Something is happening in the Republican Party that has not happened in living memory.
The party of unity, tradition, order and hierarchy is breaking apart over one man who personifies the concept of disruption.
Donald Trump's so-far inexorable advance toward the Republican presidential nomination has divided the party. This divide is not like the garden variety primary fights of recent cycles. It goes beyond the familiar squabbles of the party's postwar era (center versus right, moderate versus conservative, eastern versus western).
What is coming looks more like the historic schism of 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt came back to challenge the re-election of his successor and fellow Republican, William H. Taft. That schism was exploited by Woodrow Wilson, the only Democrat elected between 1896 and 1932.
On Thursday, the Grand Old Party's most recent presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, delivered a stunning denunciation of its current presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, calling him a fraud and a phony who was "playing the American people for suckers" and who would be a disaster in the White House. John McCain, the Arizona senator who had the party's nomination in 2008, immediately signaled his support of his "friend" Romney.
Trump responded with a rambling takedown of Romney's 2012 campaign. Major figures from the party's officialdom and from the conservative media space lined up on one side or the other to be interviewed by journalists. Some thought Romney's move would finally break the dam on Trump criticism within the party. Others thought it would ultimately harden Trump's voter base all the more.
A few hours later, a televised debate pitting Trump with his last three rivals turned so raucous and unruly that observers all across the political spectrum had cause to avert their eyes.
The 11th meeting of the GOP candidates may have been the most bruising to date for Trump, the first-time candidate whose message and persona have dominated media coverage of the campaign since summer. Rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz largely ignored each other to concentrate on the man standing between them, offering a target for their crossfire.
Among other low points was Trump's reaction to Rubio joking about his anatomy. "He referred to my hands," said Trump. "If they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee."
At one juncture, with Cruz and Trump talking over each other, Cruz tried to break the tension.
"Donald, learn not to interrupt," he said. "It's not complicated. Count to 10. Breathe, Donald, breathe."
That prompted Rubio to ask when "the yoga" would be over, and then to needle Trump for being "very flexible" — a reference to Trump's earlier explanations for his shifting positions on issues.
The exuberant and unrestrained crowd in Detroit hooted and jeered throughout the evening, as Trump gave as good as he got with Rubio ("Little Marco") and Cruz ("Lying Ted"). But Trump was often at a loss under questioning by the three Fox News moderators. The Fox team came loaded for bear, and Trump had more trouble with their inquiries than anyone else onstage.
John Kasich, the Ohio governor and fourth wheel in the debate, received far less attention from the moderators and got almost no rebuttal time because the other candidates never attacked him.
That flaw in the format, much decried by Kasich and a raft of other prospects who have already left the field, may have been the one failing of the Fox production. Moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace drilled in with challenging questions, backed up with copious facts and at times illustrated with video clips
Kelly, who has crossed swords with Trump before, stuck with one line of questioning about former students who sued Trump's online business college, Trump University. Rubio had raised the issue a week earlier in another debate, and Romney had returned to it in his summary of Trump's failed ventures (which also included Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump Mortgage and Trump Vodka).
Still, the most memorable moment in the two-hour debate in Detroit's historic Fox Theatre came near the end, when the candidates were asked if they would commit to supporting the party's nominee in November.
The question might have seemed unnecessary in previous election cycles, but nothing has been ordinary about this one. In fact, on this occasion, the question of party unity was not only relevant but painfully salient.
Each of the four used the moment to get in a final pitch for himself, but all four also wound up saying, yes, they would support the nominee even if the party chose someone else.
That was the "right" answer, of course, in the traditional world of politics. But little about this debate followed tradition. And one had to wonder how committed all four really were to the pledge — and whether protestations of party loyalty would hold up under the strains now showing in the party's coalition.
After the debate, lively media commentary continued well into the wee hours of the new day, with conservatives as divided as the candidates. Trump had his defenders, as did Rubio (who has been a magnet for endorsements from elected officials) and Cruz (who has the backing of many "movement conservatives" and Tea Party activists).
"There was no winner at the debate," wrote Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the staunchly conservative Washington Free Beacon. "But there was certainly a loser: The GOP. It started this election cycle in a strong position, and is now on the precipice of nominating a political neophyte ... whose unfavorable ratings are sky-high and who loses to Hillary Clinton in practically every poll."
The possibility of Trump winning enough delegates to assure his nomination for president on the first ballot in Cleveland in July has caused many GOP and conservative leaders to scramble in search of any means to stop him. Suddenly, there has been open talk of an open convention, with strategies that might thwart the wishes of pro-Trump primary voters and force the convention to consider alternatives.
Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University's law school, has proposed that Cruz and Rubio form a partnership, with each pledging to support the other at the convention. They would then become a team and a prospective ticket, with the one who gets the most primary votes running for president and the other being guaranteed the vice presidential slot. Not a bad deal given that both men are still in their mid-40s.
Others, including Romney, are suggesting that the three remaining rivals to Trump should defer to each other in states where one has a natural advantage, such as Kasich's Ohio and Rubio's Florida. That would not secure the nomination for any of them, but it would prevent Trump from amassing the 1,237 delegates he needs for a first-ballot nomination. After that, delegates are no longer committed to vote for their candidate and anything could happen.
For many veteran politicos, all this seems not just tall talk but crazy talk. No convention of either party has needed even a second ballot for the nomination since 1952, and Republicans have not needed multiple ballots since 1948. The last time a Republican convention had any semblance of suspense was in 1976, and on that occasion the shadow of doubt was dispelled shortly after the opening gavel.
Since then, conventions have become duller with each quadrennial renewal, offering no suspense other than the choosing of a vice president or the debate over a plank in the platform. Even these elements have usually been drained of potential controversy.
Few thought 2016 would be any different.
But when things happen that cannot happen, it is time to reassess what is possible.
Or, as Hunter S. Thompson once wrote of another presidential campaign: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional." Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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