If the GOP nominee wins the election, he would have to generate a lot of popular support around the country to make up for lost party loyalty in Washington
Travel around the country speaking about the election and you’ll frequently get this question: Can an independent candidate make a serious run for president?
We now essentially have such an independent candidate. His name is Donald Trump.
So the new questions are: Is it possible to win an election that way? Perhaps as important, if a candidate prevails in such a campaign, could he govern effectively afterward?
Increasingly, Mr. Trump and his unshakable core of supporters are breaking away from the party hierarchy. Mr. Trump himself has been getting large institutional support from the Republican National Committee, and many committee members around the country rallied behind him Monday. But simultaneously he has been estranged from many of the party’s senior figures and elected officials. He has not only challenged party orthodoxy on immigration, trade, the deficit and entitlement reform, but also sometimes mocked those who formed that party orthodoxy.
Then, of course, the estrangement turned into divorce over the weekend, when a long list of party regulars bolted from Mr. Trump’s side after the disclosure of a videotape in which he described his style for groping women, including a married woman. Mr. Trump then basically said goodbye to the establishment of his own party, tweeting about “self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers—and elections—go down!”
Meanwhile, weekend polling by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News finds that two-thirds of self-identified Republicans said the party should stand by Mr. Trump. Many Trump backers openly urge him to bust the chops of the party establishment.
This picture is extraordinary, and it challenges the system by which presidents normally run for and then operate in office.
Search history and you can find some pale comparisons. Many Democrats were unhappy with the leftward turn their party took under George McGovern in 1972, though the party hierarchy mostly hung together behind a candidate who was a sitting senator of good standing.
The closest parallel to today’s situation may be the campaign of Republican nomineeBarry Goldwater in 1964. Mr. Goldwater was deeply and philosophically conservative, and his nomination offended the liberal wing—and yes, the Republicans then had a liberal wing—of his party. So in his convention acceptance speech, he gently lectured those in the party who opposed him by calling on Republicans to reject “unthinking and stupid labels.”
Then he uttered the line that probably ended his chances of winning against PresidentLyndon Johnson: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Mr. Goldwater had labeled himself an extremist at odds with his own party’s mainstream, and he lost in a landslide. But Mr. Goldwater also was a sitting senator, and the tensions within the party didn’t reach today’s fissures.
Fast forward to today. Don’t expect many, if any, pictures of Mr. Trump campaigning in battleground states alongside Republican Senators seeking re-election from those same states. Beyond that, his campaign is subtly threatening to go on the attack against Republicans who oppose him.
So how would a president elected under such circumstances find the job of governing?
Obviously, the U.S. doesn’t have a parliamentary system in which party members fall in line as a bloc, and a leader’s survival depends on unified support among legislators. Still, a president relies heavily on solid support from his own party’s legislators as the starting point on big undertakings. Legislators who support a president have a stake in his or her policies, help sell them to the country, and have a powerful incentive of their own to defend them once they are implemented.
There should be more than just party-line support for big undertakings, of course. President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party are discovering the difficulties of sustaining a big project such as the Affordable Care Act when the opposition party doesn’t have a stake in its success.
Yet the process usually starts with having a reliable foundation of political support from partisan allies. Contrary to popular mythology, a president isn’t so powerful that he or she can proceed successfully without institutional support elsewhere in the system. A president who loses that support can become a stranded and lonely person. Check the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency for proof.
That was at the end of a presidency. In effect, Mr. Trump is advancing the idea of becoming a president at war with much of his own party at the outset of his term.
The current system may well place too much emphasis on party loyalty. But there’s also a penalty for having too little. The bottom line for Mr. Trump is this: If he were to win now, he would have to generate a lot of popular support around the country to make up for lost party loyalty in Washington reports wsj.com.