Thursday night's Republican debate clarified that despite all the talk, no genuine coherent party-wide effort to stop Trump is going to happen.
The debate ended with everyone on stage — people who'd called Trump a con man and a fake, a liar unfit to serve, ignorant, etc. — agreeing that of course they would support him if he wins. But even before that, in their squabbling and inconsistent messages, the non-Trump candidates showed that #NeverTrump isn't really a thing for the people actually in the race.
For months now, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich (formerly joined by Jeb Bush, Christ Christie, and once upon a time a half-dozen others) have fought to become the Last Non-Trump Standing based on the hazy notion that winnowing would inevitably delivery victory to whoever achieved the honor. Then they all woke up Thursday to the realization that it's too late, and the math no longer works.
To secure a majority of delegates, Rubio would need to win two-thirds of the remaining delegates, which is totally unrealistic. Kasich is even further behind. Cruz is a bit closer, but he's already won his best state (Texas) and doesn't have a lot of growth opportunity. The only hope the establishment has now is for anti-Trump voters to follow Mitt Romney's suggestion and vote tactically in hopes of denying Trump the nomination.
The last best hope, in short, is that the candidates will stop running for president and start running to stop Trump from becoming president. It didn't happen, and even if it does the GOP has set itself up to enter the general election season hopeless divided.
The most important words nobody said in the debate
"If you live in Florida, vote for Marco Rubio."
Ted Cruz didn't say that and neither did John Kasich. That right there was the most important moment of the debate. Florida's winner-take-all March 15 primary will award 99 delegates that, if taken by Trump, will make blocking him almost impossible. Rubio, a Floridian, is polling well behind Trump in most surveys, but he's clearly the non-Trump candidate who is best-positioned to win the state.
To stop Trump, the Republican Party desperately needs all Floridians who aren't for Trump to vote for Rubio.
Roughly the same is true of Ohio, except in Ohio they need people to vote for Kasich.
But none of it happened. Trump had, to my eye, a relatively weak evening. All three of his opponents had their moments, but they were truly their moments.
- Cruz hammered home the message that hard-core ideological conservatives should vote for him — and there are probably a few of them in Florida and Ohio.
- Kasich hammered home the message that moderate Republicans looking to put a kinder, gentler face on the part should vote for him to "reignite the spirit of the United State of America."
- Rubio has morphed himself into a generic vessel for anti-Trump sentiment and mostly poured his energy into high-energy anti-Trump rhetoric, which is fine for generic Republican types who are basically happy with the current direction of the party.
This dynamic resolves nothing. It leaves Trump with his plurality support nationwide, which translates into a steamroller that will continue to amass delegates and likely win.
Republicans are heading for a nightmare
The bottom line is that the Republican Party is now on track for a major disaster. One possibility is that Trump will eek out a narrow victory against a divided field in the face of dogged opposition from his own party's elite. Far too many anti-Trump things have been said at this point to take them all back, and the divisions inside the party will hurt Trump badly in the general election.
For Democrats, this is fun to watch. But more than fun to watch, it's a key reason why Democrats, though they should avoid complacency about Trump, can also confidently view him as a weaker-than-average nominee. Presidential candidates who run at the head of a united party have no guarantee of victory, but candidates who run without the wholehearted support of their party's prominent leaders and mid-ranking professional staffers tend to lose.
But the alternative is also disastrous.
If the Republicans running against Trump actually did cooperate with some explicit or implicit alternative in mind, then they could assemble an anti-Trump majority and hand the nomination to their champion. But instead they are all running independent, entirely uncoordinated campaigns and simply hoping to work out the nomination via a chaotic convention floor fight of the sort we haven't seen for two generations.
Nobody knows who or what would emerge from that, but one guarantee is it would leave Trump and his supporters enraged and demoralized at what they will see as an underhanded theft of a nomination they earned.
Nobody is really arguing with Trump's ideas
After an extended series of debates in which nobody (except, on occasion, for poor Jeb Bush) really attacked Trump, we have entered a phase in which nobody does anything except attack Trump.
But for all their attacks, they are not really joining the argument that Trump started over the proposition that the GOP should ditch elements of free market ideology and embrace populist nationalism instead.
Trump's rivals don't want to engage in this argument for the same reason that Trump has rocketed in the polls — most rank-and-file Republicans agree with Trump. So instead, they bite at him over secondary issues — old campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton, Trump University — or try to point out problems with Trump that also apply to the other candidates. It was shocking, for example, to see Fox News anchors pointing out that Trump's tax plan isn't remotely paid for. This is entirely true, but it's equally true of every other GOP tax plan of the past 15 years and it never seemed to bother Fox before.
These are real knocks on Trump, but they don't explain the GOP establishment's rage against him. That stems from the divide over the role of populist nationalism in the conservative movement. And whether the establishment candidates want to talk about it or not, the delegate math has now reached a point where a major intra-party blowup is essentially inevitable.