Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

'What happened to our party? What happened to the conservative movement?'

As a concise distillation of the mindset of the GOP electorate, it's hard to top this statement from a Trump supporter participating in an Indiana focus group last week (h/t Political Insider):

“America doesn't want a politician. We're sick of career politicians. We did what we were supposed to do. We wrote the letters, we made the phone calls, and they did not listen, and we're out to clean house.”

While watching the GOP debate tonight, keep those words in mind. Every Republican presidential contender on the stage will be playing to that frustration and betrayal. That is the North Star by which they will align themselves, and if you'll forgive the awkward metaphor, that is the Mecca toward which they will genuflect. They are caught in a trap of their own making.

Once you've convinced your followers that Barack Obama is an alien presence in the White House, someone who poses a dire threat to everything they hold dear, including family, Christianity, capitalism, firearms, democracy and American exceptionalism, they're going to know what you intend to do about it. They have been told and came to believe that their country can be saved only if they gave the money, purged the RINOs, sent the letters, joined the email lists and voted to elect a Republican Congress. So they did all that and more.

The result? A GOP Congress that at this very minute is cutting a budget deal with Obama, that is voting to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, that won't defund Planned Parenthood and has proved itself utterly hapless in confronting Hillary Clinton. As the Trump supporter explains, the base has carried out their end of the bargain, but the political establishment acts as if this were politics as usual. They want someone who will promise action commensurate with the threat they've been sold.

As the pollsters who conducted the focus group concluded:

"The media keeps waiting for this to fade, but listening to these voters suggests that it may not fade. For those who keep waiting for the “establishment” candidates such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie to emerge, it may not happen. Listening to the voices in Indianapolis, for those who say “it cannot happen here,” it could happen in 2016."

Over the last few days, we've also seen frustration of a different sort finally begin to surface. "What has happened to our party?" Kasich wailed plaintively in Ohio, astonished by the "crazy" positions taken by his party's frontrunners. "What has happened to the conservative movement?"

"If this election is about how we're going to fight to get nothing done, then I don't want to have any part of it," Bush told a crowd in South Carolina. "... That is not my motivation. I got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around and be miserable, listening to people demonize me and feeling compelled to demonize me. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that."

Sen. Lindsey Graham is equally bent out of shape. “On our side, you’ve got the No. 2 guy (Ben Carson, who) tried to kill someone at 14, and the No. 1 (Trump) is high energy and crazy as hell," he complained. "How am I losing to these people?”

Graham is not only losing to "these people," he's polling so poorly that he doesn't even qualify to be on the main stage. Kasich and Bush will be there, but even with their recent remarks, I'd be shocked if they did anything but play to, encourage and amplify the anger that their party has done so much to foment. None of them, for example, will admit to supporting the budget deal with Obama, even though it greatly benefits the country and was cut in large part to save the eventual GOP nominee from the political damage that a government shutdown would cause.

The smarter ones among them sense what lays at the end of this long, dark path, but they don't know how to change course.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.