The Two Republican Establishments Are Split on Their Anti-Trump Strategies

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Republicans are divided in more ways than their attitudes toward Donald J. Trump. Photo: Daily Intelligencer; Photo: Steve Allen/(c) Steve Allen

The day after Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney (as the immediate past nominee of a nongoverning party, he would have once been called the "titular head" of the GOP) laid out the Republican Establishment’s game plan for stopping Donald Trump. 

If the other candidates can find some common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism. Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.

Everybody outside TrumpWorld was onboard, right? Wrong. Especially following the March 5 caucuses and primaries, when he solidified his second-place position in delegates, Ted Cruz and his backers made it clear they believe the most efficient method of stopping Trump is for Republicans to unite behind his own candidacy. It’s Marco Rubio’s “anti-Trump consolidation” theory adopted by another candidate now that Rubio is struggling to survive. And thus with most of the Republican Establishment digging under the sofa cushions for funds to help Rubio beat Trump in Florida, Team Cruz was up in the air in the Sunshine State running anti-Rubio ads

Was this a rogue action by a candidate not exactly known in the Senate as a team player? Perhaps. But more fundamentally, the strategic rift in the anti-Trump coalition is the product of two very different Republican Establishments: that of self-conscious movement conservatives, who find a Cruz nomination either congenial or acceptable, and the non-movement-party Establishment, which is as hostile to Cruz as it is to Trump. 

The conservative-movement Establishment can be found in organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth and opinion vehicles like National Review magazine. Their basic mark of distinction is that they view the GOP as a vehicle for the promotion and implementation of conservative ideology and policy position rather than as an end in itself. They are virulently anti-Trump (as evidenced by National Review’s recent special issue attacking the mogul) for all the reasons most Republicans (and for that matter, Democrats) evince, but with the additional and decisive consideration that Trump has violated conservative orthodoxy on a host of issues from trade policy to "entitlement reform" to the Middle East. Members of this Establishment do not uniformly support Ted Cruz; some are fine with the equally conservative (if far less disruptive) Marco Rubio, and others have electability concerns about the Texan even if they like his issue positions and his combative attitude toward the Republican congressional leadership. But suffice it to say they are not horrified by the idea of a Cruz presidency, and many have concluded his nomination is an easier bet than some panicky Anybody But Trump movement that at best will produce the unpredictable nightmare of a contested convention even as Democrats (more than likely) unite behind their nominee. RedState’s Leon Wolf neatly expressed their point of view yesterday:

Maybe you preferred someone who is a better communicator than Cruz or who stood a better chance of beating Hillary in the general. Sorry, but for whatever reason, your fellow voters have ruled each of those candidates out, and Rubio’s collapse this weekend pretty much put that nail in the coffin. It’s now a choice between guaranteed loser Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who might actually win.

From the movement-conservative perspective, it’s not Cruz who’s going rogue but instead elements of the party Establishment (including the members of Congress who conspicuously hate Ted Cruz) that cannot accept that it has lost control of the GOP this year and is insisting on a contested convention as a way to reassert its control behind closed doors in Cleveland. Party Establishmentarians are often conservative ideologically, too, but are dedicated to pragmatic strategies and tactics at sharp odds with Cruz’s philosophy of systematic partisan confrontation and maximalist rhetoric. And they are highly allergic to risky general-election candidates. 

But there’s a fresh crisis in the party Establishment after the March 8 contests in four states, wherein Trump won Michigan, Mississippi, and Hawaii, Cruz won Idaho, and Marco Rubio won — maybe, it hasn’t been totally resolved yet — one delegate in Hawaii and absolutely nothing else. And new polls of Florida are beginning to come in that don’t look promising for Rubio. Even as party Establishment and even some conservative-movement Establishment folk pound Trump with negative ads, there are signs of panic. Most shocking, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, normally the most reliable of party Establishment mouthpieces and a big-time neoconservative booster of Rubio’s foreign-policy positions, publicly called on the Floridian to drop out of the race and endorse Cruz in order to stop Trump.  

GOP Party and Conservative Establishments Split