GREENVILLE, S.C. – In an election that Republicans have long seen as a chance to put forward new stars with a fresh and broadly appealing conservative vision, the GOP is instead at risk of tearing itself apart over its past as it heads into the thick of the primary season.
A day after a debate marked by a series of personal, petty exchanges – and a day before former President George W. Bush was set to make a high-profile return to the national scene – Republicans were grappling with their core beliefs on a host of issues, as well as the image they were broadcasting to the country.
The infighting was ignited at the debate on Saturday night by front-runner Donald Trump, who was unrelenting in his criticism of both how well the 43rd president kept America safe before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and of hawkish Republican worldview in general.
The foreign policy fracas is only the latest row among 2016 candidates over many of the basic tenets that have guided Republican and conservative thinking since the Reagan years, from free trade to the extent to which the federal government should be involved in providing health care for its poorest citizens.
Trump reiterated threats to use tariffs on imported goods to punish corporations that leave the United States, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich defended his decision to accept an expansion of Medicaid in his state as a humane step in line with conservative goals.
The increasingly harsh discussions of these and other issues amount to an existential crisis within the Republican Party and reflect the growing influence of non-ideological, populist voters who have flocked in particular to Trump’s nationalist “Make America Great Again” message.
Trump was defiant and unapologetic on Sunday, saying that he is a truth-teller and that the majority of Americans – weary of war, alienated by the political class and thirsting for a populist revival – would heed his call.
“The war in Iraq has been a disaster,” Trump said on Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It started the chain of events that leads now to the migration, maybe the destruction of Europe. (Bush) started the war in Iraq. Am I supposed to be a big fan?”
Todd Harris, a senior adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, echoed the sentiment of many in the GOP when he said after the debate that Trump “was at war with the Republican Party.”
So far, at least, it is a war that many Republicans are willing to wage alongside Trump. Fresh off his commanding win in the New Hampshire primary, a new poll released on Sunday by CBS News showed Trump surging here ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina primary. The survey showed Trump with the backing of 42 percent of Republican voters, more than double the support of his closest rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
The poll was taken before the debate and the ensuing fallout, which many Republicans predicted would limit Trump’s appeal going forward.
Nevertheless, the coming weeks will test not only who is most popular in South Carolina but whether the ties that have bound the GOP for a generation will unravel entirely.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, S.C., a supporter of Bush, said of Trump: “This man accused George W. Bush of being a liar and suggested he should be impeached. This man embraces (Russian President Vladimir) Putin as a friend. The market in the Republican primary for people who believe that Putin’s a good guy and W. is a liar is pretty damn small.”
As confident as the Republican establishment is that voters will eventually turn against Trump for his apostasies and controversies, there is little evidence that they will. Still, other contenders are making their most concerted effort yet to stop him here, even as top party officials and financiers remain on the sidelines.
If the real estate magnate is able to win convincingly in South Carolina, he would enter the Super Tuesday states on March 1 with considerable strength and having endured a sustained assault. Despite the polls, Trump’s competitors and their allies view South Carolina as perhaps their best opportunity to slow or stop Trump’s march to the nomination.