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Is the Republican Party Too Cowardly to Stop Trump?

Paul Ryan has taken his name out of the mix, proving the GOP isn’t serious about derailing Trump's candidacy at the convention.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

If Donald Trump ends the primary process with only a plurality of delegates, the Republican establishment will have the means to stop Trump at the convention in Cleveland in July. But there has been little evidence in the past four months, let alone the past four years, that suggests it has the will.

The latest evidence is Paul Ryan’s Sherman-esque refusal to accept a 2016 presidential nomination. In doing so, he issued a declaration that serves Trump’s interests: “If no candidate has the majority on the first ballot, I believe you should only turn to a person who has participated in the primary.” 

It’s one thing to take yourself out of contention. It’s another to say that it is fundamentally unprincipled to call in a strong-armed closer from the bullpen when the starting rotation flounders.

Without that option, Trump will have an enormous advantage on the convention floor. He will only face opponents who ran the same race as him, yet won fewer votes and fewer delegates. 

Yes, Trump is getting outmaneuvered in the state-level delegate selection processes. But to actually band the non-Trump delegates together to thwart the frontrunner will require an enormous amount of political courage and intestinal fortitude.

The pressure on the delegates and the party leadership from Trump’s forces will be crushing. They will have to weather virulent charges of plotting thievery and subverting democracy. They will be warned of an irrevocable party schism. They will be pummeled before and during the convention with phone calls, emails, texts, and possibly hotel room visits.

Trump has already begun this effort, in typically vociferous fashion. Reacting to his delegate defeats in Colorado and North Dakota, which did not hold a primary or a caucus, and in primary states where he did win, such as Louisiana, Trump told ABC, “It’s a rigged system, it’s a very unfair system and it’s not democracy.” At a Rome, New York rally he thundered that the RNC should be “ashamed of themselves for allowing this kind of crap to happen.” He personally attacked RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in an interview with The Hill because “he knows what’s going on.”

Trump’s “democracy” campaign is at an ear-splitting decibel level. And he’s shouting with the wind: A Bloomberg poll shows Republican voters widely believe that the delegate leader deserves the nomination even if he lacks a majority.

Meanwhile, the party establishment’s attempt to maintain strict adherence to a majority delegate threshold is registering closer to a whisper. Karl Rove penned a Wall Street Journal column, titled “Don’t Coddle Donald Trump,” that reminded readers: “The rule that the Republican nominee must win a majority of the national convention has been in force for 160 years.” The Republican National Committee produced a “Convention Facts” video, designed to make an “open convention” sound fun and exciting. It emphasizes, “You need a majority. A minority does not win.” Both cite historical examples when the eventual nominee did not have the most delegates on the first ballot, like Abraham Lincoln and Warren Harding.

But they glide past a critical fact: The “open conventions” of yore did not occur in the modern age of a 50-state primary system. When a candidate lagged behind on the first ballot, it wasn’t because voters from coast to coast had already rejected him. It only meant he and his team had more work to do on the convention floor. Today, if a candidate doesn’t place first on the first ballot, it’s a direct result of poor primary performance. 

Assuming Trump falls short of 1,237 delegates (a likely but not guaranteed scenario), a case will be made that he has no intrinsic claim to the nomination. Despite winning 20 states so far, he has won a mere 37 percent of the votes, hardly a resounding endorsement from the Republican electorate.

But if Trump doesn’t deserve it, how does Ted Cruz? He’s only scraped together 28 percent of the vote. He’s gotten as far as he has thanks to low-turnout caucus states, or states with no voter contests at all, like Colorado and North Dakota. Five of Cruz’s nine wins were in caucuses, whereas 17 of Trump’s 20 wins were in primaries. Two of Cruz’s primary wins were in his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. In fact, 20 percent of Cruz’s delegates come from Texas.

Not only is evidence of broad-based support for Cruz lacking today, it is doubtful that more will be forthcoming tomorrow: The remaining schedule includes no caucuses, and half of the outstanding states are in the Trump-friendly Northeast. Trump also leads in the biggest delegate prize, California. 

And Kasich? He has yet to overtake flopped candidate Marco Rubio in the delegate count and the popular vote.

The logical conclusion to draw, once the process is completed, would be that Republican voters rejected all three. So start over: Instead of settling for a candidate who has only impressed a minority of Republican voters, delegates can legitimately turn to a new candidate in hopes of unifying the party for the general election. 

By rejecting the idea of introducing a fresh face on the convention floor, Ryan has given Trump a rhetorical weapon to argue that such a move is deeply unfair. In turn, any Stop Trump movement will have to explain why nominating a candidate who performed markedly worse than Trump in the primaries is not a perversion of democracy. 

Granted, there are arguments to be made. The rules allow it. Winning a majority of delegates is what proves broad-based party support. General election polls show Trump to be the least popular figure of the three.

But if party leaders are to take such a dramatic step, and withstand the inevitable backlash, they need to be laying some serious groundwork, far more than a YouTube video and an op-ed piece. Most of the signals from the party leadership, however, point to being resigned to a Trump nomination and steering resources toward protecting the Republican Congress—in other words, their own jobs.

Ryan, according to The New York Times, is embarking on a campaign to tout his compassionate libertarian policy vision, which will “run alongside the presidential effort” and provide “a foundation to rebuild if Republicans splinter and lose in the fall.” Complementing that campaign is a prodigious fundraising effort for Republican House incumbents. 

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was reported back in February to have said to his colleagues in private, “We’ll drop [Trump] like a hot rock” and focus on selling a Republican Senate to voters as a check on a President Hillary Clinton. 

As they plot to survive Trump, neither Ryan nor McConnell have said publicly that they will disavow Trump or fight to deny his nomination. Furthermore, only seven Republican lawmakers have joined the #NeverTrump movement. 

Might Republicans locate a hidden reservoir of courage by July? Anything is possible inside the hotbox of the convention hall. But consider that Republicans are in this difficult position precisely because of their years of cowardliness. 

Mitt Romney was more afraid of losing far-right votes than nonwhite votes. So he grievously set back his party’s brand with the toxic call for “self-deportation” and his scorn of the “47 percent.” 

Speaker John Boehner was too afraid of the House “Freedom Caucus” to prevent a government shutdown in 2013, resolve the immigration standoff in 2014, or reject absurd demands to defund Planned Parenthood in 2015. He chose to quit instead of fight.

Most Republican presidential candidates were too afraid of Donald Trump to confront him early and allowed him to rack up an insurmountable delegate lead with little resistance. And most elected Republicans are still afraid to criticize him by name.

If the Republican delegates and the party leadership are going to stop Trump on the floor, they will have to collectively conclude that the mission to stop Trump is so vital that it is worth the blistering heat of backlash. They would have to take some ownership of the inevitable schism and its reverberations, not just blame the voters, the process, the economy, and, of course, President Obama. They would have to risk paying a price down the road with primary challenges fueled by angry Trump supporters. These are all risks that the Republican establishment has refused to take up until this point. Color me skeptical that it will change in three months.