There was clearly a sea change in elite perception over the week I was away on vacation. Before I left, Donald Trump was still considered the overwhelming favorite for the Republican nomination. Now it’s considered at best a 50-50 proposition. And there’s an evolving consensus that if he can’t clinch the nomination on the first vote, he’s finished. This change is not based on nothing. Beyond the chatter of Trump’s supposed ‘worst week ever’, it does seem likely that he’ll lose the Wisconsin primary tonight. (Notably, there is as yet only the slightest if any negative impact on his national poll support.) A Wisconsin defeat will have a symbolic impact. More importantly, it will make it another notch more difficult for him to get to the 1237 delegates required to secure the nomination on the first convention ballot.
We heard yesterday that Republican party majority shareholder David Koch has his eyes set on giving House Speaker Paul Ryan the nomination in Cleveland. Others are still pushing Mitt Romney. Karl Rove says the party may need a “fresh face” at Cleveland. A friend of mine told me a couple days ago that he was worried that a combination of the hard right and the media were going to knock Trump out and lead to a Ryan nomination.
I’m still trying to take stock of the campaign events of last week. I’m skeptical about the level of damage Trump has sustained – a skepticism which has served me well so far. But speaking as someone whose main and really only goal in this election is seeing a Democrat win the White House, I share some of those worries.
But let’s not forget the big picture. A Trump nomination is a genuinely catastrophic outcome for the GOP. The polls are now abundantly clear on that point. I don’t think many people still believe the always improbable notion that there is any substantial constituency of working class white Obama voters in the industrial midwest who Trump could pull into the GOP column. But again, the big picture: all the establishment dream scenarios – Kasich, Ryan, Romney, Generic Unicorn – are only marginally less catastrophic than Trump. Perhaps even worse.
All of the alternative scenarios are ones that – if we weren’t focusing on Trump – would seem clearly like catastrophic decisions. If he could win a Republican nomination, I think Ryan might be a formidable candidate. But walk through the scenario. At least a big plurality of the Republican voters supported Donald Trump. Most of the rest will have supported Ted Cruz. A lot of Cruz’s current support is placeholder anti-Trump votes meant to deny Trump the nomination. Still he’s the candidate of base conservatives, movement conservatives, the dingbat Braveheart against the ‘Washington cartel’. The fact that he’ll have gotten a decent share of his votes from people who hate him but fear Trump more is not something you can expect him – or ideological fellow travelers – to focus much on.
The key is that the GOP primary electorate voted overwhelmingly for anti-establishment candidates. Overwhelmingly. Not just ‘anti-establishment’ but candidates who each in different ways staked their fortunes explicitly on massive turnouts of white voters. Kasich at this point is likely an accurate barometer of establishment, non-hard-right support. Paul Ryan didn’t run. But the Paul Ryan model candidates who did run got crushed. How does it go over if Trump gets denied, Cruz gets denied and the prize goes to a guy – at least the type of guy – who it is not too much to say got firmly rejected through the entire primary process? He’s a Rubio wrapped in a Bush inside a Scott Walker. I don’t deny that Ryan may be a more effective politician than any of those three. But he is the establishment and he is also a wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers. It is hard to imagine any scenario in which the substantive, expressed will of the GOP primary electorate was more thoroughly rejected at the convention meant to ratify it.
Under normal circumstances, I think any political professional, any close observer of politics would say that a candidate chosen in such a way is simply doomed. I see no reason to believe it’s any different this year. Perhaps, as David Kurtz suggested to me yesterday, it’s just that the insiders need something to talk about. So they keep chatting up reporters with new plans to untie themselves from the train track before the Trump-Cruz Express slices them to pieces.
But there’s simply no way you build a unified party out of that. Cruz may be bought off or silenced, though I’m dubious. Trump definitely won’t be. It plays to every wingnut victimology morality play about how we could make America into Alabama (politically speaking, no offense, ‘bama) if only the party ‘establishment’ would get out of the way.
There was talk yesterday about Trump and Cruz trying to force convention rules that prevent John Kasich’s name from even being placed in nomination since he hasn’t won eight states. That makes sense. And together, they should have more than enough delegates to do it. But I see something else going on. Both Trump and Cruz have an obvious and overwhelming incentive to prevent any other potential nominee for being considered – since neither of them have more than trivial support among establishment Republicans. I don’t think they’re so worried about Kasich as they are trying to create rules that make it incredibly difficult to go outside the primary process to find a nominee – i.e. Ryan, Romney, Unicorn. And I think the institutional and legitimacy logic of the situation will make it easier for them to do so than many people realize.
The simple point is this. Republican stakeholders wanted Rubio, or Bush or maybe Walker. Who knows? None survived first contact with Republican primary voters. It’s easy to indulge the idea that with the voters out of the way and after one inconclusive ballot the same folks who couldn’t get any of their favored candidates through the process can just anoint their guy and that will just over fine. That’s silly. The notional freedom of the convention to do anything it wants inside the convention hall seems to blind people to the fact that it has no such freedom or inherent ability to make that work outside the convention hall. The same core divisions remain. They’re just easier to paper over.
People keep saying, ‘After the first ballot, all bets are off!’ But they’re not. On the second ballot you still have two candidates who will do anything to be nominee and a convention hall full of the their delegates. Some of Trump’s delegates may be stalking horses. None of Cruz’s will be. Good luck moving on to anyone else.
The Republican establishment, to the extent such a thing exists, is at war with half or two thirds of its primary electorate. In the Trump party fracture, so-called ‘movement conservative’ elites have turned viciously on Trump supporters as a population of racist, feckless losers who are destroying (their defition of) conservatism because of their own cultural and economic failings. In some cases it’s a principled and honest rather than a venomous appraisal of the fissure. But in either case it amounts to the same thing. Whether it’s establishment versus electorate or that patina of elite opinion which goes under the heading of ‘movement conservative’ versus Trumpites, it has all the logic and pathos of an officer corps firing its army. None of this really changes at the convention. It just becomes easier to pretend. Until you actually try.