Hey, GOP Establishment -- Pull Yourself Together!
Reality TV star Donald Trump and shutdown maestro Ted Cruz have dominated the polls and media attention in the Republican primary, at the expense of the field’s mainstream candidates. Now, Republican elites are increasingly resigned to one of them winning the nomination.
The Washington Post quotes several Republican politicians saying they would prefer Trump over Cruz, as if it’s a binary choice, convincing themselves that Trump would have a better shot in the general election. Bloomberg News checked in with the Republican money men on Wall Street and found them rationalizing how it could still be business as usual with either Trump or Cruz. On Saturday, when Sen. Chuck Grassley—a member of Congress for 40 years—introduced Trump at an Iowa rally, the New York Times called it “a seal of approval by elements of the Republican establishment that once declined to take Mr. Trump seriously.”
Where’s the confidence, GOP Establishment? Where’s the swagger? Your counterparts in the Democratic elite are out in force, waving the bloody red socialist shirt to stop Bernie Sanders. You’re just going to sit there and get rolled by these blowhards? Snap out of it!
Sure, the “Establishment” has become an insult among the conservative grassroots, limiting the influence of your bully pulpit. You are perplexed at how exposing Trump as a phony conservative has failed to dent his poll numbers. And as long as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Marco Rubio are busy squabbling among themselves, you lack a clear alternative. Nevertheless, you have inherent advantages to exploit.
Remember, no matter how divided the Establishment ranks are today, know that stubborn conservative purists always have the hardest time unifying among themselves. In 2012, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum fans were unable to join hands and stop Mitt Romney. Same in 2008, when Mike Huckabee, Fred Dalton Thompson and (yes) Mitt Romney supporters couldn’t get their act together to stop John McCain.
Today feels different because the Establishment Four are languishing in the middle of the pack. But the impediments to unity for the hard right are likely to be the same. Like a game of “Survivor,” Trump and Cruz have been compelled to abandon their informal nonaggression pact as actual voting nears and assumptions of voter movement fail to be realized. Their wells are about to get poisoned.
Trump is now running a searing ad accusing Cruz of being “pro-amnesty,” the worst slur imaginable to anti-immigrant Trump voters. Cruz has returned the favor with his own ad ripping Trump for embracing eminent domain and working with New Jersey politicians to “bulldoze the home of an elderly widow for a limousine parking lot at his casino,” giving the conservative constitutionalists who love Cruz little incentive to stock up on Make America Great Again hats. And since these are the two nastiest candidates in the race, it’s a safe bet their tussle will only get nastier.
Establishmentarians also need not be glum about their inability to puncture Trump’s primary poll numbers so far. It’s not even true that Trump is pure Teflon. His popularity with the general electorate is the absolute worst of any Republican running; it’s only with self-identified Republican primary voters that his numbers have been durable.
But durability before Iowa and New Hampshire is not very durable if you lose Iowa and New Hampshire. On the Democratic side, Howard Dean in ’04 and Hillary Clinton ’08 were national front-runners up until their respective Hawkeye humiliations. Rudy Giuliani led most of the 2007 polls among Republicans, but his numbers tanked after Iowa; McCain didn’t seize the national lead until after his January 2008 New Hampshire win.
Finally, the Establishment Four won’t stay mired in the middle of the pack forever. One or two of them are bound to pull away from the others after New Hampshire, clarifying matters for your party’s money men and political leaders. At that point, it will be easier for you to eventually consolidate around one while the Trump-Cruz demolition derby continues.
I’m not arguing that the Establishment can force a candidate upon an unwilling primary electorate. The presidential primary process has been fully democratized and the days of smoke-filled backrooms are over. But have a little faith that your party’s rank-and-file voters haven’t completely lost their minds. Don’t take your party’s temperature using early polls and crowd sizes, for both can deceive.
On the Huffington Post podcast “Candidate Confessional,” Howard Dean recently shared that he knew he was losing Iowa, despite his national numbers, when he saw the same faces at all of his Iowa rallies. "I was going to event to event,” he said, “and it was like being the Grateful Dead. It was the same crowd. … I realized what was happening; this was not about ordinary Iowans. And once it's not about ordinary Iowans ... you're in big trouble.”
Could that be happening with Trump or Cruz? I’ll tell you this much: A Trump super-fan who made her own Trump dress and matching purse has been spotted at a Dallas rally in September and a Tulsa rally in January.
It is rare for the presidential primary process to produce candidates who are manifestly unable to win a general election under any circumstances. Some individual caucuses may be dominated by the political fringes. But the process lasts too long and involves too many people who are not so blinded by ideology that they couldn’t consider basic electability when determining their vote.
You can’t force your party to eat spinach. You can, however, recognize when a mainstream candidate gains some traction and give that person the necessary platform to close the deal. You may not believe in yourself, but know that I still believe in you -- and your money and your media access.