Remember when the 2016 presidential primary on the GOP side was going to be a "battle for the soul of the Republican Party"? At the conclusion of a period of frustration and tumult, with Barack Obama's reign coming to its end, they were going to have a passionate debate over the party's identity. What does it mean to be a Republican at this moment, and what do they want to achieve? Who does their coalition include? How do they appeal not just to the voters they have now, but to those they want to win over in the future?
The problem is that a party's ability to have that kind of debate in a primary depends on both the people running for president and its voters themselves. Both have to be willing to have the debate—to explore the possibilities, advocate for different approaches, and come to a conclusion. But with the Iowa caucuses just days away, that's not how it turned out.
Even the battle between the "establishment" and the "insurgents" has been far less than it was cracked up to be, because the insurgents won before it even started. Every candidate agreed from the outset that the establishment was vile and loathsome, and they wanted nothing to do with it. The closest thing to an establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, turned out to be a pathetic failure. Even the candidates who were supposed to unite the two camps—first Scott Walker, then Marco Rubio—failed to convince too many voters of their merit (though obviously Rubio might still gain strength).
In the process, the debate between the two sides got lost. Right now the two leading Democratic candidates are having a spirited argument about whether their voters should seek the kind of revolutionary, dramatic change represented by Bernie Sanders, or the more pragmatic approach of Hillary Clinton. As Paul Krugman wrote, "Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama," one focusing on lofty ideas and fundamental ideals, while the other understands the hard slog of governing and the necessity of accepting half a loaf when you can get it. But Republicans aren't talking nearly as much about their varying approaches to governing. Indeed, it's hard to tell if most of them have even thought about it, beyond the notion that they'll deliver everything conservatives want and make America great again.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest reason Republicans haven't been able to fight it out over their party's soul: Donald Trump. At the moment, we see two things happening simultaneously. First, as Dana Milbank noted, everyone from The Wall Street Journal editorial page to the likes of Bob Dole "are acquiescing to the once inconceivable: that a xenophobic and bigoted showman is now the face of the Republican Party and of American conservatism." Part of that comes from terror at the prospect of Ted Cruz leading them to electoral disaster, but it's also a simple acknowledgement that Trump could be their nominee, and the party elite is a practical group.
But at the same time, other members of that elite are making last-ditch panicky pleas to the voters to come to their senses. The National Review just published a package of articles under the headline "Against Trump," where movement figures from Ed Meese to Glenn Beck made the case that a Trump nomination would be a betrayal of everything they all stand for.
And on that at least, they're probably right. Trump isn't a "real" Republican in that he has little history with the party, but more importantly, there's no reason to believe he has any commitment to conservative ideology. Everything he's doing now is to appeal to the particular electorate he's courting, and it's hard to imagine even his supporters thinking he's genuinely a huge advocate of the Second Amendment, or a huge opponent of abortion, or a huge fan of the Bible. Everyone laughed about him quoting "Two Corinthians" at Liberty University, but what's more telling is that after quoting it he said, "Is that the one, is that the one you like? I think that's the one you like." The man who proclaims his brave willingness to say what's "politically incorrect" is actually the most deeply cynical politician running this year, and if he wins the GOP nomination, I promise you he'll become markedly less conservative as soon as he starts trying to appeal to a wider set of voters.
Contrast that with someone like Mitt Romney, who also had his conservative bona fides questioned. Had Romney won, he would have governed like exactly the hard-right conservative he ran as. He was a creature of his party, and had made commitments that couldn't be revoked. Republicans would have gotten no unpleasant surprises from him. But Trump? He'd be completely unpredictable.
So while a year ago everyone assumed that there would be some insurgent candidate getting support from the unruly and angry voters and then everyone else would coalesce around an establishment-blessed alternative, now conservatives face the horror of a race being fought out between an insurgent they can't stand and a demagogue they can't trust.
In the process, they've lost the chance to define today's Republican conservatism for the voters and for themselves. Imagine that they lose in November, as is looking increasingly likely. What would the GOP that emerges from this election look like? How will it remake itself to win back the White House? If anyone knows, they can't be heard over the din coming from Iowa and New Hampshire.