As recently as last year, decisions within the Republican Party were largely dominated by conservative principles and traditional values — a checklist of small-government, often religiously inspired, goals that sometimes prevented legislative progress, but at least bound the party together with ideas most Republicans seemed to share.
But at the GOP convention in Cleveland this week, the driving force behind some of the most consequential developments affecting the party’s future were driven by old-fashioned family dynamics. And it turns out nearly everybody at the top of the party has major daddy issues.
Even before the convention began, Donald Trump’s choice to bypass Chris Christie as his running mate reportedly came down to the fact that the New Jersey governor sent Jared Kushner’s father to prison back when Christie was a federal prosecutor. Christie had governing experience, policy expertise and easy chemistry with Trump, but as the tormentor of Trump’s in-laws, his sins against the Kushners would never be forgiven.
Once the convention began, the unusually large role of Kushner and all of Trump’s children within the campaign became apparent. When Melania Trump’s speech became the subject of a plagiarism controversy, a ticktock of the process revealed Kushner had assigned the initial draft out to speechwriters, a job usually handled by a campaign’s communications director or speechwriting team.
Later in the week, a New York Times article detailed the Trump camp’s outreach to Gov. John Kasich as a potential running mate, with Donald Trump Jr. acting as the liaison to potential vice presidential nominees, another role almost always performed by an experienced campaign operative. Kasich could run domestic and foreign policy, Don. Jr. told the governor’s associate, while his dad would be in charge of Making America Great Again.
Ivanka Trump, his eldest daughter, continued to support and counsel her father at the convention in a way typically reserved for candidates’ wives. She introduced him Thursday night to accept his nomination in a speech widely agreed to be the best of the convention. She built him up, described his commitment to color-blind and gender-neutral achievement and assured America that we can trust him just as much as she does.
Eric and Tiffany Trump spoke, too, and all four of the Trump children served as his character witnesses, campaign advisers, cheering section and brand ambassadors. But it’s one thing for a candidate’s kids to speak about the man they know, and quite another for them to influence the mechanics and message of a Republican presidential campaign, especially when just two are registered Republicans and none has campaign experience.
When decisions that used to be made based on GOP principles come down to one family’s effort to deliver a prize for their dad, the party itself becomes secondary to the man they’re all committed to empowering.
If Trump’s kids were his biggest boosters this week, Ted Cruz stepped up as his own father’s staunchest defender. Months ago, Trump had suggested that Rafael Cruz had played a role in the JFK assassination. Cruz exacted his revenge to that insult to his father by walking off the convention stage without endorsing Trump. He explained to Texans the next day that he’s not in the habit of supporting a man who maligns his family.
But even as he struck back at Trump, Cruz was also guaranteeing that the party desperately in need of unification would not be unified leaving Cleveland after all.
Maybe instead of looking at resumes and policy positions, Republicans in the future should just ask candidates how their dads are doing. The answer to that question seems to have eclipsed everything else that used to matter in the Republican Party. Instead of principle and values, decisions about running mates, campaign mechanics and the overall future of the party have come down to making sure that somewhere, everyone’s dad is happy with the result.
It’s a sort of family value, in a way, but it’s not about the Republican Party anymore.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy