With less than two weeks till the Iowa Caucus, the shape of the Republican race could hardly be more frightening for the Republican establishment. Both of the two leading candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, carry baggage that would make winning the general election a tough slog. But while some establishment types still hold out hope that one of their preferred candidates—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or even Chris Christie—can pull off a surprise resurgence, there is a growing acceptance of the reality of having to chose between Cruz and Trump. And the surprise is that all signs are pointing to Trump being the establishment’s favored candidate—or, more accurately, the lesser of two evils.
In an interview with the New York Times yesterday, Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996 and the very epitome of the party establishment, said that picking Cruz as the presidential nominee would be “cataclysmic,” and the party would have better success with Trump. And it’s not just on the electability issue that Dole prefers Trump. Dole denounced Cruz as an “extremist,” but said that Trump has the type of deal-making personality that would allow him to work with Congress if elected. Cruz, he said, would not. “I don’t know how he’s going to deal with Congress,” Dole told the Times. “Nobody likes him.”
Dole is far from alone in making a move toward Trump’s camp. According to a report in the Washington Post, the GOP donor class is increasingly seeing Trump as a better bet than Cruz. “A lot of donors are trying to figure their way into Trump’s orbit,” said Spencer Zwick, who ran the finances for Mitt Romney’s 2012 bid.
On the face of it, preferring Trump to Cruz seems bizarre. After all, Cruz is a more conventional politician. He sits in the Senate, and he has longstanding ties to the conservative movement and speaks their language. Why spurn him and hook up with a wild card like Trump, who has no political experience—and a record of making reckless racist and sexist comments that will damage the Republican brand?
But it’s possible that it is precisely because Trump is such an unusual figure that he might be more attractive to establishment Republicans. Cruz is the leader of a faction; Trump is a one-man band. This means Cruz has the potential to do much more damage to the Republican Party in the long run. “If Trump loses, we wash our hands of him,” a leading GOP strategist told CNN. “Cruz will think we need to be more crazy and be a long-term nightmare.”
If Cruz wins the nomination, that extreme-right faction will dominate the Republican Party not just in the presidential run but for the foreseeable future—even if Cruz loses. Just as the followers of Barry Goldwater held key positions in the party long after 1964, Cruz’s followers will be lodged tight and will be in a stronger position to combat the RINOs.
“If Cruz wins, the Loony Bird takeover of the GOP is complete,” Ian Millhiser, Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told me by email, sketching out the establishment’s nightmare scenario: “GOP candidates view Cruz’s election as vindication of Cruz’s tactics, and they rush to emulate him. Rank-and-file voters embrace Cruz’s message that the best candidates are belligerent conservatives. And interest groups decide that they no longer need to back the proverbial most conservative candidate who can win, because the very most conservative candidate has just won the presidency. So they use their money to back Cruz clones in primaries.
“Mitch McConnell and possibly even Paul Ryan’s relevance disappears overnight, as does quite possibly their career in politics. And because all of the sitting Republican lawmakers are Cruz clones who view them as traitorous RINOs, the deposed establishment cannot even cash in as lobbyists.”
Trump, on the other hand, is so anomalous a figure that the GOP establishment can console themselves with the knowledge that he leads no faction. Even if he wins the nomination, Trump can be safely relegated to the category of a one-off, a freak mutation, never to be repeated. Trump would be like the character The Mule, in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. In the schema of Asimov’s far future science-fiction series, The Mule is a galactic conquerer who throws history off the course that it was expected to take, but the changes he introduces are ultimately minor because he has no successor.
From the point of view of the Republican elite, it’s easy to see Trump as The Mule: He’s unexpected, he disrupted their plans to coronate Jeb Bush, but he’s also someone who can’t leave a lasting legacy because the traits that made him who he is are not replicable. There are not that many billionaire reality-show stars who are interested in taking over a political party.
Further, because Trump is much more pragmatic than Cruz, it’s easier to imagine him being tamed if he won the presidency. Already, on the issue of tax cuts for the rich, Trump has reverted to GOP orthodoxy. Unlike Cruz, Trump has no army of ideological loyalists working with him. President Trump would need advisers and policymakers, which the Republican Party could happily provide him.
If this is the gamble the GOP is taking, though, it is not necessarily the right one. Trump is an unstable and unpredictable figure, governed by personal piques that take him in strange directions—like his recent, bizarre twitter feud with the actor Samuel L. Jackson over cheating at golf. As a presidential nominee, Trump would likely continue to be flighty and capricious. If Hillary Clinton is his rival for the White House, it’s a near-certainty that Trump will make sexist tirades that will damage the GOP’s reputation, as he already has with comments on Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina. Moreover, unlike Cruz or the other, more polished candidates, Trump does not know how to disguise his racism with dog-whistles. This may not hurt Trump with GOP primary voters, but it would be toxic on the national stage.
The fact that the GOP elite is sidling up to Trump is remarkable—and perhaps the ultimate reflection on Ted Cruz as a man and politician. After all, how wretched must he be that there are people who prefer to stake their money and reputations on Donald Trump?