Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
Three explosive words: Vote your conscience.
And in one phrase Ted Cruz ended any pretense of Republican Party unity. He gave permission to his supporters to vote for someone other than GOP nominee Donald J. Trump.
“Don’t stay home in November,” he said. “Stand and speak and vote your conscience.
Cruz exposed a deep divide in the Republican Party, one that’s been festering for decades.
The last time something like this happened was in 1976 when Republican delegates tried to replace a sitting president, Gerald Ford, with a conservative, Ronald Reagan. The split was deep enough that many at the time predicted the Republican Party would disappear like the Whig Party.
Only there was no place to go. So conservative Republicans and the more establishment Republicans stuck together and figured out how to cooperate. What complicates this story now is that Donald Trump is from neither camp. He’s not an ideological conservative. And he’s certainly not establishment. He’s Donald Trump. Period. He gives voice to people who think politics and governance has failed them. If you need a label, the Tea Party works as well as anything.
This uneasy, three-way Republican coalition survived for so long because there was no where else to go. The Tea Party didn’t want to create a new entity. They took over the party. Establishment Republicans figured they had better go along because, well, the most important thing is winning elections (and a nod to party unity). But Ted Cruz represents a conservative bloc that rejects working in a coalition.
This three-way Republican division is now exposed and it has all sorts of election ramifications. (Hillary Clinton’s team was quick to spot its meaning. Her official tweet said: Vote your conscience.”)
Cruz would like to see his Trump rebuke as a Reagan-like moment. Reagan lost at the convention to Ford in 1976 but that was the beginning of his 1980 campaign that did win the White House. But what was when voters had only two choices.
But I think “vote your conscience” gave Cruz supporters (and other true believers) permission to abandon the Republican Party and vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson. This is what’s different in 2016. Voters have an alternative. The Libertarians are on every ballot (the Green Party so far is only on 22 state ballots.) And unlike the craziness that surrounds the Trump Republican Party, Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld, both have experience actually governing in New Mexico and Massachusetts.
Johnson addressed the Republican split in a recent essay in Politico. “We provide an honest, principled and sane alternative to the madness that we see in two so-called mainstream political parties … Americans are tired of games. They want and deserve simple, straightforward and good government — not overwrought theatrics and demagoguery.”
Three things to think about going forward: First, The magic number for Johnson and Weld is 15 percent. If the Libertarian candidates reach that number in polls they will participate in the presidential debates (Ross Perot was the last third-party candidate to reach that threshold.) Second, will any major Republican leaders defect to the Libertarians. The most likely prospects are former candidates Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. Third, will Libertarian down-ballot candidates pick up steam and be competitive? That will determine if the party is ready to absorb former Republicans and be more than a protest vote. (I would also like to know if the Libertarians have support from any tribal leaders. Is there a committee, any familiar names? Johnson does have a track record and had support from tribes.)
Trump’s Republican Convention is a failure. Instead of talking about issues (or even the ticket) people are talking about speech missteps and a prime time rebuke. At least we know there was no script. No one could make this stuff up.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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