THE WILDERNESS: Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House
By McKay Coppins
Little Brown. 383 pp. $28
“What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s classic portrait of six politicians seeking the presidency in 1988, was published four years after that race. “Game Change,” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s smug, dishy look inside the 2008 campaign, came out 14 months after the election it chronicled — and that seemed quick at the time.
How quaint. Now, with publishing time frames more compressed, attention spans more fleeting and political coverage more incremental, it was inevitable that we’d get something like McKay Coppins’s “The Wilderness,” a book on the Republican Party’s quest for the White House that has been released not just before the current campaign is over but before a single primary vote has been cast.
Coppins, a senior political reporter at BuzzFeed, enters the 2016 campaign book sweepstakes with plenty of behind-the-scenes details, staffer tiffs and inside-their-heads candidate musings. But at times, “The Wilderness” is so far ahead of things that it laps the field and ends up behind. This is a book about the GOP’s battle for the White House that devotes more attention to Bobby Jindal than to Donald Trump. It lingers on the personal and political reinvention of Rep. Paul Ryan, who is not running for president. And in its nearly 400 pages, it fails to mention Ben Carson. It’s a bit ironic that Coppins, a talented writer for the most zeitgeisty site around, would serve up a story that feels dated on arrival.
Of course, the fight to redefine the Republican Party after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 is an enormously consequential story, too. “For the first time in more than forty years,” Coppins writes, “the GOP had no consensus heir apparent, no next-in-line standard-bearer, no revered party eminence around whom the nation’s Republicans would naturally coalesce.” The jockeying for that position is the focus of “The Wilderness,” and Coppins excels at personalizing the tale through the ambitions, tactics and delusions of his protagonists.
Starting on election night in 2012, everyone began interpreting the Republicans’ defeat in self-serving ways. Sen. Rand Paul concluded, Coppins writes, that the party had no choice but to “shed its hawkish orthodoxies, shred its intolerant dogmas, and embrace a new libertarian future”— with Paul at the helm, naturally. Sen. Marco Rubio believed that he was the youthful, Hispanic face the party needed to defeat the Democrats’ multi-hued coalition. Jindal assumed that the GOP could use an intellectually ambitious standard-bearer, “someone, he thought, like Bobby Jindal.” Newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz was already positioning himself as the true conservative in the 2016 race. And Jeb Bush, confident in his network, name and record, was waiting for the right moment to fulfill his dynastic destiny.
Of course, if you’ve been following the campaign — and why else would you read this book? — you know that none of them has succeeded, at least not yet. “After three years of exile and wandering in the wilderness,” Coppins concludes, “the Republican Party still had not found its Moses.”This is a book, then, about failure: failed candidates and a failing process. It’s a book that should make Hillary Clinton sleep well.
The most interesting stories in “The Wilderness” center on two of the men most removed from the presidential field: Jindal, who has withdrawn his candidacy, and Ryan, who has found a different job. Both undergo major transformations in these pages.
Jindal, finding the limits of wonky op-eds, was looking for a dramatic moment to market himself to Christian conservatives. It arrived in late 2013, when “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson went off against gay rights in an interview and A&E suspended him from the Louisiana-based show. “In Baton Rouge, Robertson’s antigay quotes arrived like manna from heaven,”Coppins writes. The governor issued a strident statement in defense of Robertson: “The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with,” Jindal asserted. “It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh and Phil Robertson gets suspended.”
It could seem crudely opportunistic, but Coppins grounds the move in Jindal’s high school days, when the young Hindu developed an intellectual interest in Christianity (a devout girlfriend may have deepened his theological inquiries, Coppins notes), and his college years at Brown University, when the institution experienced a wave of Catholic converts, including Jindal. “There is an elitist presumption in the Boston-to-DC corridor that you can’t really be smart and a Christian who believes these things,” a Jindal adviser told Coppins. “Bobby really enjoys taking that on.” Jindal’s transformation “from teacher’s pet to troll,” as Coppins puts it, gave the candidate a boost but was insufficient to propel his campaign forward.
Ryan, meanwhile, frustrated by his marginal role in the Romney-Ryan campaign, embarked on an urban poverty tour, devoting a day each month during 2013 to “start spending unchoreographed, unbuffered, unpublicized time with actual poor people,” Coppins writes. Though he stumbles badly when talking about poverty on a radio show, and it’s unclear to what extent his experiment truly changed his budget hawkishness, Ryan emerges as a hero in Coppins’s story, a moral center of a party increasingly powered by the fringes.
Which brings us to Trump. Coppins spends lots of time on his own brushes with the Republican front-runner, including Trump’s nasty tweets — calling Coppins a “slimebag reporter” and “true garbage”after a tough BuzzFeed story on the candidate — and the possibility that right-wingers were digging into Coppins’s personal life as retaliation. Yet we really don’t gain much insight into what powers the “visceral escapist fantasy”of the Trump candidacy, as Coppins describes it, aside from noting “how much influence a tiny, poisonous fringe could wield when a fractured party lacked a unifying leader.” That influence has solidified while the candidate’s views have grown even more visceral and poisonous, but the possibility that Trump could become the leader the GOP seeks does not seem to cross Coppins’s mind.
Though paranoid that the crazies are tailing him, Coppins has few qualms trafficking in rumor and anonymity himself, relying on the old dodge that if a rumor has become an issue within a campaign, it’s fair to report. So while chronicling the fight between Bush and Rubio for hearts, minds and wallets in Florida, Coppins detours into Rubio’s “widely-whispered-about ‘zipper problem’ ” — rumors that the politician had impregnated a Florida politico who went on to have an abortion, or that Rubio had a secret second family stashed away. Coppins presents no evidence for either scenario and notes that the opposition-research firm that the Rubio campaign enlisted to vet the candidate found none, either. And he relies on unnamed Rubio staffers to suggest that Bush allies in Florida were spreading the rumors. It’s not one of the finer moments in “The Wilderness,” on par with Coppins citing an anonymous Rand Paul strategist speculating that the senator’s father, Ron Paul, has Asperger’s syndrome, because of his “bizarre interpersonal style and his apparent inability to make friends.” If that’s all it takes, well, most of Washington has something.
Coppins notes the sexism of GOP figures who urge Carly Fiorina to enter the race merely to improve the field’s gender mix but who then worry she might get too, you know, feministy. And he rightly dwells on politicians’ inane brand-building gimmicks, as they grope for zingers and bash rivals on social media. Rand Paul in particular can’t seem to stop annoying people on Twitter, while a Rubio adviser warns Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus of severe consequences if Rubio is barred from a debate on a technicality. “I’m telling you, there’s gonna be a hashtag.” Oh, it’s on.
Coppins relishes describing the candidates’ looks. Rand Paul, for instance, “was in possession of perhaps the least statesmanlike patch of hair in modern political history — an unruly nest of golden curls that seemed existentially resistant to the taming powers of hair product — and his wardrobe was proudly defiant of regulatory overreach from the fashion-industrial complex.” He also peppers the story with needlessly contrived metaphors. When Rubio’s approval rating among Republicans dropped because of his support for immigration reform, the senator “seemed to cycle through the stations of grief with the destinationless speed of a spin class instructor.” And when Trump decided against sticking around for Romney’s concession speech, the billionaire departed “with the life-or-death urgency of an island villager trying to escape a tsunami.”
Sure, let’s go with it. For the Republican Party, this sojourn in the wilderness may prove destinationless, too. And for all his run-ins with the candidate, Coppins has managed to miss the tsunami that is Donald Trump.
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