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Opinion: Analyzing the Republican 'Establishment'

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I'm filing this column too early to know the results of the New Hampshire primary. But coming out of Iowa, the verdict is that Marco Rubio's strong third-place finish was a victory — and a royal relief — for the Republican establishment.

Having watched helplessly as a fright-wigged reality show host dragged their party's "brand" through the muck, Republicans fretted that no one would ever again trust the steady hand of the white men who have guarded the homeland, nurtured the free market and championed the American family for lo these many decades. They weren't thrilled about a holier-than-everybody fire-and-brimstone spewer at the top of the party's ticket, either.

For a while, the idea that the weirdos are wrecking the GOP seemed right to me. That's why I've been rooting for either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to win the nomination. Both are despicable enough to drive away the majority of the electorate. And if they can take down the Republican Party in the process, more power to them.

But I've changed my mind. Whether Trump or Cruz or Rubio gets the final nod — and it appears the nod will go to one of them — the Republican Party should stop worrying.

This party has spent the past 35 years engineering the very conditions — from the collapse of the middle class to the conflagrations in the Middle East — that have produced the anger and anxiety fueling the current revolt. But the more radical the rhetoric on the stump grows, the more respectable the rest of the GOP looks in comparison.

Casting Trump as the Great Destroyer of the GOP, George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post that, should Trump become the party's leader, he would abandon its "humane values" and "make [it] the party of racial and religious exclusion."

Trump would do that? Has Gerson not noted that two of his party's principal goals are to take away the health insurance of millions of people and to subject women to ever-greater humiliations in order to control their own bodies? Has he noticed the color of almost every face at any Republican event — or the 80 percent of African Americans who lean Democratic? Is he unaware that half of 2012's GOP primary voters were evangelical Christians?

A radically right-wing party is being recast as a rational, civic-minded player in American politics.

Look how the press describes Rubio. Under the headline "Marco Rubio emerges as champion of battered Republican establishment," Reuters contrasted Cruz and Trump's "angry, scorched-earth, insurgent politics" with the "moderate candidates" — including Rubio — struggling to challenge them.

In the Chicago Tribune, columnist Dana Milbank drew a similar line between the "angry populism" of Iowa's Cruz and Trump supporters and the "mainstream, suburban conservatives" who caucused for Rubio.

But Marco Rubio is no moderate.

He opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He supports torture, having told the audience at one campaign stop that he'd ship "those terrorists" to Guantánamo, "where we're going to find out everything they know."

His tax plan would give a massive break to the top 1 percent and cost the U.S. Department of the Treasury three times as much as the Bush tax cuts. Factor in Rubio's pledge to balloon military spending — and require a balanced budget, to boot — and the government will shrink to the size of something, in Grover Norquist's phrase, that can drown in a bathtub.

Implement Rubio's plan, according to New York magazine, and "Medicaid, veterans' health insurance, transportation, border security, and education, not to mention the entire federal antipoverty budget other than Medicare and Social Security, would have to go."

"Among Republican presidential nominees since 1960 ... only the extraordinarily conservative Barry Goldwater ... rates as being more conservative than Mr. Rubio," the New York Times statistical blog FiveThirtyEight concluded in 2013, when it rated the conservatism of past and present Republican presidential candidates and Congress members. Rubio's rating is 51, compared with Goldwater's 67, the highest on the scale.

Actually, Cruz rates even higher: 53. He's also one of only two senators whose record earns a perfect lifetime score of 100 from the American Conservative Union. But Rubio isn't far behind, at 98.

Rubio might not be moderate. But among his colleagues, he is mainstream. By FiveThirtyEight's reckoning, the Congressional Republicans averaged 48 in conservatism. The ACU reveals a similarly skewed GOP. In 2015, two-thirds of the Senate's 54 Republicans received an ACU score of 80 or higher. Viewed historically, the party has fallen off the right side of the Earth. In 1935, Social Security passed with the support of 81 Republican representatives and 16 senators. Not one Republican in either chamber voted for Obamacare.

So who is this moderate Republican establishment we keep hearing about? Bill Buckley Jr., Bill Kristol, George Will? These are talking heads, not lawmakers. On Capitol Hill, as Vermont's Willem Lange wrote last week in the Valley News, the "exemplar of the canon" of conservative "virtues" is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Yes, Paul Ryan — the deficit hawk who, only a few years ago, was the exemplar of coldhearted conservative vices.

Since October, when he yielded to weeks of fawning and cajoling to take the reins of the fractious Republican caucus (a position he probably wanted all along), Ryan's image has been undergoing a major makeover. He's apologized for dividing the American people between "makers" and "takers"; now he's all about ending poverty. His condition for taking the speaker's job was that his "family time" be inviolate. He's grown a beard, lending a wire-haired raffishness to his sensitive-dachshund face.

And, though he won't explicitly bad-mouth the front-runners, Ryan has come out against "anger" and for "ideas." Thinking rather than barreling forward on feelings alone apparently makes the speaker a statesman. But when did this automaton of trickle-down economics ever have feelings?

The speaker's website doesn't elaborate on what those ideas are, besides "bold" and "pro-growth." Why would these bold pro-growth ideas be any different from the bold pro-growth ideas that shaped the infamous Ryan Budget of 2011 and all his budgets since — privatizing Medicare, eviscerating welfare, shoveling money to the rich?

Of course, the day Ryan shook hands with Obama on a budget proposal, in December, the GOP/Tea Party Freedom Caucus threw him over as a traitor. The Drudge Report now refers to "ObamaRyan." Among other sins, the speaker agreed not to stick it to either the Syrians or Planned Parenthood. But even as he negotiated spending levels his detractors call ruinous — and vow to oppose — he paired them with extended tax cuts that will further enrich the rich and beggar the government. Ryan is trying to placate his restive troops with promises of entitlement cuts to come.

Still, the press has been gentle on him, and he is exuding calm and confidence. He told the Blaze that he found charges of his treason to the cause "entertaining." That anyone considers him establishment, Ryan said, shows "conservatives have basically taken over."

The same can be said of Rubio. As Daily Beast columnist Jon Favreau tweeted the morning after the Iowa caucuses: "Only took about five years for a Tea Party candidate (yes, Marco Rubio was a Tea Partier) to become the 'Establishment' choice. Neat."

Despite talk of "polarization," the drift in mainstream politics has all been rightward — among both Republicans and Democrats. Bernie Sanders can't pull it to the other pole, and Hillary Clinton won't pull it much at all. But this does not mean that a vote for Hillary, should she win the nomination, would make no difference. The ship of state is listing so far to starboard that, without ballast even from the center, it will founder and sink. You know who will motor off in the lifeboats and who will be left to drown.

Imagine America governed exclusively by Republicans — the full spectrum, from New York State Rep. Peter King on the left to Ted Cruz on the right.

We'll have the infrastructure of Flint, Mich., and the financial system of Bear Stearns. Our planes will be carpet-bombing any country that looks at us crooked. The national parks will belong to the Bundys. Polling places in certain districts will be shuttered.

Women of reproductive age will be subject to random intravaginal sonograms. Sharia law will be banned, but proof of baptism by an authorized evangelical Christian church will be required to get a driver's license.

The only hope at that point will be for the new president to fulfill the dreams of the people who elected him: On Day 1 he'll turn off the lights in the Oval Office, shut down the government and go home to manage his stock portfolio and pray for mercy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "This Is the Republican Establishment?"

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