Fresh off his plurality win in the South Carolina primary, Donald Trump looks stronger than ever in his bid for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. Whether or not he goes the distance to the nomination and then to the White House, he’s done the Republican Party a major service by helping it put the Bush dynasty in its rearview mirror.
Nobody doubts Trump’s willingness to say unpopular things in politically dangerous venues. But some observers felt that it might have been a bridge to far even for Trump to bust Jeb Bush’s “my brother kept us safe” balloon in South Carolina (uber-hawk Lindsey Graham’s stomping ground) the week before the south’s first major primary. Would this be the mistake that brought his campaign to grief?
Nope. Trump won the primary handily, Jeb ended his campaign … and from this point on Republican candidates for the presidency and other offices will finally feel free to openly disown — or at least quit feigning nostalgia for — the eight nightmare years of George W. Bush’s administration.
Dubya’s legacy — 9/11, two failed wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression — may not have been entirely his fault. In fact, I think most reasonable people can agree that bad luck and bad advice were major contributing factors.
But what happened happened. It destroyed any chance of victory John McCain might otherwise have enjoyed in 2008, then dogged Mitt Romney’s heels in 2012 as well. Sure, Romney was the weakest Republican nominee since Wendell Willkie anyway, but the Bush legacy certainly didn’t do him any favors.
The GOP’s rut really goes back to 1990, the end of the Cold War, and yet another Bush White House. Ever since, the party’s establishment has had to work overtime, with the aid of convenient menaces (Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, 9/11, etc.) to keep its post-WWII raison d’etre — maintenance of an expensive gravy train for its military-industrial complex backers — on the rails. This meant marginalizing, at every opportunity, the party’s non-interventionist wing, most famously in the persons of Ron and Rand Paul over the last three election cycles.
Those non-interventionists could be marginalized, dismissed and put to pasture because they owed a modicum of loyalty to their party. But the Donald knows no loyalties except to himself, and perhaps to his own view of the truth. By stating that view and not paying for it with the loss of a major presidential primary, or with a hit to his overall nomination prospects, he has set the Republican Party free … if free is what it wants to be. Which remains to be seen, and is a question almost certainly weighing heavily on the minds of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.