It’s The Donald vs the Establishment, and the Establishment is taking a dive.
I’m pissed. My S&R claim to fame, such as it is, is predicting the outcomes of political contests well before those outcomes became obvious. When asked to make a prediction this year, I declined, arguing this election was so obvious it wasn’t worth the pixels. By obvious, I meant Clinton defeating Rubio.
I thought the GOP elite would select Rubio. He’s a hard core ideologue who sounds reasonable. He’s young, telegenic and Hispanic, which could mean he’ll bring new voters to the party. It’s hard to stick anything on him because he hasn’t really done anything. And best of all, he’s a tool. But it looks like the Republicans may choose Trump instead.
That can only happen if they tank, i.e., lose on purpose.
Sure, Trump’s got the 35% racist vote locked up. (By the way, that’s pretty much the same share of the national electorate George Wallace got fifty years ago.) But the Party could nail a ceiling on Trump’s 35% any time it chooses. To win, he needs big chunks of the evangelical, doctrinaire, and moderate votes. For the most part, those aren’t low-information voters, and could be steered away from Trump with PAC-supported attack ads.
Alternatively, the Party could force the field to two, which would automatically end Trump’s run. That’s not as hard as it seems. Cruz and Kasich are professional politicians, which means despite denials, each has a price. A cabinet post? Veep? SCOTUS appointment? Even if the candidates aren’t amenable to reason, their backers are. It’s basic economics—there’s no point in pouring money into a lost cause.
But the Party is neither stopping Trump nor advancing an alternative. As the NYT noted, only about 5% of the PAC spend so far has been against Trump. While the field is winnowing, it is doing so organically. For example, as Rachel Maddow pointed out, in Nevada neither Mitt Romney nor Sheldon Adelson endorsed Rubio, and their endorsements might well have made a difference in that state. The Party elders sat on the sideline and let Trump clobber him.
It isn’t that the Party has lost its power or is incompetent. It’s not that Trump is so good. It’s that the Party is tanking. They’re losing because they want to lose.
It’s never easy to know what people are thinking, but we can guess. First, no matter who the Republicans put forward, he’s not going to win because of “ics”—demographics, economics, and optics. With an increasingly young, Hispanic and secular population, the GOP’s only chance to win the Presidency is a scandal or a rotten economy. Problem is, the narrative on Obama has swung to the positive. Now that he’s leaving, we’re collectively deciding that maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. The economy is doing better, retirement accounts have regained their value, and gas is cheap. He killed Osama bin Laden. No major terrorist attacks happened on his watch. No, he didn’t do all he promised, but he did tackle health care, financial reform, SCOTUS, gun control and Gitmo. To the extent he fell short, the Democrats can reasonably blame those failures on the GOP, and <cough, cough> racism.
Not only that, but the Presidency itself is increasingly becoming a white elephant. Getting the executive branch means losing the legislative one. Jimmy Carter was the last president to leave the White House with his party in power in both houses. The last president to see gains in his party’s legislators during his term? Teddy Roosevelt.
So for the party elite, maybe it’s better to lose this one and wait for 2020. Hillary is an imperfect candidate—she’s old and a lightning rod for large segments of the population. There’s a decent chance she’ll be a one-term bridge president, a la George H. W. Bush. Rubio will be more seasoned and ready in four years. And best of all, letting Trump get hammered in the general accomplishes what Goldwater and McGovern’s doomed campaigns did—it reminds the more aggressive and outspoken fringes of the party they should shut up and listen to their betters.
Now, a caveat is in order. “The Party” isn’t a monolithic beast, and when I say “the Party” is tanking, that means most of those that matter are either making no effort or a tepid one to stop Trump. But his winning isn’t in the best interests of everyone in the party. Those running on the down ballot surely aren’t interested in losing now so they can win later. Nor are the bureaucrats who follow a President into office eager to kill four years before taking up residence in D.C. Mortgage payments and orthodontist bills won’t wait. But in politics, what the rank and file want really doesn’t matter much. Like players for the Philadelphia 76ers, they don’t get a vote.
I’m not convinced that Trump will win. He’s such a colossally flawed candidate that he may not be able to sprint across the line first even if everyone else falls down grabbing their hamstrings. The Republicans could still go to the convention without a clear winner, and in that case, it’s easy to imagine emotion might take over and they’ll nominate a real candidate.
But not if the party’s leaders have anything to do with it.