As actual voters get ready to weigh in on the GOP presidential race, establishment Republicans are laying down a marker: Sen. Ted Cruz must be stopped at all costs, even if it means nominating Donald Trump.
It appears that these Republicans are so blinded by their personal hatred of Cruz that they've convinced themselves that the party would be better off choosing somebody who represents everything they claim to abhor. In making this calculation, they are exhibiting the same shortsightedness and lack of pragmatism that they claim to hate about Cruz.
Though there's been plenty of talk about the national Republicans lining up behind Trump as a last-ditch effort to stop Cruz, former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole got the ball rolling publicly when he warned The New York Times of "cataclysmic" losses if Cruz is nominated while suggesting Trump would do better.
Perhaps the most laughable part of the interview was Dole's statement of Cruz: "I question his allegiance to the party." And of Trump: "[H]e has toned down his rhetoric."
Dole is questioning the allegiance of Cruz, a lifelong Republican, yet gives a pass to Trump, who has attacked Ronald Reagan, donated to Democrats and flirted with running for president for the Reform Party in 2000. As for claiming that Trump has toned it down, when was the last time Dole watched a Trump speech or looked at his Twitter feed? (Disclosure: Trump accused the author of asking a "stupid, stupid question" for pressing him on his support for government seizures of private property to expand his casino empire.)
Following Dole's comments, a number of sitting U.S. Senators, led by Orrin Hatch, trashed Cruz to CNN. Hatch claimed that while Cruz would lose the nomination, "I've come around a little bit on Trump ... I'm not so sure we'd lose if he's our nominee because he's appealing to people who a lot of the Republican candidates have not appealed to in the past."
It seems that there are three basic questions raised by these establishment Republicans: 1.) Is Trump more electable than Cruz? 2.) With whom would you rather win? And 3.) With whom would you rather lose?
On the first question, there's no evidence to suggest that Trump would be more electable. In fact, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton by 10 points in a hypothetical general election matchup, while Cruz would be within four points.
Furthermore, the poll found that 58 percent of the public has a negative view of Trump, compared with just 29 percent who have a positive view — making him the least popular of anybody polled. Even worse, Trump enjoys near universal name recognition, with just 1 percent of respondents saying they don't know him, meaning there is little room for him to substantially move public opinion. Though Cruz has a net negative rating of four points, 34 percent either don't know him yet or have a neutral view toward him.
The apparent hope of establishment Republicans is that Trump could bring in new working class voters to the GOP. But that's just a theory that isn't strongly supported by the evidence. And it's just as likely (if not more likely) that many conservatives would stay home rather than vote for Trump, who has a record of opposing private property rights and free trade, while supporting gun control, abortion, higher taxes and socialized medicine.
The second question is, with whom would it be better to win? In this case, there should be no question it would be Cruz. Though Cruz has spent his career in the Senate in the opposition, as president, he'd actually be in a position to enact laws. House Speaker Paul Ryan has argued in favor of a broad conservative policy agenda, and it's much closer to the general policy preferences of Cruz than to the bombastic boasts of Trump.
Though they may disagree on the art of the politically possible, ideologically, both Ryan and Cruz share a commitment to the "three-legged stool" vision of conservatism on economics, social issues and national security advanced by Ronald Reagan. Trump, on the other hand, has no ideological compass, and would be happy to embrace liberalism if it advanced him personally.
The final question is, who would it be better to lose with if neither of the candidates are able to beat Clinton? In this case, it also seems apparent that it should be Cruz. At least with Cruz, the party would still ideologically remain the party of Reagan. With Trump, it would devolve into a nativist party devoid of any sense of constitutional conservatism.
The establishment has spent a lot of time trying to argue that it's important for the GOP to woo Hispanics and women. Yet Trump is the candidate whose candidacy has been marked by talking about Mexican rapists and sexist attacks against women.
There is no good reason why those who want to win elections or advance conservative policy would prefer Trump. So, that leaves two possibilities.
One is that the establishment despises Cruz so deeply, that they'd rather blow an election with somebody who would detonate the Republican coalition and work against their stated policy goals. Or, alternatively, they've actually been lying about wanting to advance conservatism, and would prefer a Trump — somebody who is willing to cut deals with lobbyists, who wouldn't reform entitlements, who would protect subsidies and who would be willing to raise taxes. Neither possibility is particularly flattering.