Over the past couple of weeks, a surprisingly large number of mainstream Republicans have started doing nice things for Donald Trump, especially in Iowa, where he is locked in a battle with Ted Cruz. This is especially puzzling for those of us who once confidently predicted that despite congressional Republicans' personal dislike of Cruz, they would ultimately find him more ideologically congenial than Trump.
But over the weekend, one political operative floated to me a theory that began to rapidly gain credence on Monday. Establishment Republicans aren't choosing Trump over Cruz because they prefer Trump to Cruz. They are backing Trump over Cruz because they think doing so is the best way to stop Trump.
It sounds crazy. And when you look at the plan in detail, it keeps sounding pretty crazy. But when you peer deeply into the all-around craziness of the 2016 primary season, it looks like maybe exactly the kind of crazy the GOP needs right now.
The establishment ricochet
In a recent email, veteran Republican strategist Alex Castellanos laid out a vision of Marco Rubio's path to victory that aligns with the boost-Trump-to-kill-Trump theory:
If Cruz underperforms in [Iowa] and Rubio finishes a strong third or better, New Hampshire may evolve into a race between Trump and Rubio, not Trump and Cruz. Unlike Bush/Christie/Kasich, Marco Rubio has a shot at being the only candidate palatable to the establishment who rides into NH with a little [Iowa] momentum. Rubio's 3-2-1 strategy to finish 3rd in IA, 2nd in NH, and 1st [in South Carolina] could actually develop.
So why boost Trump? The key is that for any of this to work, Ted Cruz needs to lose in Iowa. If Cruz beats Trump, then Cruz heads into New Hampshire with positive press and could easily ride out a New Hampshire loss to Trump before heading to South Carolina and other evangelical-rich Southern states where he's likely to do well.
A Cruz victory in Iowa, in other words, perpetuates the current dynamic that is killing the establishment — a dynamic where even if all the supporters of different establishment-friendly candidates agreed to back a single horse, that candidate would still be losing to both Trump and Cruz.
A Cruz loss in Iowa, by contrast, could set the stage to drive Cruz out of the race, allowing the bulk of his supporters to consolidate behind Rubio or some other establishment figure.
Why this (kind of) makes sense
For most of the campaign, Trump and Cruz have been discussed as kindred spirits — gadflies disliked by the GOP establishment — with some sense that each man is best positioned to inherit the other's supporters.
But while Trump and Cruz are in some ways similar figures, in other ways they are very different. Trump is not an orthodox conservative, and his message resonates most deeply with white working-class voters who are not especially invested in orthodox conservative ideology. It's possible to construct superficially devastating anti-Trump ads making the point that he's not a real conservative, but this point has been argued time and again by Trump's adversaries without it really hurting him much with his core supporters, who just don't care.
Cruz, by contrast, has built his entire career by arguing that establishment Republican politicians are betraying true conservative ideology.
Which is to say that while Trump's current supporters may not care that he's not an orthodox conservative, Cruz's current supporters probably would care about this. So if Cruz could be forced from the race, his backers might rally behind Marco Rubio's standard.
Why this could be ridiculous
For starters, it's by no means clear that Republican elites have the capacity for the kind of coordinated, secret activity that would be necessary to make this work. Beyond that, the obvious problem with helping Trump to beat Trump is that helping him might simply help him.
The problem with pumping up Trump in Iowa to try to force Cruz from the race and help defeat Trump in the long run is that if Trump wins Iowa and then wins New Hampshire (where he currently has a big lead), he may well just end up sweeping the table. With the exception of Ed Muskie in 1972, nobody has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire and then not won the nomination.
It's not clear why Cruz would respond to being stabbed in the back by the establishment by dropping out of the race, or, if he did, why he wouldn't endorse Trump. It's also entirely possible that a significant faction of Cruz's supporters are too vehemently anti-immigration to ever rally behind the co-sponsor of Chuck Schumer's immigration reform bill.
In that case, the consequence of helping Trump will be to have helped Trump.
At that point, what happens next is anyone's guess — but the odds that the answer is "warmly embrace the Republican establishment he just humiliated and adopt all their policy preferences for no real reason" do not seem especially high.
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