“Disgusting. Crude. School yard brawl. Shameful.” Those are some of the words Republicans have used to describe the March 3rd Republican debate in which Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz ganged up on Donald Trump in an insult laden often childish “debate.” Only John Kasich remained above the fray, refusing to take the bait to join the free for all.
This bizarre debate illustrates the Republican dilemma. On the one hand people like Mitt Romney speak for a Republican establishment horrified at the idea of Donald Trump as the GOP standard bearer. Conservatives doubt Trump is a “real” conservative; Cruz and Rubio insist he’s a con man pulling off the ultimate sting – gaining the Presidency through lies and manipulation. Yet Trump has won the most votes and primaries, and leads in the polls. There is a very good chance he’ll be the nominee. Last night’s fiasco was a desperate attempt to turn things around before it is too late, but it may have done the Republican party more harm than good.
I’m not a Republican nor am I a Trump supporter. Yet I’m convinced that the best strategic choice for the GOP would have been to embrace Trump, not alienate him. Trump has the potential to defeat either Democratic candidate by winning over voters feeling alienated by both parties. He’s probably not a true conservative (whatever that means), but despite the humorous comparisons, he’s also not a Mussolini or even a Juan Peron. Even if he were, the American political system has more checks and balances than any other advanced industrial democracy.
If the GOP followed the leads of Chris Christie, Paul LePage and Jeff Sessions, they’d have been able to build momentum going into the fall. It would represent a chance to hold the Senate and keep a strong majority in the House. Sure, it would irk them that an outsider came in and grabbed the role it seemed Jeb Bush had been destined to play, but it would likely be their best possible outcome.
Now what? Let’s say they stop Trump. Would a so-called “Cruz-Rubio unity ticket” be the answer? No. First, Trump supporters would never get behind the two men that assaulted their candidate with what amounted to an attempted character assassination (regardless of whether or not their charges are true). Cruz and Rubio are both young, either would need a seasoned, experienced running mate to have a chance, and such a ticket would have no balance. It would be exceedingly weak in the fall.
A brokered convention yielding perhaps a Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney candidacy? Again, Trump supporters would balk, feeling that their man had been robbed, especially if rule changes and behind closed doors deals seemed to rig the game.
Perhaps the best possible outcome for the GOP would be for the one candidate who impressed last night, John Kasich, to get on a roll and legitimately have a shot to challenge Trump. Trump supporters wouldn’t view Kasich as having been as bad as Rubio or Cruz, especially if Kasich continues to avoid the mud wrestling match. Even that would be a long shot, dependent on Kasich staying on good terms with Trump.
No, by piling on Trump and attacking him, the GOP establishment has earned the worst of both worlds. They are still unlikely to stop Trump, but if they do he’ll be fuming and his followers will stay home and the Democrats could have a big election night. If Trump wins the nomination anyway, the attacks both will depress Republican turnout and give the Democrats plenty of fodder for the election campaign. Hillary won’t have to insult him herself, her PACs could simply use Republican soundbites against him: “Here are what Republicans say about Donald Trump….”
So really, the best move for the GOP would have been to embrace Trump and learn from this election cycle just why their other candidates couldn’t gain traction. After last night, though, it’s probably too late for them to make that choice. By piling on the one candidate that has excited Republican primary voters, the GOP may have wounded itself far more than it hurt Trump.