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Thanks for the Memories, South Carolina

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 19/02/2016 Steven Conn

With the GOP "Fight Club Tour 2016" currently in South Carolina it's a good time to trot out one of those old clichés about our two political parties. It goes like this: Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.
This political season it has been easy to forget the first half of that platitude. We are watching a Republican campaign which in its viciousness and vitriol is unprecedented in modern American politics. Republican insiders, so we hear, are apoplectic because the only person they loathe more than The Donald is Ted Cruz. The blood is so bad in the party right now that the wounds won't heal for a long time.
South Carolina, however, is just the place to remember just how true the old saw has been.
The arrival of George W to campaign there on Jeb!'s behalf surely smacks of deep desperation. And it makes us wonder just how long we will all be trapped inside the Bush Dysfunctional Family Follies. But it also takes us back to W's own campaign there in 2000.
Sixteen years ago, South Carolina was the place W's campaign for the White House took off. John McCain had won the New Hampshire primary with an unexpectedly strong showing and the Bush people needed to win in South Carolina to stop McCain's momentum. They did so by circulating some of the vilest smears and innuendos since, well come to think of it, Bush Pѐre's Willie Horton ads in 1988.
Bush supporters handed out leaflets suggesting that McCain's wife was a drug addict. Voters also got robocalls insinuating that McCain had fathered an illegitimate child with a black woman. This daughter was not actually a product of the dreaded miscegenation, but had been adopted by the McCains from Bangladesh. Nonetheless, the rumors fired up the substantial bigot bloc in South Carolina. Bush cruised to victory and the campaign never looked back.
Bush denied authorizing the sleaze-fest, but most political insiders remain convinced that the whole thing was orchestrated by his consiglieri Karl Rove. Bush distanced himself from it all but he never denounced or disavowed the lies. The South Carolina GOP primary in 2000 taught you everything you needed to know about the content of George W's character.
Remembering that the Bush family - father and son - have wallowed in the gutter with the worst of American racism is not the moral of the story I want to focus on, however.
Instead, let's remember what unfolded over the rest of that campaign. McCain never recovered and Bush won the nomination on his way to a 5-4 victory in the Supreme Court. But during the campaign, McCain and his supporters lined up behind W and contributed to his near-win in the general election. At the end of it all, after the scurrilous, unconscionable attacks on his wife and daughter, John McCain was a loyal Republican.
That McCain was willing to forgive and forget is worth keeping in mind as the GOP candidates continue to bash each other like an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. Trump has alienated everyone not wearing a Trump hat; senior Republicans openly express their disdain for Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio is only where he is politically because Jeb! served as his patron and mentor. Now Jeb! has one of Rubio's steak knives sticking out of his back.
But when the dust settles and when the delegates pick their nominee, I predict that Republicans and their party will support their man. Party loyalty will trump (pardon) principle and personal feelings, Republican leaders and Republican voters will back the ticket. After all, sixteen years ago John McCain showed them all how it's done.
The first half of the platitude is worth remembering too: Democrats fall in love. Many of them certainly have with Bernie Sanders right now. Which raises the question: will those same Democrats fall in line if Sanders doesn't win the nomination? Or like spurned lovers, will they walk away?
Clinton and Sanders have been behaving largely like grown-ups during this primary season, but they have been generating a much different, and potentially divisive, emotional temperature among their following. As winter turns to spring and spring into summer I suspect Republicans will fall in line as they always have. Come election day, the divisions inside the Democratic party might well prove to be more consequential.
Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.

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