You cannot overstate how embarrassing Donald Trump has become for the GOP. The party of Lincoln and Eisenhower is getting pantsed by a tacky reality TV star and Clinton Foundation donor who tweeted that Jeb Bush likes "Mexican illegals because of his wife." A man who has repeatedly made can't-lose enterprises like casinos and New York real estate go bankrupt has the gall to get off the phone with his party's chairman and tell the media, "We're not dealing with a five-star Army general." The Republican leadership even confesses that it is paralyzed by this crazy right-wing challenger whose last presidential run began by quitting the GOP for the Reform Party, with the explanation: "I really believe the Republicans are just too crazy right."
But the truth is that Republicans have only themselves to blame. Trump's success in the polls is not just a matter of spectacle. Republicans have let the issue of illegal immigration simmer for two decades. And rather than pick a course and stick to it, the party has done a series of head fakes. That has allowed Trump to ride this issue, more than any other, into the top tier of early polling.
During election season, Republicans typically campaign as get-tough, border-patrolling Minutemen. "Complete the danged fence," John McCain growled in a 2010 campaign ad, while invoking the specters of drug smugglers and home invasions. After the election, however, Republicans draw close to The Wall Street Journal editorial board and try to come up with less damning euphemisms for amnesty. And ensconced in office, they lecture other Republicans, as John McCain did in Time magazine last year, saying that without comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship (read: amnesty) the party is doomed.
This is the party's style on other issues as well. The drawl disappears on Election Day. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 on a tide of Evangelical votes, then spent all of his political capital failing to pass a privatization of Social Security and a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Neither featured heavily in his campaign, and they both died.
No wonder, then, that a certain breed of Republican primary voter is taking a shine to Trump. Whatever can be said about the substance of Trump's utterances, the tone of sneering populist contempt never varies. His political strategy is to go on permanent offense by being perpetually offensive. To voters accustomed to the Republican head-fake, the man with the fake-looking head has a certain kind of integrity. Yes, he's an ass. But at least he's always that way.
The GOP knows that immigration is a powerful issue. But the party has avoided the chance to do something about it for two decades. A restrictionist position single-handedly saved the career of California's Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s. The issue fueled the Buchanan insurgency that nearly derailed Bob Dole's nomination in 1996. At that time the issue even threatened to split off some Democrats. Former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan's commission on the issue called for reducing even legal immigration levels. "Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave," she said.
Alternating between fear of current restrictionist voters and cowardice before future Latino voters, the GOP has never said anything so clear as Barbara Jordan. Instead the issue has been ceded to populist media figures like cable television's Lou Dobbs, talk radio's Michael Savage, and the one-woman anvil chorus, Ann Coulter. It has been transformed from a normal policy question that every nation faces to a hotheaded insult directed south of the border.
Donald Trump is just the latest of these media figures, but unlike the rest he has the money and the lack of self-awareness to run for office and unburden himself about it. But the GOP could have avoided this by settling the issue one way or the other.
Had the GOP taken the hint after Gov. Wilson's re-election, and worked with Democrats like Barbara Jordan, they could have taken the issue off the field for a generation. A decade later, they had the chance to do the same again when George W. Bush pushed for comprehensive reform. The public's fury over the war in Iraq and a stalling economy were coming to hit the party anyway, and anger from the conservative base over Bush's reform would have made little difference in 2006 and 2008.
Instead they the party did nothing. And now it reaps the whirlwind of Trump's hot air.