Donald Trump and Ted Cruz currently are leaders of the GOP rat pack running for the high office of President of the United States. And that is scaring the bejesus out of the Republican "establishment" on the eve of the Iowa caucus. There just is no viable alternative in the Republican stable. I'll get around to the fact-checking in a moment, but let's first consider the numbers rattling all the cages, and then let's study those fear responses.
Who's ahead, who's not, and why
Steve Benen (MSNBC/MaddowBlog) reviews the latest polls. Here, in brief, are the results. Trump scored higher than anyone else including himself at 41% (average of the polls = 35.5). Cruz's highest result was far less - 29% (average 2.8).
And Trump is winning over Cruz with another demographic - evangelicals. Jerry Falwell announced his endorsement of Trump, as reported in several outlets like this piece from the Daily Beast. The report is that Trump has been "bromancing" Falwell for years.
Breaking news: The New York Times reports that Trump will skip the next Republican debate on Fox News. It sounds serious this time and might reflect the Trump campaign's sense of having Iowa wrapped up.
Rubio is trailing far behind at 13% (average 10%). Carson has almost dropped out at 6-7% and Bush is no better (3-9%). These guys are beating each other up while Trump coasts to victory.
What worries the GOP establishment
The New York Times' reporting about the GOP's reactions informs us about the fears of the establishment types.
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.
Leaders of the Republican establishment, made up of elected officials, lobbyists and donors, are also sending a message to the mainstream candidates, such as former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, that they should withdraw from the race if they do not show strength soon.
The party elders had hoped that one of their preferred candidates, such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, would be rising above the others by now and becoming a contender to rally around.
Instead, they have a muddled field of battered mainstream candidates: Mr. Bush, Mr. Rubio, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
The cumulative effect of all the ads, and corresponding attacks through harshly worded mailings, has been to stunt the growth of the so-called establishment candidates, keeping them clustered together in New Hampshire polls while Mr. Trump soars.
“These guys are so busy fighting one another that they’re only continuing to facilitate the rise of Trump and Cruz,” complained Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, a longtime Republican strategist.
Some in the party now concede that it might take until March or beyond for the Republican establishment to coalesce behind an alternative to the current front-runners. And that could be too late to catch either Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz.
As the Times points out, there is no sign that the circular firing squad is letting up. So Trump and Cruz will continue to hog the limelight while the 10-percenters fire at each other.
Why conservatives should fear: Trumps's corruption of conservatism
Both Trump and Cruz appeal to, and provide fodder for, the anti-empirical celebration of ignorance that characterizes their supporters. Both express their conservative credentials in terms of historical conservative institutions and individuals. And both are either misinformed or are purposely mischaracterizing their own conservative predecessors. John Nichols (The Nation) does some fact-checking on their falsehoods - Trump about William F. Buckley and the National Review and Cruz about Ronald Reagan.
National Review, the often-defining voice of conservatism over the past six decades, the favored publication of Ronald Reagan and of those who claim the Reagan mantle, has pulled out all the stops in the battle to avert the nomination of Donald Trump by the Republican Party.
The magazine is fighting more than an electoral battle. It is waging a serious struggle to prevent the redefinition of conservatism as Trumpism—so serious, and so clear in its intent, that the Republican National Committee has disinvited National Review from a partnership with NBC on the party’s February 28 presidential debate in Houston. The magazine’s publisher responded that exclusion from the debate was a “small price to pay for speaking the truth about The Donald.”
The point of National Review’s intervention is to suggest that there remains a mainstream and reasonably responsible conservative tradition in American politics—and that Trump is not a part of it.
National Review has intervened with this purpose before. The magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., challenged the far-right John Birch Society and its allies in the early 1960s, and he challenged anti-Semitism and crude nationalism in the early 1990s. I spent time with Buckley in that period, talking politics and ideology. We disagreed on issues, but I was always struck by Buckley’s sense of duty to defend conservatism as a clear and coherent ideology that did not bend too far to match the politics, or the fears, of any moment. He did not mind waging a losing battle that might clarify the ideals and goals of the movement, as he did with his 1965 New York City mayoral race on the Conservative Party line, and with his magazine’s decision on the cusp of the 1972 primary season to suspend support for Richard Nixon and endorse the insurgent primary challenge by Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook to the renomination of a sitting Republican president.
Buckley liked to take stands. And he was proud to challenge false prophets of conservatism.
So here is how Trump responded to the National Review. “The late, great, William F. Buckley would be ashamed of what had happened to his prize, the dying National Review!” “The National Review’s a dying paper. Its circulation’s way down. Not very many people read it anymore. People don’t even think about the National Review. I guess they wanted to get a little publicity.”
And here is part of Nichols' response.
... Buckley was a Trump critic in the years before the writer’s death in 2008. In 2000, when Trump was toying with a presidential run on the Reform Party ticket, Buckley warned:
Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today’s lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents—midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War—had little to do with a bottom line.
I suspect a lot of the readers of this blog are horrified by the specter of Trump as President. I guess that most of the readers also are at odds with Buckley's conservatism. But, for me, Buckley was a principled conservative. While I disagree with it, I respect it. Trump's candidacy has no principles as far as I can tell and Donald Trump does not merit respect of true conservatives.
Is Cruz any better -- any more honest in his conservatism? I doubt it. Nichols trashes Cruz's comments on his hero, Ronald Reagan.
Ripping Trump for past expressions of sympathy with the Democratic party and at least some of its preferred programs, Cruz declared the other day in New Hampshire that “Ronald Reagan did not spend the first 60 years of his life supporting Democratic politicians, advocating for big government.”
Does Ted Cruz not remember that Ronald Reagan was a Democrat before he was a Republican?
... Reagan did not spend “the first 60 years of his life” as a Democrat. But Reagan was 51 at the time of his party switch.
In those 51 years, literally from birth, Reagan was an ardent New Deal Democrat who supported liberal causes.
So much so that he would deliver one of the best-recalled radio addresses on behalf of Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign and Democrats running for Congress that year.
“This is Ronald Reagan speaking to you from Hollywood. You know me as a motion picture actor but tonight I’m just a citizen pretty concerned about the national election next month and more than a little impatient with those promises the Republicans made before they got control of Congress a couple years ago,” he began, before complaining that because of positions taken by a Republican-led Congress, “The profits of corporations have doubled, while workers’ wages have increased by only one-quarter. In other words, profits have gone up four times as much as wages, and the small increase workers did receive was more than eaten up by rising prices, which have also bored into their savings.”
Sounding not so different from the progressive populists of 2016, Reagan concluded: “In the false name of economy, millions of children have been deprived of milk once provided through the federal school lunch program. This was the payoff of the Republicans’ promises. And this is why we must have new faces in the Congress of the United States: Democratic faces.”
No one is denying that Reagan became a conservative Republican. But his history as a Democrat continued to influence him even during his presidency: he retraced parts of Harry Truman’s 1948 whistle-stop campaign on a train in the Midwest; he paid tribute to Humphrey as the “great happy warrior”; and he even found room for compromise with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a proud Democratic defender of the New Deal legacy.
When Ted Cruz was trying to shut down Congress several years ago, historians recalled the ability of Reagan and O’Neill to find common ground. Cruz lacks that ability for many reasons, including, no doubt, the fact that the senator’s recollection of Ronald Reagan seems more politically expedient than sincere.
Fact-less. Feckless. Fear mongering. Neither Buckley nor Reagan would be very happy with this devolution of their Republican party and the corruption of conservatism.