- - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The so-called Republican “establishment” is determined to deny Donald Trump the GOP presidential nomination, but most of their efforts thus far have strengthened rather than weakened his candidacy. Their attacks on him simply reinforce his support among those attracted to him because they reject the leadership of the current GOP establishment. Thus, though Mr. Trump poses an existential threat to the GOP establishment and the remaining Republican presidential candidates, they haven’t come close to figuring out how to counter his rejectionist agenda with an aspirational vision for America. Instead, they are playing his game on his field, and losing.

The GOP establishment goal is inherently rejectionist: “Stop Trump.” But this makes doing so more difficult because it adversely impacts the 2016 campaign’s three components: the skirmish between Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the battle among all five remaining candidates, and the looming general election campaign.

In Messrs. Cruz and Rubio’s competition to be the GOP establishment’s chosen “anti-Trump” candidate, their recent attacks on the man have thrilled their supporters and GOP powerbrokers while winning praise from old and new media, gleefully proclaiming that at long last, there is blood in the water. But neither the candidates no those cheering them on seem to realize it’s their own.

The senators’ dual attacks only served to confirm Trump supporters’ belief that a guileful GOP establishment is out to get their “straight-talkin’ non-politician,” and that Messrs. Cruz and Rubio are simply jockeying to be the establishment’s top lap dog. The GOP establishment is fundamentally fractured between the right (favoring Mr. Cruz) and center-right (favoring Mr. Rubio). Thus, party poohbahs find it virtually impossible to coalesce around either candidate. Nor can either senator soon drop from the race. It would be viewed as abandoning their ideological supporters and, thus, a death knell for their present and future political ambitions.

As for undecided GOP voters, they are increasingly dismayed at the anarchic state in which the party of Lincoln and Reagan finds itself at a time when America is in dire need of adult governance. Independents have been even more put off, calling the most recent GOP debate a “clown show” and a “circus,” which would be a compliment if the performance was put on by Ringling Brothers rather than the Republican National Committee.

It would have been wiser if instead of stooping to Mr. Trump’s level, Messrs. Cruz and Rubio had focused on rejecting the Obama administration’s progressive agenda and articulated a transcendent aspirational agenda for America. If nothing else, their handlers should have reminded them of the old adage oft repeated by President Truman: “When you wrestle with a skunk, two things happen. You smell like a skunk and the skunk is happy.”

Within the larger battle for the nomination the rejectionist agenda remains triumphant. A good man, Ben Carson continually emphasizes his rejection of the present administration’s agenda, but has not been as successful in offering a contrasting, aspirational vision for voters to consider. Ohio Gov. John Kasich offers an upbeat outlook, if not vision, for America that would ameliorate the current administration’s policies. Unfortunately, in the present primary his optimistic candidacy is akin to “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms” crashing the GOP electorate’s private screening of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The net result of all this, of course, is that the Donald keeps winning and is beginning to look like he may have the nomination locked up.

Mr. Rubio has hinted that he would be willing to force a deadlock and throw the nomination to the delegates who will gather in Cleveland, believing that in what used to be called a “brokered” convention, the establishment would emerge victorious and Mr. Trump would be sent packing. Unfortunately, if that happens, his supporters may go with him. If such a convention comes to pass and proves “successful,” it will only confirm the contempt Trump supporters have for the political class. No amount of GOP establishment cajoling or cries of “stop Hillary” will change their minds, because they will see no difference between the two parties or their nominees. Thus, a brokered convention will produce an irreparably broken GOP.

Regardless of what happens in Cleveland, millions of Republican-leaning and independent voters will be up for grabs this fall. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic establishment’s chosen nominee, but is no more popular with Democratic voters than Mr. Trump is with the GOP establishment. Even a fractured Republican Party will have a chance, but not if its only rallying cry is that it at least rejected Donald Trump. To win, it must convince voters that Republicans have a road map to a better future, and that will make it acceptable to turn the reins of government over to them.

If they can’t do that, defeating Mr. Trump will accomplish little other than leaving the White House in Mrs. Clinton’s hands and setting the stage for future internecine warfare.

Thaddeus G. McCotter is a former U.S. representative from Michigan and chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee.

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