Now that Donald Trump has won South Carolina, with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz essentially tied for second, just about every media source you'll encounter will say that the Republican race for the presidency is down to those three and those three only. That judgment isn't necessarily unreasonable, but it will be final. Even before all the votes were counted, Jeb Bush suspended his campaign, realizing that he could try to keep campaigning, but the only kind of attention he'd be getting is what has been called "deathwatch coverage," which is about as amenable to a comeback as it sounds.
So this is what the Republican race has come down to: the bigoted bombastic buffoon, the loathsome ideologue, and the baby-faced senator who has stumbled just infrequently enough to stick around while the rest of the field fell away.
Republicans must be asking themselves, how did things go so wrong?
If the frontrunner were anyone other than Donald Trump, at this point everyone would assume that the primary race was all but over. After all, he came in second in the first contest, then won the next two. He's comfortably ahead in national polls, and I've yet to see a poll in any state that doesn't show him leading. Yet even now, the idea of Trump as the Republican Party's nominee still seems preposterous.
But who or what is going to stop him? Consider the fact that in advance of the South Carolina primary, Trump 1) had a fight with the pope; 2) said he liked the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which among conservatives is tantamount to getting a Che Guevara tattoo; 3) enthusiastically told an apocryphal story about a World War I massacre, the point of which was to endorse war crimes against Muslims; and 4) said that George W. Bush lied about WMDs in order to get us into the disaster of the Iraq War.
And he still won by double digits.
This is why conservatives fear Trump being their nominee and losing only slightly more than Trump being their nominee and winning: There's no reason to believe he would govern as a conservative. As he himself said with characteristic candor, "I'm very capable of changing to anything I want to change to."
This is not the case with Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, not only because they couldn't, but because there's no reason to think they want to. This is important to understand as the debate over who's the "real" conservative proceeds, now more focused by the smaller number of choices: While Trump certainly has no beliefs that aren't subject to change depending on whom he's pandering to, there is virtually no ideological difference between Cruz and Rubio. Cruz may have a harsher affect and enjoy looking into cameras with his steely "I'm so resolute" expression when he talks about conservatism, but on actual issues their differences are tiny.
Yes, it's true that some years ago Rubio participated in the writing of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, for which he is now paying a political price. But there would be no difference between a President Cruz and a President Rubio on immigration if either were elected.
There are two reasons why. First, either one of them would be constrained by the commitments they made during the campaign, which are the same: Beef up border security, no "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, get toughtoughtough. Second, they'll be constrained by the party they would lead, and the Republican Party is just not interested in anything other than that "tough" approach to immigration. And if they won the White House, it would almost certainly mean they held on to control of Congress, which means they wouldn't feel any need to "reach out" to Hispanic voters, or anyone else for that matter.
So there's no real difference between the two on immigration, nor on much of anything else: Both want huge tax cuts for the wealthy, both express their hatred of regulations to protect the environment, both would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and on and on. If you're looking for a "real" conservative, you still have at least two choices left.
On the other hand, if you're fed up, angry, disgusted, and discontented — particularly if you feel that way about the Republican Party as well as Barack Obama — you're probably behind Trump. And right now, there seem to be a lot more of those voters in the Republican primaries than there are voters who care deeply about the fortunes of the Grand Old Party.
As loyal Republicans look to the near future, they see before them any number of nightmare scenarios. So even as order comes to the Republican race — with candidates dropping off so what remains is a clear choice between a smaller number of contenders — chaos still reigns.