The Republican Party establishment is coalescing behind Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Just in time to prove the establishment doesn't matter any more.
In fact, there are two Republican Party establishments. One is the old Washington and Wall Street establishment. The other is the conservative counter-establishment. The story of the GOP since 1980 has been the increasing power of conservative activists. It started with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and culminated in the Tea Party revolt of 2010, when hardline conservatives mounted primary challenges against mainstream Republicans they considered too moderate.
This year, the establishment candidate was expected to be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Bush got humiliated and driven out of the race by Donald Trump. Now the establishment has found a new standard-bearer. Rubio has drawn just enough support from wealthier, better-educated Republican voters to stay alive. They're the kind of Republicans who find Trump embarrassing. But, going into Super Tuesday, Rubio hasn't won a single state.
Conservatives have their own favorite: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who did win a state caucus (Iowa). Cruz is too radical for the old Republican establishment. He believes that threatening to shut down the federal government and default on the national debt is a good negotiating tactic. Cruz is likely to win his own state of Texas and show strength across the South on Super Tuesday. That should keep him alive for a while and complicate matters for Rubio.
Rubio is a bridge candidate who can draw support from both mainstream Republicans and ideological conservatives. After all, Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010 as a Tea Party favorite. Even if Rubio can draw support from both the Republican establishment and the conservative counter-establishment, it still may not be enough to beat Trump.
Trump is leading a populist insurrection against both party establishments. He regularly attacks Wall Street and its favorite causes free trade and bank bailouts. "The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder," Trump has charged.
So the big-money boys are funding anti-Trump attack ads run by Rubio's political action committee. Rubio himself is trying to out-trump Trump with mockery and name-calling: "If he hadn't inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan." Trump's response: "The guy has a fresh mouth."
Rubio may discover that it's hard to beat a master at his own game. It may be too late in any case. Rubio and other mainstream candidates have spent months attacking each other to become the leading alternative to Trump. Rubio now appears to have won that contest. But by laying off Trump, the other contenders have enabled Trump to beat them all.
Party insiders don't much care what a candidate believes as long as he's a winner. Their problem with Trump is that they don't think he can get elected. He's too coarse, too vulgar, too bigoted, too divisive. Republican officeholders are terrified that, with Trump at the top of the ticket, he could bring down the whole party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has advised Republican senators up for re-election to drop Trump "like a hot rock."
Some Republican insiders, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, are doing just the opposite. They're jumping on the Trump bandwagon because they've convinced themselves that Trump can win. "The single most important thing for the Republican Party is to nominate the person who gives us the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton," Christie said. "I can guarantee you that the one person that Hillary and Bill Clinton do not want to see on that [debate] stage, come September, is Donald Trump."
Some insiders have even convinced themselves that they might actually be OK with Trump in the White House. With Trump, everything is negotiable, including his positions, his beliefs, even his principles. When asked how he would run in the general election, Trump told Fox News, "I will be changing very rapidly. I'm very capable of changing to anything I want to change to."
And as president? Trump told voters in Iowa, "When I'm president, I'm a different person. I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person that you've ever seen."
That's exactly why conservatives don't trust him. Trump prides himself in being a deal-maker. He's not committed to any ideology. His views on the issues are just starting positions. The only thing he truly believes in is himself. He'll do whatever it takes to advance his own interests. To his supporters, he's smart. To conservatives, he's a sell-out. Rubio calls Trump a "con man."
The Tea Party paved the way for Trump by exposing the vulnerability of the party establishment. Party insiders watched helplessly as mainstream figures like Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor fell to Tea Party challengers in Republican primaries.
Trump is not a Tea Party man. Big government is fine with him as long as he's in charge of it. He has raised his own private army to take on both the establishment and the counter-establishment. Trump's people don't care about strategy, and they don't care about ideological conviction.
What Trump sells is defiance. He defies Washington insiders, he defies political correctness, he defies the media and he defies conventional wisdom. He has defied former President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He even defied the pope. The pope! If the establishment doesn't matter any more, who controls the nominating process? It used to be party professionals who wanted a winner. The conservative counter-establishment wanted a true believer. Both are now being challenged by angry voters. What do they want? Something that Trump offers and Rubio is now trying hard to imitate: attitude.
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