The recent withdrawal of Ted Cruz and John Kasich from the Republican presidential nomination race makes Donald Trump the party's assured nominee for 2016. This represents the most colossal failure of an American political party in modern history.
I am taking the view that the primary function of a party is to select nominees for general elections. As political scientist E. E. Schattschneider said, "He who can make the nominations is the owner of the party." In performing this function, it will tend to seek nominees who represent party priorities well but are also competitive in the fall election.
This is a delicate balance, and parties will approach this differently in different years and political environments. In 2008, for example, the fundamentals looked bad for Republicans, who were saddled with a recession and an unpopular war. Democratic insiders felt freer to nominate someone a bit more liberal and outside the mainstream than they did four years earlier, when they were challenging a moderately popular wartime incumbent. The perception of who is loyal enough to the party and who is electable will vary from election to election.
This year, however, the Republicans failed on both fronts. They are nominating someone who is either ignorant of or hostile to many longstanding tenets of conservatism. His stump speeches demonstrate no real commitment to any idea other than his own strength. Even his prepared foreign policy address, to the extent it contained any policy prescriptions at all, was a self-contradictory mish-mash.
Yes, a party may occasionally nominate someone who deviates from its core beliefs for a guaranteed win, but Trump looks likely to deliver the opposite. He trails Hillary Clinton substantially in early polls, and chances are those polls represent the best possible outcome for Trump. Democrats are likely to rally to Clinton's side over the next few months, while Trump's ability to rally those Republicans not already in his corner is far from certain. Thus Republicans have nominated someone who is not a party player and will likely lose anyway.
To be sure, this is not the first time a major party has messed up. The Democrats' and Republicans' nominations of, respectively, George McGovern in 1972 and Barry Goldwater in 1964 produced epic general election losses. But it's a good bet those parties would have lost those elections even with much stronger candidates. And even then, those candidates were established US senators with histories in their respective parties and sets of ideals that the parties could evaluate after their losses. Republicans ultimately adopted many of Goldwater's ideals in the decades following his loss. What does the Trump Republican Party look like after Trump? What ideals could it reject or adopt?
Parties have also made mistakes in down-ballot nominations. Once in a while, bad candidates will win primaries, and people who seemed like good candidates can turn out to be venal, immoral, or incompetent, and the party has to either live with that or try to cut its losses in the next election. But those mistakes pale next to picking the wrong presidential nominee. The presidency really is the face of the modern American party. A bad choice at the top of the ticket can produce a spillover effect to other races. And it could wreak havoc on the government should that person actually get elected.
One may legitimately object to my claim about the job of a party. Perhaps the job of a party is simply to listen to its voters, and in this case, those voters spoke pretty loudly for Trump. But generally, that's not the way parties have picked nominees. Yes, party nomination procedures have generally grown more democratic with time, with voters given a more direct say in the process. But that process has largely been managed by party insiders, who must be cognizant of the rank and file's concerns but are rarely prisoners to it.
In this case, the Republicans simply did not do the things a party would do to guide voters' preferences or limit their choices. Party insiders expressed many fears about Trump but never offered an alternative. Perhaps the large field of governors and senators made it too hard for them to coordinate, or perhaps the party's ongoing ideological struggles made coordination impossible. But either by choice or circumstance, the party never actually did its job.
The Republican Party today is little more than an organization lying in service to Donald Trump, a candidate who owes it nothing. The party didn't recruit him and it didn't want him. He simply imposed himself on the party establishment and won. The party's ability to translate any sort of governing philosophy into actual policy is essentially gone.
In 1912, the Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson for the presidency, and he had the good fortune to run when Republican votes were split between President William Howard Taft and former President Teddy Roosevelt. Wilson championed a grab bag of Progressive Era policy ideas that were, in some cases, significant departures from what Democrats had stood for previously. But as a New Jersey politician of the time said,
A platform was hardly necessary for the candidate is a platform in himself. If anyone asks you what the Democratic platform is, just tell him, "Wilson."
Republicans are in much the same position today with Trump, with a far less rosy electoral scenario.