The dutiful Jeb Bush, whose entire candidacy seemed to be a reluctant act of class and family fealty, did the responsible thing again Saturday night and bowed out of the GOP race after his embarrassing fourth-place finish in South Carolina. Bush was understood to be clearing “the establishment lane” so that a strong candidate, presumably his protégé-turned-nemesis Senator Marco Rubio, could prevail. And indeed, within a few hours, Rubio had added a few establishment endorsements, including Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who’d backed Bush. Some donors are expected to follow.
But let’s be real: Now Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz are locked in a fierce battle for second place, as though they live on a planet where that’s how you win. Neither man has a prayer of finishing first—and neither bothers to say that he will—until the race reaches their home states: on March 1 for Cruz (Texas), March 15 (Florida) for Rubio. Cruz aside, the GOP establishment’s fantasy that Rubio can consolidate the party and beat Trump ignores one messy reality: Republican voters. And increasingly, the primary battle seems less like a race between Trump and Cruz, say, or Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich (who is fading, but hopes to win his home state of Ohio on March 8); it looks like a war between its donor base and its voter base.
I’ve written about this a little bit before, but it’s getting more obvious: What can possibly stop Trump? His ugliest attacks, whether on Mexicans, Muslims, Megyn Kelly, or John McCain, hurt him not at all. Nor do his unorthodox, populist, anti-GOP policy stands: Just this weekend he went on TV and came out for universal health coverage and defended Planned Parenthood. In the past he’s called for negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical giants. He opposes cuts to Medicare and Social Security. He wants to raise taxes on the hedge-fund guys. Overall, he’s rejected the GOP’s austerity approach. I’m not sure that’s the biggest reason he’s killing it with the white working class, but it surely helps.
Of course his racism and nativism helps more, and that’s why Marco Rubio, the guy who helped write immigration reform and whose tax plan eliminates the capital gains tax entirely, is a ridiculous choice to stop Trump. Look, I like Rubio’s attempt to preach inclusion; but of course I would, I’m a Democrat. He sounded like he was running in the general election already when he joined South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and the state’s Senator Tim Scott on stage this weekend:
Just this afternoon, I was on stage receiving the endorsement of an Indian American governor from South Carolina, who has endorsed a Cuban American from Florida. And I was standing next to the African American Republican senator from South Carolina. That sounds pretty minority to me….We are the party of everyone. We are going to grow this party and take our message to everyone.
But I don’t see that being a winning message to win the nomination, given the base the GOP actually has. Rubio merely puts a “minority” face on donor-class austerity politics, when the GOP’s white working class voter base wants neither.
At a Center for American Progress forum last week, former George W. Bush speech writer and Republican malcontent David Frum made the interesting observation: The GOP is hopelessly fractured because it includes Franklin Delano Roosevelt voters, particularly working-class whites in both the North and South, and the sorts of establishment forces that opposed FDR and the New Deal, from the ’30s through today. Cutting taxes for the wealthy; hiking the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare (if not privatizing them entirely); an overall program of austerity alongside liberalizing immigration restrictions: None of those policies meet the needs of the GOP’s most important voting base. (Frum laid out his argument in greater detail here).
He says he’s told establishment Republicans: “Look, if you’re going to run on the [Paul] Ryan budget, you’re going to need to find different voters.” So far, they haven’t listened. Trump has… well, it’s probably inaccurate to say “Trump has listened,” but he’s at least intuited Frum’s message.
Let’s remember that the Republican Party created Donald Trump, as a political force, and they didn’t create him because they liked his ideas on healthcare, Social Security, or tax policy. They didn’t seek him out for his ideas on how to counter white working-class wage stagnation, because he doesn’t have any. They courted him in 2012 because he built a political base challenging the authenticity, legitimacy, and American identity of our first black president—and the GOP base thrilled to it. Mitt Romney marched to Las Vegas to receive Trump’s endorsement, but really, he gave Trump the endorsement of the GOP.
And so far, no one has had the courage to challenge Trump’s nativist, racist appeal (except, occasionally and ineffectually, Jeb Bush). Even Rubio, for all his photo ops with brown and black leaders, has ceded a whole lot of policy ground to Trump. He backed away from his sponsorship of immigration reform and he’s pledged to reverse President Obama’s executive orders to protect DREAMers. While he came out against Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, he was evasive about his proposal to close mosques. “Rubio has arguably done about as much to surrender to the terms of the Debate that Trump has laid down as he has to challenge them,” the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent says, and I agree.
So we’re going to continue to have to cover the Rubio-Cruz battle for second place, and pretend that it matters. I’d say it’s all over for Cruz, except he’s such a nasty guy, and he’s got a lot of money, he’ll stay in as long as he can. It’s possible they can rack up enough delegates with their second-place strategy that they deny Trump the delegate lock, and thus force the convention into chaos (maybe then we get to watch Paul Ryan try to win Trump voters over to his budget). But I think Rubio is likely to pass Cruz to consolidate the establishment lane—what is really the “anyone but Trump” lane—for himself. Yet Trump vs. Rubio doesn’t seem like much of a fight at all. If that’s what it comes down to, I think Trump’s the nominee.