmatic approach on immigration, the Latino community, with some damage repair, is theirs for the taking. The Asians are typically conservative too. For example, most Asians reject affirmative action because it damages the educational prospects of their children. After all, there is a difference between underrepresented minorities and numerical minorities; Asians are only regarded as numerical minorities and do not get the economic privileges of an underrepresented minority. So, a blonde haired, blue eyed Argentinian is regarded as Latino/a and is in a privileged position than any Asian or White male when applying for college admissions. However, the Republicans by solely selling themselves to the wealthy white voters has alienated Asians and Latinos. Of course, the Republicans continue to ignore poor, working class and conservative Whites. The party’s neutered stand in Indiana is a shining example of this Vichyism. Moreover, by demonising Latinos, the Republicans have ensured that they will, for the foreseeable future, be condemned to wander in the political wilderness. After all, only corporations are worthy of their attention. What a bunch of cock-ups!

#9 Comment By Barry On December 30, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

“As portrayed by Coppins, Speaker Ryan has thrown his soul into the inner city….”

No, he hasn’t. He’s occasionally talked some talk.

#10 Comment By Rossbach On December 30, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

The GOP establishment has no moral or ethical standing to complain about Donald Trump. By repeatedly running for office as candidates of an “opposition” party and then, once elected, spitting in the faces of those to whom they owe their jobs, these corrupt, self-serving politicians brought this on themselves.

#11 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 31, 2015 @ 12:29 am

“I work with many Latinos; the Latinos are largely conservative and Christian. If the Republicans are able to take a more pragmatic approach on immigration, the Latino community, with some damage repair, is theirs for the taking. The Asians are typically conservative too…”

This is an often heard plea, but it simply isn’t true. We know this because of a very large amount of survey data. Hispanics do not support limited government. No immigrant group of any size does. Appeals to limited government simply have no emotional resonance with them. The only large group of people who support limited government to whatever degree and however defined is whites, which is why any Republican who doesn’t support immigration restriction either has a death wish for his party or can’t do math.

#12 Comment By Dan Phillips On December 31, 2015 @ 12:35 am

“The GOP drank from the poisoned chalice of racial politics when it adopted Atwater’s Southern Strategy a generation+ ago and the ricin has run its course.”

@TB, what planet do you live on because it sure ain’t this one. The Black Lives Matter crowd, the College Campus PC Bund, the internet Social Justice Warriors, etc. ain’t voting Republican. Meanwhile, the GOP falls all over itself to be colorblind.

#13 Comment By Todd Pierce On December 31, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

Tp paraphrase Pat Buchanan; when we hear the word “conservative,” we should reach for our revolvers. While I once counted myself as an American Conservative upholding American principles, another and eventually triumphant faction prevailed and they were conservative in the Prussian mode, upholding Prussian principles of militarism and authoritarianism. The Republican party has internalized these principles in toto, explaining in part the “perpetual war” we are locked into, as I believe is partly explained here: [2] Unless we want to go the way of every other militaristic regime of the past, meaning short-lived, let us hope the GOP does not “pull it together.”

#14 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 31, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

The GOP needs to make peace with non-whites and non-Christians. Over the past 30 years, the GOP has been slowly but surely ratcheted further and further right, to the point where it seems that they are trying to please the angriest white man in Mississippi.

Not only have they lost most non-whites and non Christians, but they have also lost most educated young whites. My own children, an attorney, a CPA and an engineer cannot stomach the GOP. These are educated, affluent young white people who are turned off by the gay bashing, Muslim bashing, the knee jerk hostility towards women’s reproductive rights, etc.

Now, the crazies have turned on John Boehner, Paul Ryan and anyone who is not a semi-literate, bible thumping imbecile. The GOP’s glorification of ignorance is coming back to bite them in the butt and it serves them right.

#15 Comment By long way home On December 31, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

Dan Phillips wrote: ” We know this because of a very large amount of survey data. Hispanics do not support limited government. No immigrant group of any size does.”

No group of any size does, immigrant or otherwise. Recall the presidency of George W. Bush.

#16 Comment By Tim D. On December 31, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

The main reason Republicans have lost the last 5 out of 6 presidential elections is courtesy of demographics. 2004 is the sole exception because of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Republicans are unlikely to win the presidency in the near future because the Democratic base is growing and the Republican base is shrinking. Furthermore, more Democrats are becoming solidly anti-Republican and vice versa.

Republicans will have trouble making inroads into the Democratic base chiefly because the Republican base is openly hostile to the Democratic base. The vast bulk of birtheres are all Republican, and every single last birther is a racist. Also, the attitudes of whites toward immigrants depends on race of the immigrant, hence the growing hostility whites have toward Latinos.

