As things stand, Donald Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee. That’s awful news, and depressing to contemplate. But terrible possibilities don’t become less terrible if we ignore them. Rather, they become more likely.
The GOP’s collective desire to look away has been a problem for months. Nearly everyone, including yours truly, believed that Trump’s candidacy would exhaust itself. There are many reasons why that hasn’t happened. Chief among them: Too many people thought it was someone else’s job to bell the Trumpian cat. No better evidence for this thesis can be found than the fact that of the $215 million spent by super PACs so far this cycle, only 4% was spent attacking Trump.
Marco Rubio is now the only plausible alternative to Trump.
Although the queue for allotments of blame would be longer than a Great Depression bread line, the person at the head of it is Sen. Ted Cruz.
For months, Cruz embraced Trump as a comrade in arms, which helped send the signal to talk radio hosts and various conservative activists that Trump was a healthy addition to the political conversation. Even though the two men are wildly divergent ideologically, they both found shelter under the “anti-establishment” umbrella.
Cruz finally broke the clinch in Iowa, demonstrating that negative attacks on Trump work.
Then, disastrously, Cruz stopped. He wrongly reasoned that he had no chance in New Hampshire and had little to gain there, so why bother fighting Trump? For the entire crucial week leading to the New Hampshire primary, the GOP field went back into a cannibalistic frenzy to win the non-Trump mantle. This disarray allowed Trump to run up a huge victory in the Granite State, and that momentum let him gobble up Cruz’s evangelical base in South Carolina (where 73% of voters describe themselves as evangelical or born-again). Cruz finished a strategically devastating third.
Marco Rubio is now the only plausible alternative to Trump. But it’s doubtful he’s taken either of the above lessons to heart. According to his campaign’s post-South Carolina strategy memo, he thinks he can wait until after Super Tuesday to post a win in any state. And he assumes first-place finishes will ultimately come his way because the field will clear. Will it? Jeb Bush is finally out, but Ben Carson seems to be running one of the most ingeniously disguised book tours in modern memory; John Kasich is hunting windmills in Ohio and Michigan; and Cruz, having tasted victory in Iowa, is unlikely to give up anytime soon.
Rubio’s strategy is not crazy, just implausible. Luckily, there’s another option. Republican disarray is largely attributable to the fact that no “establishment candidate” has secured much support from the conservative grass-roots and no grass-roots candidate has secured much support from the establishment.
If the two factions could be unified, it might be enough to stop Trump.
Of course there are real costs to such a deal (not least the fact that there are better general election running mates for Rubio). But if there’s a good alternative, I haven’t heard it. And in a race where Trump has changed everything with his boldness, it’s past time for his opponents to provide some of their own.