This week’s big Republican news is the rapid coalescence of Republican elected officials and other party elites behind the candidacy of Senator Marco Rubio, long the smart-money favorite for the “Establishment lane” of the GOP nomination contest. To use the phrase made famous in The Party Decides, the 2008 book summing up the conventional wisdom on the subject, it’s clear that “the party” has “decided” for the Floridian. Which has led to speculation about why it took the party so damn long.
In today’s Washington Post, Daniel Drezner argues that party elites assumed they’d have total control over the outcome of the nominating contest, and that belief undermined their incentive to do anything about Donald Trump until it was too late. So he half-seriously blames political scientists for the sluggishness of the stop-Trump movement. In response to Drezner, Nate Silver suggests on Twitter that the party didn’t “decide” because it wasn’t united, and Jeb Bush’s presence in the race kept anyone else from becoming the Establishment choice.
I’ve got a third theory: In what was until quite recently an enormous GOP presidential field, the emergence through winnowing of not one but two candidates who were anathema to party elites created an unprecedented situation. That reality took some time to sink in, but once it did, elites began stumbling over one another to endorse Rubio. Imagine the situation at this point in 2012 if not only had Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich won all of the initial contests but also had been favored in every public poll of states further down the road. And those guys weren’t half the heretics that Trump and Cruz have become. It bears repeating and underlining that Donald Trump is regularly and contemptuously defying the main domestic- and foreign-policy orthodoxies of the GOP, as Ted Cruz with every breath accuses party elites of systematically and deliberately betraying the conservative cause. Each of these candidates alone is arguably the most anti-Establishment (credible) GOP candidate in history; together they represent an existential threat.
Sure, there were earlier signs that this could happen, dating well back into 2015. But party elites were probably the most avid consumers of dismissive attitudes toward Trump in particular and more generally toward the relevance of the entire invisible primary in which Trump and Cruz flourished. Belief in a Jeb Bush comeback didn’t expire until the night he suspended his campaign.
Indeed, the biggest threat now to the myth of the deciding party isn’t so much Trump or Cruz as the dubious value of all these endorsements for Rubio. Is an Establishment this feckless really going to lift its final choice to the nomination? Without question, if Rubio wins in Cleveland the political-science community will feel vindicated and many elected officials will walk tall. But it’s not clear they will deserve the credit.