Here's a quaint notion bouncing around the echo chambers of political Washington: The time has come for the Republican establishment to put its collective foot down and ensure that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz wind up as the GOP presidential nominee this November.
The New York Times captured this sentiment nicely in a piece published today and headlined: "As Donald Trump and Ted Cruz Soar, G.O.P. Leaders’ Exasperation Grows." A snippet:
Republican leaders are growing alarmed by the ferocious ways the party’s mainstream candidates for president are attacking one another, and they fear that time is running out for any of them to emerge as a credible alternative to Donald J. Trump or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas....The members of the party establishment are growing impatient as they watch Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz dominate the field heading into the Iowa caucuses next Monday and the New Hampshire primary about a week later.
Alarmed! Impatient! Time running out!
Here's the truth: Not only has the time for the establishment -- whoever that is -- to stop Trump or Cruz almost certainly passed but so too has the idea that the establishment can stop either man.
Let's take the second point first. There seems -- still! -- to be an unerring faith by many within the GOP's professional political class that the party poobahs are going to fix all of this somehow. That, sure, Trump and Cruz look strong now but the party bigwigs will step in sometime soon and Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or John Kasich will wind up as the nominee in November. Order will be restored. The ways things have always worked will be how they always will work.
Here's the dirty little secret: The Republican establishment has no clothes on this one. Don't you think that if "they" could have stopped Trump's rise -- as he offended large swaths of voters the party needs not just this November but in future elections -- they would have? The answer is yes.
Why didn't they? Because they can't. Why not? Well, "they" is split between lots of candidates at the moment. "They" is also still slow to grasp just how far away they are from their party's base in terms of how they look at the world -- and the candidates. Add those two facts to the rise of non-establishment funding sources, disgust with Washington broadly and the rise of social media as a driver of attention and narrative in the presidential race and you have an establishment that may not even be aware of how little power they have to alter the course of this contest.
Now, back to the first point. Even if the establishment had the power it once did (and might one day again) in the party, the cake as it relates to the fate of Trump and Cruz looks nearly baked. It's indisputable that Iowa's caucuses in six days time are a two-man race between Trump and Cruz. Then comes New Hampshire eight days later where Trump has consistently been ahead of all comers by 15-20 points for months. (Cruz, it's worth noting, is in second in most recent Granite State polling.)
Game the likeliest scenarios out given what we know.
1. Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire. He will then almost certainly win the South Carolina primary -- he's already way ahead -- on Feb. 20. That sort of run would likely knock Cruz out of the race. It would also almost certainly mean that Trump is either a) the nominee or b) a VERY strong favorite to be the nominee.
2. Cruz ekes out a win over Trump in Iowa and finishes a closer-than-expected second to Trump in New Hampshire. That would make clear that the race is really between the two of them with everyone else (read: all of the establishment candidates) trailing (far) behind. And, in South Carolina, the strongly evangelical Republican primary electorate should be favorable for Cruz and Trump. If they finish 1-2 in the Palmetto State then we are looking at a protracted Trump-Cruz delegate fight through March and maybe even April (and beyond).
Notice how the establishment candidates never get mentioned in either of those scenarios -- except as afterthoughts. You can make the case in either scenario that an opening could be created for an establishment candidate -- most likely Rubio. The best one I can think of is Rubio finishes a clear third in Iowa and a clear second in New Hampshire -- giving him 11 days to make a stand in South Carolina against either Trump or Cruz.
Possible. But not, as of today, probable. Particularly when you consider the demonstrated powerlessness of the establishment to wrench the nominating process in the direction it would like it to go.
(Sidebar: If you think that the GOP establishment can simply strip the nomination from Trump or Cruz -- assuming they win a majority of the available delegates -- at the national convention this summer, you haven't been paying any attention to politics this year. Or, really, ever.)
Simply put: All of the hand-wringing and alarm-sounding within the Republican establishment is sound and fury signifying nothing. The train has left the station. The boat has left the dock. The genie is out of the bottle. Pandora's box is open.
You get the idea.