The general election campaign has not begun, but preliminary polling suggests that Donald Trump is a decided underdog against Hillary Clinton. For the Republican Party, there is an issue beyond the Election Day outcome–and one that, at least right now, looks unlikely to be resolved no matter who wins in November.
More so than reports of John Kasich suspending his campaign, it was Sen. Ted Cruz’s withdrawal from the Republican primary race Tuesday night that sparked reactions from Republicans ranging from begrudging acceptance to continued hostility. Mr. Trump’s ascendance illustrates a split within the Republican Party, between the “establishment” and the “tea party” lanes, that has been widening for years. It is likely to persist, as both factions disagree on the elements that led to Mr. Trump’s meteoric rise.
A core point in the internal GOP dispute is whether political confrontation or ideological conservatism most motivates voters, including the party’s base. Steve Schmidt, a consultant to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, said on MSNBC Tuesday night that Mr. Trump’s rise was fueled by voter frustration stoked by the tea-party wing. He and other establishment figures view anger as a poor substitute for substantive policy solutions and a dead-end political strategy in general.
On the other hand, those aligned with tea-partyers view the Trump phenomenon as rising from discontent with an insufficiently conservative leadership. They see voters’ frustration and anger rooted in an establishment that overpromised and underdelivered, for example by promising to fight President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration “tooth and nail” in November 2014 but, just a few months later, ruling out a partial government shutdown over the issue as “not an option.”
A Cruz nomination would have left little doubt about the party’s ideological direction. Mr. Cruz often echoed Ronald Reagan’s desire to speak “in bold colors, not pale pastels,” and relying on motivated conservatives to help drive general election turnout. A Cruz-Clinton match-up would have made clear the potential, and potential limits, of a “base strategy.”
Conversely, Trump’s ideological heterodoxies—on health care, abortion and even about Hillary Clinton herself—reshuffle the political landscape. Mr. Trump falls outside the “establishment” and “tea party” labels, as neither side fully embraced his ascent. Mr. Trump said Wednesday that “As far as the Republican Party coming together, it will, maybe not 100%, but it’ll come together 99% and the 1% I don’t want and it won’t have any impact.” What shape the GOP takes as some elements rally behind him and others consider different directions will definitely have an impact on the Republican Party as we have known it.
This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.