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Commentary

Trump campaign reminiscent of an earlier GOP disaster

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If you turn on any of the cable news channels, the odds are you will soon see a studio full of Republican analysts wringing their hands and discussing whether Donald Trump can be stopped. The answer, as the candidates convene on Michigan, is very likely not.

  

Nobody I know really thinks Trump will lose the Michigan primary in five days, though the conventional, or establishment Republicans are talking about holding down his margin.

Their last real hope of stopping him comes in twelve days. Beginning on March 15, most GOP state primaries switch to a winner-take-all system, rather than dividing delegates proportionally.

They hope that Marco Rubio can win his home state of Florida and John Kasich his Ohio, denying Trump any delegates from those two big states, and hopefully preventing him from getting to the convention in Cleveland with a first ballot majority.

Well, that’s mathematically possible. But anytime you have a candidate who wins landslide primary victories in both Massachusetts and Alabama on the same night, you have a national phenomenon. There is also no candidate who offers countervailing universal appeal. But what many Republicans really fear, however, is not Trump’s policies.

They worry he will be defeated in a terrible landslide that will take hundreds of other Republicans in Congress and state legislatures with him. And that may be a legitimate fear. In fact, it happened before, with particularly devastating consequences for Republicans in Michigan. The year was 1964, and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was moving towards the Republican Presidential nomination.

Goldwater was not as crassly vulgar as Trump. That was not an age when candidates made fun of their opponents’ appearances or had to be bleeped. But in other ways, the resemblance is uncannily familiar. Goldwater had policies that frightened people.

He talked about selling off the Tennessee Valley Authority and making Social Security voluntary, something oddly echoed by Trump’s proposal to replace Medicaid with block grants to the states. Trump talks about bombing ISIS into oblivion; Goldwater joked about lobbing a nuclear missile into the men’s room at the Kremlin.

Goldwater opposed the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964, saying it infringed personal freedoms. National Republican leaders reacted to all of that exactly as they are now. But all efforts to stop him were futile.

Back then, Michigan governors still had to run every two years. George Romney, running for a second term, angered conservatives by refusing to endorse Goldwater. It was a smart move. Goldwater became the only presidential candidate in history to lose Michigan by more than a million votes. But more than 700,000 people split their tickets to reelect Romney.

But otherwise, Michigan Republicans were devastated. They lost five seats in Congress. Democrats won enormous majorities in both houses of the legislature. Nationally, the picture was pretty much the same.

Barry Goldwater lost by sixteen million votes. Democrats ended up with more than twice as many seats as Republicans in both houses of Congress, meaning President Lyndon Johnson could get pretty much anything he wanted, which is how Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and many other programs came to be born. Republicans soon began to recover.

But that election was a traumatic experience for the GOP. This year, there is increasing fear they may be about to repeat it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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