GOP Bemoans Trump's Baffling New High
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Last week was a wild one for the GOP. On Monday, front-runner Donald Trump called for the U.S. to bar all Muslims from entering the country. That evening, leading Republicans met and discussed the possibility of a contested convention. Then Tuesday, Trump was attacked from all sides. The Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, called Trump's ban on Muslims unconstitutional and not conservatism. On Thursday, new polls showed Trump holding the lead at a new high, 35 percent. But yesterday, the Des Moines Register Bloomberg Iowa poll revealed Senator Ted Cruz cruising past Mr. Trump to a 10-point lead in the crucial first state to decide. And with the Iowa caucus dead ahead, more than half the Republican voters appear to be in full rebellion against their leadership. People from all points on the political spectrum are asking what is going on. We spoke to two of them. Richard Viguerie is the chairman of the conservative news site Conservative Headquarters. He was the pioneer of political direct mail in this country, and he's recently endorsed Senator Cruz, a decision many influential Republicans may now be considering. David Frum was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He's now a senior editor at The Atlantic, and he's not endorsing anyone. I asked them both if they would characterize Trump as a problem for the party. Richard Viguerie said yes right away.
RICHARD VIGUERIE: He is a wildcard. And of course, conservatives don't see him as a conservative. Most every position that he articulates to date, he held a different position - opposite, usually - five, 10 years ago. So we don't see him as being trustworthy and as somebody that, you know, would cause great harm to the Republican Party presidential ticket and for down-ballot races in 2016.
WERTHEIMER: Viguerie went on to say that part of the problem was the disconnect between the American people and their leaders. David Frum took issue with part of that.
DAVID FRUM: I don't believe it any longer makes sense to use the phrase the American people. I think the country is now so divided by class and by ethnicity, it has such different outlooks of optimism or pessimism, depending on where you stand, has either benefited so much from economic growth or failed to benefit that you see radically different expressions everywhere. And Donald Trump, inside the Republican Party, expresses this. Among Republicans with college degrees, among Republicans who have participated in the economic recovery since 2010, Trump is anathema, intensely disliked. Three-quarters of Republicans say they will never vote for him under any circumstances. But among those who do not have college degrees and who - in fact, who didn't even start college - for those people, Donald Trump is a place to put all of their frustration and grievance.
WERTHEIMER: Will that frustration and division go all the way to the party nominating conventions? Will the primaries produce perhaps three possibilities instead of only one? Viguerie thinks that could happen. He believes a brokered or contested convention is possible. To come out of such a convention successfully, Viguerie thinks the party should turn to a real conservative. He thinks the problem lies with the establishment party members pushing their candidates.
VIGUERIE: The American voters do not like establishment Republicans, whether you saw in 2006 when the Republicans lost the Congress, the White House in 2008, 2012, when the lost the White House. The face of the opposition - the Democrats - are big government Republicans. However, when you put limited-government, constitutional conservatives as the face of the opposition to the Democrats, big victories - 1980 with Reagan, 1984, Reagan, Gingrich Revolution, 1994, the Tea Party elections, 2010, 2014. The voters like limited-government, constitutional conservatives. But you put the big-government Republicans out there, whether it's a Bush, a Dole, Romney, McCain, people just don't like them. And so if the Republicans want to win next November, they have got to put forward a conservative who's a fighter.
WERTHEIMER: For Viguerie, Senator Ted Cruz is that candidate and a prescription for the woes of the party. For Frum, that's going the wrong way. Instead, the Republican Party, he believes, should listen closely to the alienated middle-class voters who feel their party has betrayed them, has allowed wages to stagnate, has given benefits and support to other people and not to the taxpaying workers, especially older workers, who deserve that kind of help and support. Frum does not believe a contested convention is likely, but he's not optimistic about the party producing a winning nominee.
FRUM: Yes, we'll know who the nominee is, but that won't answer anything important. But the core Republican dilemma - and Richard Viguerie, I'm afraid, is just talking about a party in a country that hasn't existed in a long time - the core Republican divide is not between moderates and conservatives, whatever those words mean nowadays. The core Republican divide is that you have a donor elite and a congressional party that are united around lower taxes, entitlement reform and doubling the levels of immigration supported by a voting base that rejects all of those things. And that is why the party is not going to be able to come together.
WERTHEIMER: Why isn't that a prescription for a brokered convention and a real riot and a possible big loss for Republicans?
FRUM: Because I don't think the rules of the nominating process produce brokered conventions. What they produce instead are alienation and drift.
WERTHEIMER: David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic. His story in the new issue of the magazine is called "The Great Republican Revolt." Richard Viguerie is chairman of a political news site called Conservative Headquarters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.