Polman: GOP gapes at its existential crisis

Dick Polman
Dick Polman

It's thigh-slappingly funny to recall that Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said on the eve of this national race that "Republicans will choose from a deep bench of presidential material."

After the latest round of contests and the latest winnowing of the field, here's what the GOP is left with: A celebrity hate-peddler whose agenda is built on bluster, a far-right government-crashing ideologue who would lose 40 states, and a governor whose primary season record is 1-28.

Yes, folks, the GOP's long-gestating existential crisis has finally arrived. What does it stand for as a party? Three years after vowing, in an official report, to adopt a more tolerant tone and nurture relations with an increasingly diverse electorate, is it now willing to let itself be trampled by Donald Trump? How hard is it prepared to fight (if at all) to regain its self-respect and retain its claim to being "the party of Lincoln?"

The delegate math makes these questions ever more urgent. After winning in Florida, Illinois and North Carolina, Trump is well-poised to reach the Cleveland convention with a solid plurality of delegates. His loss in Ohio, courtesy of home-boy Gov. John Kasich, is a stone in his shoe that slows his march, but he can still clinch a delegate majority if he wins 60 percent of those not yet chosen. That's arguably a tall order. But his chief rival is Ted Cruz, who's widely hated in the party, and who's surely toxic in late-voting delegate-rich states like California, New York and New Jersey.

Within the party, there's still great unease about Trump. According to the Ohio exit polls, 43 percent of those who voted in the Republican primary said they would "seriously consider voting for a third-party candidate" if Trump wins the nomination. That's significant, because no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.

And similar sentiment was expressed elsewhere. In North Carolina, a state that went blue eight years ago, 39 percent of voting Republicans said they'd seriously look at a third-party candidate if Trump gets the nod. In Missouri, a state that has tilted red in the last four elections, that share was 43 percent. In swing-state Florida, it was 29 percent.

So is the GOP prepared to blow up its own convention in order to thwart Trump? Under the current rules, only those candidates who have won the majority of delegates in eight states can be formally placed in nomination. Right now, only Trump meets that criterion. Cruz might hit that mark, but Kasich probably won't. But if the GOP is serious about stopping Trump, it could vote to dump that rule — thus boosting Kasich, or perhaps paving the way for a late entrant who didn't run in the primaries at all.

The hope — among saner, civil Republicans — is that Trump comes up short on the first ballot, so that enough delegates would be freed up for subsequent ballots. The hope is they would then rationally assess the race by looking at electability. And the fact is, Hillary Clinton has been beating Trump in virtually every poll.

But if the GOP heeds the electability factor and somehow manages to come to its senses, what would happen then? Trump might well announce that the party isn't treating him nice and bolt, taking his fans with him. Which would leave the party just as fractured.

Still, maybe a Trump exodus is the best outcome — because otherwise, this autumn, all the down-ballot swing-state Republicans will be compelled to say whether they agree with their nominee's denigration of women, stoking of violence, endorsement of torture, exploitation of bigotry, and whatever acts of repugnance that have yet to be committed.

It's their soul at stake. Will they try to save it?

Dick Polman is a national political columnist and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Philadelphia.