When the Republicans lost the easily winnable 2012 presidential election there was a palpable sense of despair among the party’s established leaders. And rightly so, as the Party had lost six of the past eight presidential elections, voters who identified themselves as Republicans were both aging and declining in number, and the increasingly powerful force of minorities and diversity were rejecting the tenets of the Republican Party.
After the 2012 election the Republicans called together a large group of their leaders for a series of meetings and seminars intended to identify the problems and seek solutions. The good news is that the out of these meetings came a laundry-list of ideas, changes and positions the party needed to adopt in order to appeal to a rapidly changing electorate. The bad news that nothing happened, because the Republican leaders involved in this process had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Many aligned with the status quo resist change, not because they fail to recognize new ideas, but because they fail to recognize old ideas. One of the things the Republican establishment has going for it is that commitment to the status quo does shelter them from the challenge of coming up with new ideas.
As a result, the Republicans, who do control Congress, have come to be seen as a force for obstruction, deadlock and dysfunction in government. Causing the Republicans to be seen as focused more on what they oppose rather than what they propose. And this has compounded the challenge of relevance for the Republican Party.
If anything, the Republican Party has become even more entrenched in its support of the status quo. As evidence of this, at the start of the 2016 presidential election cycle, Jeb Bush – a scion of the establishment – was put forward as the favored establishment candidate. And we all know how that went over.
What the Republican Party did change after the 2012 presidential election was the process by which the Party nominee is selected; but it did not implement the substantive policy changes needed to elect a president. The Republican National Committee (RNC) made it easier – by putting the “winner take all” primaries in the latter stages of the nominating process – for the presumed establishment candidate (Jeb Bush) to lockup the nomination and block the efforts of outsiders. What the RNC did not anticipate was the frustration of the broader base of Republican voters toward the status quo. The new rules have ended up working against the intentions of the establishment, because the RNC did not foresee that an outsider (Trump) would secure the early delegate lead. As a result, this makes it virtually impossible for any establishment (acceptable) candidate to secure the nomination before the convention. And it has put the establishment in panic mode.
That is why we are now seeing so much rancor, acrimony, bitterness and indeed panic by the Republican establishment toward Trump. The current strategy of the RNC establishment is not to rally behind their leading candidate, but to marshal as many resources as possible to prevent Trump from securing a majority of delegates before the convention. The goal is to create a “contested convention” that will allow the establishment to select its own candidate; even though it may go against the majority of Republican voters. The stated fear is that Trump is simply not electable. But the real fear is that if Trump is nominated, he will bring about real change and the creation of a new establishment.
The last time the Republicans went through this type of party-fracturing battle was in 1980. At that time the Republican Party felt the leading candidate in the nomination process was not a “true” Republican and that he did not have the intelligence, temperament or qualifications to be president; and most of all that he was unelectable. The Republicans did all they could to block his nomination; even to the point of encouraging the previous (defeated) nominee to come out of retirement as an alternative candidate. The candidate the Republican establishment was attempting to block from achieving the nomination was Ronald Reagan. Wouldn’t it be an intriguing irony if the RNC establishment fails to block the nomination of Trump and then he goes on to win the election?
When you sweep away all the extraneous activity that is happening in this campaign, the reality is that the Republican establishment – like any entrenched establishment – is more fearful of change than it is of losing.
Teaching Moment For Change
Observing the convulsions in the Republican Party is a great lesson in how change comes about – or doesn’t.
When it comes to change, people have to recognize that change itself is not the threat. The threat comes from the failure to recognize the need for change and then failing to respond to it in a positive way. Contentment with the established way of thinking and acting is the primary disincentive to recognizing and responding to change.
Change needs a catalyst – a change-agent – who can identify the frustrations of a failing status quo and be far enough out ahead to make defenders of the status quo uncomfortable; forcing them to face the issue of change. When those who need to change do not feel threatened by the proposed change, it is not a change. If the one seeking change is not finding their ideas being attacked and resisted, they are not far enough out from to bring about change.
Those seeking to be a change-agent must recognize that daring to think and act contrary to established ways exposes them to risks of ridicule and rejection, but they also understand that the rewards for success far outweigh the threat of recrimination from peers.
In the last 50 years, the Republican Party has had two agents of change – Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. One of them lost and one of them won, but both of them brought about change. The Republicans are now dealing with another change-agent in their midst – Donald Trump. The establishment of the Republican Party is just as vociferous – if not more so – in their attacks on Trump as they were on Goldwater and Reagan. It is yet to be determined if Trump will win (or even if he should), but one thing is certain, he will bring about change.