- Ted Cruz suspended his presidential campaign after Donald Trump won the Indiana primary
- Buck Sexton: It was all supposed to be a joke, they said. And yet here we are: Trump won.
For the Trump camp, there's plenty of reason to celebrate. Emerging from an almost comically overcrowded GOP field of 17 candidates, Trump has beaten all the projections and made an abject mockery of campaign dogma. He had no real infrastructure, no party insiders at his side, and a message discipline that could charitably be described as loose. The media mocked him, some even refused to cover his campaign for a time under their "politics," section. It was all supposed to be a joke, they said. And yet here we are: he won.
For the Republican party, this is a moment of shock, but it will adjust. Nobody saw this coming when it all started last summer -- perhaps not even "The Donald" himself when he began his campaign. Now, the entire GOP apparatus will have to coalesce behind their party's highly unconventional, unpredictable nominee. No doubt some will do this under protest, muttering about the good old days of 2012, when the charisma-challenged but reasonable and competent enough Mitt Romney was man of the hour. Nonetheless, the GOP machinery, such as it is, will fall in line behind Trump.
For the conservative base, however, this is a moment of crisis -- and defiance. For years (perhaps decades) the thought leaders of the conservative base have said that the electoral misfortunes of the GOP were due to insufficiently conservative candidates at the top of the ticket. If only the conservative base, with its coalition of evangelical Christians, family values voters and small government constitutionalists, could get their kind of candidate onto the ticket, then a sweeping, Reaganesque landslide would result.
That hypothesis has now been tested in the primary, and the results are not good. Cruz was the most conservative serious presidential candidate in a generation. Yet Cruz was trounced by Donald Trump -- a candidate who is not conservative in policy, ideology or personal disposition. Cruz was everything he was supposed to be, took all the right positions, possessed tremendous intellectual depth -- and yet it wasn't enough.
For a sub-section of the base -- the self-described "Never Trump" movement -- there is only one certainty that remains: under no circumstances will they vote for the New York businessman. As conservatives who value principle over party -- even at the risk of handing the White House to the opposing party -- many of them have publicly taken an oath against Trump. From pundits to private citizens, there is a sizable contingent of the GOP base that continues to promise that they will not, no matter what the cost, pull the lever for Trump. Whether this movement withers or grows in the months ahead may be the deciding factor in the 2016 presidential election.
And the reality is that there are even bigger questions facing conservatism as a movement and ideology -- existential ones. If the GOP has been the party of conservative values up until now, what does it become when it throws its weight behind a decidedly un-conservative standard-bearer? If conservatives can't back their party's nominee, where do they go?
Nobody really has an answer yet. But more than just the 2016 election hangs in the balance.