Having underestimated Donald Trump for months, Republicans in the United States are finally taking action to try to stop him from claiming their party’s presidential nomination this summer.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, called Trump, a property tycoon and television personality, a “phony” and a “fraud” on Thursday.
In an unprecedented intervention in the party’s presidential contest, Romney urged voters to back anyone but Trump.
CNN suggests that the speech may be remembered as the moment when the party establishment’s “long-brewing horror over the billionaire businessman burst into open political combat.”
Romney’s concise, categorical takedown of Trump’s intellect, character and motivation amounted to a tipping point in a long-building revolt among Republican elders now openly despairing of the former reality TV star’s grip on the [party’s] nomination and his staunch armies of outsider voters who refuse to abandon their outspoken champion.
With the exception of Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, most elected Republicans still maintain they would support Trump if he is nominated. But House speaker Paul Ryan, the most powerful Republican in the country, has twice already taken umbrage at some of the businessman’s most outlandish proposals, including a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
“This is not conservatism,” Ryan said in December.
Not a conservative
Many agree: from the rabble-rousing Glenn Beck and radio host Erick Erickson on the far right to more establishmentarian thinkers like George Will, the writers at National Review, the pro-business Club for Growth and the libertarian Cato Institute. All have spoken out against Trump, who is not after all a conservative.
On Wednesday, some sixty Republican foreign-policy experts, including neoconservative guru Robert Kagan and former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, excoriated Trump as “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.”
They warned that the New Yorker, who has proposed to assassinate the families of terrorists (a war crime under the Geneva Convention) and who couldn’t tell what the nuclear triad was in one of the televised presidential debates, would “make American less safe” and “diminish our standing in the world.”
Who’s in charge here?
The New York Times reported last month that efforts to save the party from Trump had sputtered and stalled at every turn. Most elected Republicans balked at attacking him out of a concern they might unintentionally fuel his populist revolt. Many traditional campaign contributors were waiting for the field to winnow before throwing their support behind a single candidate.
This inaction might seem to invalidate the theory Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller, four political scientists, published in 2008, which is that “the” party — broadly understood as a network of elected, local and state party officials, donors, insiders and affiliated interest and lobby groups — collectively decides presidential nominating contests by nudging its voters in the right direction.
Or, as The Economist puts it: “parties tell the electorate how to vote, rather than voters telling the party whom to support.”
The four never argued that voters don’t matter at all. But their research did find that the two parties in the United States had figured out ways to manipulate the primary process in favor of their preferred candidate. In the case of Republicans, that typically meant following William F. Buckley’s advice to nominate the most conservative candidate who could win the general election.
Consider Romney, who was hardly many rightwingers’ first choice four years ago. While the polls and early voting contests produced a variety of challengers, he always had the support of the party behind him and went on to win the nomination handsomely.
This time around, “the” party has been slow to make up its mind.
The Times learned that late last year, Republican campaigners did reach out to donors with a proposal to attack Trump’s business failures and past liberal positions in a series of television commercials. “No major donors committed to the project and it was abandoned.”
Endorsements, usually a good indicator of institutional support, were lacking for a long time.
Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, led the endorsement count up until the first votes were cast in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but not by much. He lost there — badly. To the extent that the “establishment” had bet on Bush, it clearly miscalculated. Bush got out of the race in February.
It may be too late now for the party to rally around a single candidate in time for the nominating convention in July. But it is not too late to try to defang Trump and deny him a majority of the delegates.
Internet and television ads highlighting Trump’s bullying and hypocrisies are finally appearing, funded by both the remaining candidates and outside groups.
The other contenders, who spent much of the early primary season professing sympathy for Trump’s cause, have turned on the mogul with a vengeance, exposing his insincerities, his intellectual laziness and, in more than a few instances, blatant lies.
Will it work?
Matthew Dickinson, who has been skeptical of the “party decides” thesis, cautions that “establishment” efforts to stop Trump could embolden his anti-establishment supporters.
“I have to believe that every time the media publicizes a Stop Trump moment from within the party, broadly defined, it gives undecided voters another reason to consider supporting The Donald as well,” he writes.
But for the majority of Republican voters who are closer to the center, and who realize that a candidate Trump would almost certainly lose in November against the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton, the party’s belated efforts may come just in time to focus minds.
The various primaries later this month, in states like Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio, should give the answer.