The slow-motion implosion of the Republican Party

Story highlights

  • GOP leaders are trapped by enthusiasm for Trump and resistance to hearings on Supreme Court, writes David Axelrod
  • After tolerating nativism and birtherism and promising obstruction for 7½ years, GOP elite is reaping the whirlwind, he says

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and host of the podcast "The Axe Files." He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Trapped on all sides.

That's where the Republican Party finds itself today, both in its nominating battle and in its implacable "not even a hearing" stance on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.
    Privately, and to some degree publicly, Republicans seem resigned to death in November by fire or by hanging. The prolonged nominating process is merely a means of determining the nature of the execution and limiting the risk to other candidates on the ballot.
    The normal pattern of GOP nominating contests for the past two decades is that the party endures heated primary fights between populist, evangelical and center-right candidates, only to settle on the leading establishment choice.
    No more.

    Overrun by outrage

    Having stoked anti-Obama fever in order to score midterm victories at the polls and then failed to deliver on pledges to derail major elements of the President's agenda, the party elite now finds itself overrun by a wave of outrage and discontent.
    That wave has carried Donald Trump to the brink of the nomination, a hostile takeover that so horrifies the Republican establishment that many are now turning in desperation to a man they dislike almost as much as the prospect of Trump as their standard-bearer.
    Sen. Ted Cruz's entire tenure since his arrival in Washington in 2013 has been dedicated to taunting a Republican leadership he views as accommodationist.
    He called Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a "liar" on the floor of the Senate. He led the party over the cliff of a government shutdown in a vain effort to derail Obamacare. To this day, he casts his campaign as one to upend "the Washington cartel" of insiders and lobbyists who he says have betrayed the GOP and the country.
    Now, that same "cartel" is slowly and grudgingly embracing Cruz, who is currently running a distant second to Trump, as their last, best hope to deprive the bilious billionaire of the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination.
    Sen. Lindsey Graham's painfully tepid "endorsement" of Cruz last week, followed by Mitt Romney's announcement that he would stand up for the Texas senator in Tuesday's Utah caucuses, reflected the dilemma in which the GOP finds itself.
    In backing Cruz, neither of these pillars of the Republican establishment spent a whole lot of time extolling his virtues, focusing instead on the man they are desperate to stop.
    "Today, there is a contest between Trumpism and Republicanism," Romney said. "Through the calculated statements of its leader, Trumpism has become associated with racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, vulgarity and, most recently, threats and violence. I am repulsed by each and every one of these."
    So he's for the other guy.
    Jeb Bush followed in similarly measured fashion on Wednesday.

    Why Cruz gets establishment support

    Many are gravitating to Cruz, arguing, as Bush did, that his predictable views are more plausible in a Republican nominee than the philosophically promiscuous, cult of personality spectacle that is Trump.
    "I don't like Cruz, but I can defend most of his positions with a straight face," one prominent Republican leader told me. "I don't know how I go on TV and make an argument for Trump."
    There is a potential bonus of a Cruz nomination, this party leader explained. For the past several cycles, conservative activists have complained that by nominating relatively moderate candidates -- Romney in '12 and Sen. John McCain in '08 -- the party spurned its base and depressed Republican turnout.
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    "Let's have Cruz, and we will put that issue to rest," said this party leader, convinced that the Texan's appeal, pitched to evangelicals and the right, is too narrow to command a general election. "If it's Trump, there will be no resolution. Each side will blame the other for the disaster."
    But all these efforts to stop Trump may well be too late. Even if they succeed in depriving him of the delegates he needs to clinch the nomination, his victory in Arizona's winner-take-all primary meant Trump probably will come close.
    That would leave the party establishment in the unhappy position of either embracing the front-runner or courting a rebellion among his supporters by dumping him. And while a few weeks ago, many still talked hopefully about swapping in a fresh and more appealing recruit -- say, House Speaker Paul Ryan -- the somber realization is seeping in that it will be hard enough to topple Trump, much less bypass Cruz at the same time.

    Hillary Clinton's edge

    Though Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, would enter a general election campaign with historically high negatives, she is running well ahead of Trump, whose unfavorable ratings eclipse even hers.
    Cruz runs a tighter race in early polls. But as a factional candidate, his ability to grow is very much in question.
    Only Gov. John Kasich is outrunning Clinton in general election trial heats. But Kasich has won just one of the first 37 nominating contests -- his own state of Ohio -- and netted not one delegate in Tuesday's races in Arizona and Utah.
    Kasich's brand of compassionate conservatism might sell in a general, and he would be a comfortable choice for the party establishment. But he has struggled to find traction within a party riven by anger.
    The party leaders are prisoners of their base.
    Base politics also has trapped the Republican leadership when it comes to Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
    While some opponents have portrayed Garland as a threat to the Second Amendment, his record over 19 years on the federal bench makes it hard to paint the judge out of the mainstream. He is more liberal than Republicans in the Senate would prefer but as moderate a choice as they probably would get from any Democratic president.

    Americans want action on Garland

    A solid majority of Americans feels that the Senate should take up the Garland nomination rather than allowing the seat, left vacant by the death in February of Justice Antonin Scalia, to go unfilled for more than a year.
    But were Garland seated to replace Scalia, a conservative judicial icon, he would shift the balance of the court, giving it a majority of Democratic appointees for the first time in decades.
    That's why McConnell has ordained that the Garland nomination will not get even a hearing, much less a vote.
    The right has threatened summary expulsion for any Senate Republican who breaks ranks with the majority leader over Garland.
    Erick Erickson, an influential conservative commentator, threw down the gauntlet on my podcast, "The Axe Files."
    "If Republicans cave, I mean, this would be more the end of the Republican Party than Donald Trump," he said. "Because, I mean, going back to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the Supreme Court has been the issue of the Republican Party. It comes up in every campaign -- presidential campaign, it comes up in every congressional campaign, every even-numbered year. And if the Republicans were then to say in this year -- after years of saying, 'The Supreme Court hangs in the balance; you must vote Republican' -- 'Hey, we're going to go through with this,' it would be game over."
    All this has put the six Republican senators running for re-election in states that voted for Obama in a terrible bind. Swing voters in those states, already probably influenced by the presidential race, also would be among those favoring action on the Garland nomination.
    That group includes Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who suddenly is facing a challenge from a former Democratic lieutenant governor, the aptly named Patty Judge.
    Playing base politics -- tolerating nativism, birtherism and promising obstruction at every turn -- could cost Republicans the presidency and threaten control of the Senate.
    And if the GOP crashes and burns, it will probably get a more liberal court nominee than Garland from the next President Clinton.
    For seven years, the GOP establishment knowingly and cynically rode the anti-Obama tiger, feeding the beast with a steady diet of red meat.
    Now, whatever happens at the Cleveland convention, the party elite may wind up as dinner.