- - Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Republican elites are so frightened by Donald Trump that many of them are making noises that they’re ready to embrace Ted Cruz, who is, so we have been told over and over, universally disliked in Washington, and particularly by his colleagues in the U.S. Senate. That’s close to an endorsement in this season of the noisy outsider, but it’s nevertheless a symptom of a divided party. The panicked elites are persuaded already that a Trump candidacy will destroy the party in November.

Panic is never a winning strategy, and cooler heads understand that once nominated, a presidential candidate will have a chance to say for himself who he really is, and if history serves Donald Trump would get that chance, too. Whoever the nominee — the Donald, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio or someone else — he will have a challenge remarkably like the challenge Ronald Reagan had to meet in 1980. Millions of Americans wanted to fire Jimmy Carter and the Democrats, who were overcome by what Mr. Carter called “malaise,” a French word for a vague disorder of the spirit if not the mind. The economy was in a terrible fix, and Americans then, like now, thought the nation was on the wrong track. The Iranians had seized 66 hostages from the American embassy in Tehran and Mr. Carter had done nothing but wring his hands and spoil an attempt to rescue the hostages. Mr. Reagan described the abundant unhappiness in the land with his famous “misery index.” Everyone knew what he was talking about.

Still, voters hesitated. The Democrats and their anvil chorus in the media attacked Mr. Reagan unmercifully as a warmonger, perhaps unhinged and too dangerous to trust with the power of the president, and he trailed in the polls for most of the summer and into the autumn. But by mid-October voters began to conclude that whatever he might be, he wasn’t a nut. He was someone they could envision as the president. The bottom fell out of the Carter campaign and voters did what they had wanted to do all along, to send him back to his peanut farm in Georgia. The hostages were finally released after 444 days, just minutes before Mr. Reagan took the oath of office. The mullahs in Tehran had got the message, that dealing with the new president would be different from dealing with the old.

A similar challenge awaits the Republican nominee this year. The Republican elites who warn now that they will “leave the country” (for unspecified destinations) if the party nominates the Donald or Ted Cruz, will think again about the prospect of another Clinton in the White House. They’ll return to reality, harsh as it may seem to be. The Gipper overcame the media myth of irresponsibility and recklessness and won the first of two successful terms, and left the party strong and robust. If the elites had made good on their pout, staying home on election day, the Gipper would have become a mere asterisk in the history books.

Primary campaigns look more divisive than they really are, unless the losers are unwilling to play the game, obey the rules, accept the outcome and move on. The lesson of 1980 for Republicans is that voters must overcome the primary campaign bickering, backbiting and exaggerations, drink their cocoa and grow up to give the winner the chance he deserves. If history is precedent, they’ll do that again this year. Then it will be up to the nominee to make his case.

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