While Donald Trump won't be the GOP nominee, reclaiming the party from Trump still requires that we contemplate what a Trump nomination and even possibly a Trump presidency would look like. The picture isn't a pretty one. One of the underappreciated aspects is how any electoral success by Trump in the primaries and potentially the general election could spawn a bonanza for the GOP's much-despised consultant class, at the expense of the party's ability to field principled and/or successful statewide and national candidates.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward: Trump is the avatar of the clueless-rich-guy style of candidate that is the absolute favorite target of consultants. Oh, the consultants working for other candidates right now would be, momentarily, upset if Trump won the nomination; they're hired guns, but they do like to win. And consultants for Senate and House Republicans would be dismayed for a while by how a Trump nomination would cost the GOP Senate and House seats and make Chuck Schumer the Senate Majority Leader. But there's always another campaign season.
Back when Mitt Romney was running a similar effort to win the nomination, I warned that a Romney victory would spawn imitators:
Political consultants love candidates who enter races with a lot of money and not much in the way of a political record or political convictions. Such candidates can be tailored to a script and platform developed by the consultants, they spend money on the consultants and their businesses, and when the candidate inevitably fails because he or she lacks the natural political instincts and convictions to speak well off script, the consultant can just shrug, say there’s only so much you can do with a bad candidate, and move on to the next one. Over and over, Republicans have lost races with such people, and if Romney manages to back his way into a victory this fall, we shall never be rid of them.
Patrick Ruffini, who knows this space well, has elaborated on this dynamic:
The dollar signs dancing around in consultants’ heads don’t make up for the fact that most self-funders tend to be subpar candidates for important structural reasons. First, they’re political dilettantes unfamiliar with the rigors of elected politics. They make rookie mistakes. They assume their records before their recent entries into politics aren’t relevant or won’t be scrutinized. They have less political acumen or knowledge than many of the people I follow on Twitter, or even most of them.
And that’s just when they start running. Once they do, they run overkill levels of TV, and often resort to slashing negative ads to dislodge better known competitors, which drives their own negatives up….The gaudiness of the campaign operation tends to infect media coverage late in the game, and that’s when self-funders really get worked over by the traditional press corps, which tends to counter-balance the perceived buying of the election with uniquely skeptical coverage when voters are actually paying attention. And as any student of campaigns will tell you, earned media is far, far more valuable than paid media, even at inflated levels of spending.
From an ideological perspective, self-funders are political chameleons. Since they’re somewhat politically attuned, they’re likely to have been a donor, but like most big donors, they’re pragmatists who’ve played both sides. And it’s not uncommon for these rich candidates to have made donations to fashionable lefty social crusades. The country-clubbers who have supported Focus on the Family or the National Rifle Association with their philanthrophic dollars are few and far between.
...And there’s another element here that shouldn’t be tolerated: corruption. To put it indelicately, when a mega-self-funder gets in, people get bought. Local parties are capitalized to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars with endorsements magically appearing shortly thereafter. People who couldn’t afford to take salaries before can now take salaries. Others get put on the campaign payroll. Elected officials who’ve fought hard and risen through the ranks suddenly become fans of political “outsiders”, leaving their own integrity and intellectual honesty open to question.
In any system where money rules, conservatives lose. When endorsements and political support are rooted in money, not principle, that’s just as great an insult as choosing a moderate over a conservative in a red state on electability grounds. This is not a matter of being a campaign finance zealot as it of avoiding bad and unreliable candidates who tend to lose at alarming rates.
Even moreso than Romney, this describes Trump to a T - a candidate who has never lifted a finger to help conservatives or Republicans, who has donated copiously to leading Democrats like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and the Clintons throughout the Obama years, who has until very, very recently (at age 69) been pro-choice and a supporter of gun control and big government, who even in this campaign has proposed massive tax hikes and spoken warmly of single-payer healthcare - but who has abruptly decided that his stance on immigration (itself a brand-new change from his past positions) qualifies him to be a Republican presidential contender.
If Trump were to win the nomination, consultants all across this land would get the message that the next rich guy, and the next, could be persuaded to run for Senator and Governor and President, not only with no political experience but without the need for any record of standing up for anything conservatives or Republicans believe in or wish to accomplish. It's not easy to sell political amateurs with no record of conservatism that they can be the next Marco Rubio or the next Ted Cruz - that requires working your way up the ladder, proving your principles in action, showing real political talent, beating entrenched moderates, winning elections. But "the next Donald Trump"? All you need is money and "attitude." No need to have been any sort of friend to conservatives more than a day before you announce. We'll scripts some outrageous remarks, lay out some cash, get people to vouch for you...the consultants will have a field day.
This would be the real Trump legacy.