White identity politics will only become more central to the GOP than what they already are. So expect the GOP to double down on myths of voter fraud and coming up with other unethical, illegal schemes to restrict voting rights.

A second reason more people won’t vote for the GOP? Because they are stupid. My preferred candidate is someone like Ron Paul, but I’d rather not deal with the rest of the GOP crazies influencing foreign and national defense policy even more so than they already have.

#17 Comment By TB On January 1, 2016 @ 9:01 am

To Dan Phillips:
– The Black Lives Matter sprang up because the world was treated to weekly videos of murders perpetrated by cops on unarmed and non-threatening blacks. It’s a long overdue social justice movement. The GOP’s reaction was to envelope the BLM trope into an All Lives Matter frame. That frame is flawed. Clearly, all lives DON’T matter to the police or the racist community that supports the killings.

– The “College Campus PC Bund and the internet Social Justice Warriors” are kludges comprised of liberals and conservatives. Both groups are PC but don’t know it. Neither want their values challenged.
Some examples of right wing political correctness include:
– referring to a fetus as an “unborn child”.
– publically criticizing someone at a sporting event who fails to remove his hat during the national anthem.
– conflating the definitions of capitalism and democracy.

#18 Comment By Lloyd A. Conway On January 1, 2016 @ 2:54 pm

This review describe why I am politically homeless. I voted for Reagan thrice (including the 1908 primary) and Bush in 1988, etc., but the GOP of the 21st Century lost me during the run-up to the Iraq War. The Democrats of my youth were largely vets, pro-American, for the working class, whatever their other defects may have been. That party no longer exists, as Jim Webb’s candidacy demonstrated. I’ll probably continue voting for third-party candidates in protest, as I started doing in 2004, but I would be happier if the GOP were replaced by something else that actually represented the interests of people like me.

#19 Comment By Josh On January 1, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

@Dan Philips–

You prove TB’s excellent point by using the term “colorblind.” The concept of “colorblind” is merely a fancy way of assimilating and extinguishing ethnicity. Instead of the racist and nonsensical “colorblind” approach, Republicans would do far better to actually appreciate minorities (particularly blacks) and respect them for who they are, rather than trying to get them to become something they’re not (or paying lip service to such things while still pursuing policies that heavily impact minorities in negative ways).

Black Lives Matters and other groups are working to raise consciousness of blacks and other minorities. Not just as “Americans,” (which is a term that is almost synonymous with white power in practice) but as their actual ethnicity, with all the personal baggage they’re forced to drag around, along with the specific cultural heritage they’re part of.

The poorest white man has privileges that the richest black man does not. When more Republicans start understanding this, they will be headed in the right direction. So long as they try to pursue a misguided “colorblind” approach, they’ll go nowhere.

#20 Comment By Glaivester On January 1, 2016 @ 8:03 pm

long way home: No group of any size [supports limited government], immigrant or otherwise. Recall the presidency of George W. Bush.

I wish Dan Phillips had not said it in those terms, as “limited government” itself is not the primary issue here.

It is true though that Hispanics as a whole are more liberal than average, and all immigrant groups of significant size are also more liberal than average.

The idea that there are armies of conservative Latinos or Asians or whatever who will flock to the GOP once it embraces amnesty and an immigration surge is just ridiculous.

#21 Comment By Uncle Billy On January 2, 2016 @ 9:02 am

Republicans have a fantasy that Hispanics are going to rush out and vote for the GOP and its various policies. They will not. Oh but they have conservative family values, blah, blah, blah. Indeed. Tell some guy who works as a landscaper and makes $8/hr with no benefits how we need to tax hedge fund proceeds at a lower rate than ordinary income and see if he agrees.

The Republican Establishment bamboozled working class whites, but they are not going to bamboozle Hispanics.

#22 Comment By Dan Phillips On January 5, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

@long way home, @Glaivester

That is why I wrote “limited government to whatever degree and however defined,” although perhaps I should have modified my first use of “limited government” rather than my last use. I use this or a similar modification a lot because if you use “limited government” to describe the conservative agenda when you are arguing with a group of libertarians, you’ll get blasted with a bunch of finger wagging about how conservatives don’t really support limited government blah, blah, blah… “Whatever degree or however defined” is meant to include mainstream conservatives, Tea Partiers, Constitutionalists, libertarians etc. The point is that they are all the almost exclusive domain of white people.

#23 Comment By Cynthia mae Curran On January 8, 2016 @ 12:01 am

Old generation latinos are christian younger ones are more liberal than younger whites on many social issues. You have a stereotype of Latinos. Many are young and don’t like the Republican Party. Also, many are converting to Islam. Social Conservatism may not be important to Muslims in the US. Have have a dated view of Latinos since I know many under 30 and they are pro-choice and same sex marriage.