Can the Rational Right segment of the Republican Party stop Donald Trump and Ted Cruz from getting their party’s nomination?
Given the feckless flailing of GOP leaders so far, the answer has to be somewhere between “maybe” and “doubtful.” But as the primaries are growing closer, the voices of alarm are growing louder.
Some of the most thoughtful conservatives writing today – George Will, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, David Brooks, Peter Wehner – all agree that nominating Trump would be a total disaster for the Republicans, a profound betrayal of what Brooks calls the party’s proud heritage of “governing conservatism.”
“If Mr. Trump heads the Republican Party, it will no longer be a conservative party,” writes Wehner in The New York Times. “It will be an angry, bigoted, populist one. Mr. Trump would represent a dramatic break with and a fundamental assault on the party’s best traditions.”
Wehner, who served in the last three Republican administrations, says he will not vote for Trump if he wins the nomination. The Donald’s proposed plans are “nativist pipe dreams and public relations stunts,” he explains, and his temperament “is erratic, inconsistent and unprincipled.”
Many, though not all, of these Rational Republicans lump Cruz and Trump together.
“Alas, too many self-styled serious conservatives are treating Cruz with reverence, and as a more responsible alternative to Trump,” writes Rubin in her Right Turn column for The Washington Post. “Nah. Cruz is an echo, not a choice.”
One of their concerns is practical: that Trump or Cruz would lead their party to a devastating defeat, dragging down countless Republican candidates with them.
Trump’s negative numbers, argue the Rationalists, hit 58 percent in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, with only 29 percent viewing him favorably. A Gallup poll shows only 17 percent with a positive view of the tea party, the movement that fueled Cruz' rise to power. And their virulent anti-immigrant stance is driving away nonwhite voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
“The idea that the GOP can march into the 21st century alienating every person of color is borderline insane,” writes Brooks, a New York Times columnist.
That’s why Will, a Post columnist and Fox News commentator, argues that “Conservatives’ highest priority now must be to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination.” Gerson, a top aide to Bush 41 who also writes for the Post, adds, “For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump v. Cruz is for both to lose.”
To the Rational Right, the prospect of a Trump or Cruz nomination is scary enough. It would be even more frightening if one of them actually became president.
Wehner says Trump “would be the most unqualified president in American history,” adding: “The prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief should send a chill down the spine of every American.”
Cruz would be just as bad, says Brooks: “He’s always been good at tearing things down but incompetent when it comes to putting things together.”
These are journalists and analysts, not organizers or activists. Like the pope, they have no armies; just the power of persuasion. But unlike party functionaries, they have nothing to lose by criticizing a candidate who might actually win.
Brooks calls for action. “Maybe it’s time for governing Republicans to actually do something,” he writes, suggesting they fashion a grass-roots movement that solidifies behind a single candidate to oppose Trump and Cruz by mid-February.
That’s easy to say, very hard to do. Trump and Cruz have their own campaign organizations, loyal contributors and direct channels of communication. That makes them immune to pressure from party poobahs.
So any “grass-roots movement” would have to happen voter by voter, official by official, precinct by precinct. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made a good start in her response to the State of the Union by counseling fellow Republicans to “resist … the siren call of the angriest voices.”
But for every brave voice like Haley’s, too many Republicans cower in fear or put self-interest ahead of their party and their country. Ed Rogers, a normally sensible GOP strategist, wrote in the Post that Republicans should ignore the voices of alarm: “My advice to the party faithful is: Do nothing. Wait.” And somehow hope that Trump and Cruz self-destruct?
That advice is, to use Brooks’ words, “borderline insane.” He’s right when he says that “there’s a silent majority of hopeful, practical, pragmatic Republicans” who despise the direction their party is taking. But if they want to stop that drive toward doom, they have to end their silence. Now.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.