Ted Cruz is campaigning on the idea that the “establishment” is uniting behind GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. He told reporters in New Hampshire:
We’re seeing something remarkable happening in this Republican primary. Right now, the Washington establishment is abandoning Marco Rubio, they’ve made the assessment that Marco can’t win this race, and the Washington establishment is rushing over to support Donald Trump. We’re seeing that happen every day, and Mr. Trump is welcoming that support.
The great thing about railing against the “Washington establishment” is that you never have to identify whom you mean. Thus, you can say pretty much whatever you want about it without fear of being proven wrong.
Cruz’s allegation tests the limits of this proposition. The only major figure I’m aware of who has “rushed to support Trump” lately is Sarah Palin.
Who better embodies the establishment than the folks who gather in Davos for the World Economic Forum? This year’s participants include Eric Cantor, the former Republican House Majority Leader and now vice chairman of Moelis & Company. Cantor’s defeat in the Republican primary last year was widely viewed as a stunning repudiation of the establishment (albeit a repudiation by a relatively small number of voters).
How does the Davos gathering view the rise of Donald Trump? With dismay. Bloomberg Business reports:
The prospect of Trump in the White House is ratcheting up anxiety among the 2,500 business and political leaders gathered at the Swiss ski resort for the annual World Economic Forum. With less than two weeks before voting in primaries gets under way and Trump in the Republican Party lead, those who fear a rise in protectionism and economic mismanagement are speaking out against the billionaire property developer.
Cantor expresses the establishment’s dismay:
Unfortunately I do think that if there were to be a Trump administration the casualty would likely be trade. That’s a very serious prospect for the world.
Personally, I’m not convinced that “trade” would suffer in a Trump presidency. But then, I’m not part of the establishment under any sensible definition (nor am I supporting Trump).
If one takes what Trump says seriously, though, the establishment has every reason to oppose him, even if doing so entails supporting Cruz (which, as I argue below, is not the case yet). Trump is running as a populist. The establishment has more to fear from populism than Cruz’s Reagan-style conservatism. Kenneth Jacobs, chairman and chief executive of the international investment bank Lazard, warns:
The history of populism in democracy is not great, and it’s not self-correcting in a lot of cases. You only have to look to Europe between the two wars and to a number of the Latin American countries prewar and postwar to see that.
The establishment has always feared no one more the “man on a white horse.” They fear him now, even if he’s actually a fat-cat in a stretch limo.
Cruz would argue that the “establishment” thinks it can cut deals with Trump, whereas he (Cruz) is incorruptible. There may be some in the establishment who believe they could deal with Trump (and they may well be right). But the evidence from Davos suggests that this is not the prevailing view.
Moreover, no one knows for sure how Trump would behave as president. Thus, at a time when not one voted has been cast and when Trump and Cruz combined poll only slightly better than 50 percent, it would be rash for the establishment to view all alternatives to the two poll leaders as hopeless.
The time may come when the “establishment” feels it must choose between Trump and Cruz. When that time comes, my guess is that the establishment will divide. But it has not come yet.
UPDATE: Chuck Todd, in an article called The GOP establishment’s risky bet on Trump,” cites Bob Dole’s statement that, if forced to choose between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, he’d pick Trump. But Dole’s statement supports neither Cruz’s claim nor Todd’s headline. Dole didn’t say he’s supporting Trump; only that he prefers Trump to Cruz.
Todd also relies on Jonathan Chait (yeah, that guy) for the proposition that “other parts of the GOP establishment that have warmed up to Trump — including the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and Rupert Murdoch.” But the quote from the Journal that Chait points to says only that “Mr. Trump is a better politician than we ever imagined, and he is becoming a better candidate.” That’s obvious. It doesn’t signal a “warming up” to Trump, much less support. I agree with the Journal’s observation, and I’m certainly not warming to Trump. I much prefer Cruz and nearly everyone else in the field.
As for Murdoch, Chait says he’s gone from calling Trump an embarrassment to praising his crossover appeal. Murdoch cited Trump’s appeal in a tweet criticizing Cruz for betting that white conservatives and evangelicals can carry him to victory. So Murdoch may well favor Trump over Cruz. But again, this is not the same thing as supporting Trump for the nomination.
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