Politics, as they say, ain't beanbag. But party politics is still a team sport, in which a team that acts together is vastly more powerful than a bunch of people who have been forced together in mutual loathing and are looking to backstab each other at the first opportunity. The strongest political parties are those that give their voters a choice between their strongest candidates, who bid to persuade the voters to their side - as the Democrats did with Obama and Hillary in 2008 - and then close ranks once they have made their choice. Unfortunately, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush are all pursuing strategies and arguments designed to avoid that kind of choice, instead attempting to force the voters to choose them by presenting only the worst possible alternative instead. While these candidates have every right to pursue a strategy at odds with the best interests of the voters, they should expect to be called on it. If they truly have the best interests of Republican primary voters at heart, they should abandon these efforts in favor of actually trying to persuade the voters that they are the best man for the job.
Ted Cruz: Apres Moi, Le Trump
The Cruz campaign has, until this week, pursued a careful and canny strategy of avoiding conflict with Donald Trump. It's been a shrewd exploitation of the ambiguities and chaos that Trump has created, and it allowed Cruz to wait, build his favorables with potential voters, and respond from a position of moral high ground when Trump finally attacked him with both barrels, beginning with the "birther" attack on Cruz's Canadian birth. I have my share of issues with how this has been handled at times, both in terms of the wisdom (for general election purposes) of some of Cruz's statements and the rank dishonesty of some of his talk-radio boosters in trying to puff up Trump as a stalking horse for Cruz. But the strategy itself is undeniably savvy politics.
The dark side of that campaign, however, is emerging now: an effort by Cruz's campaign and boosters to use the specter of Trump - abetted by the talk radio pundits' own months-long efforts to falsely portray Trump as a real conservative - to argue that all the other candidates need to get out of the race and back Cruz or else risk the self-evident catastrophe of a Trump nomination. You can see a particularly vivid example in this Tweet Saturday from Cruz staffer Chris Wilson:
— Chris Wilson (@WilsonWPA) January 16, 2016
This, with a little more than two weeks before the very first votes in this primary will be cast. And we've heard variations on this from a lot of Cruz's vocal supporters. Cruz wants to get rid of Marco Rubio - rationally enough, because with Ben Carson's campaign in ruins, Rubio is the only other competition for voters who want a conservative Republican. So he's within his rights to throw everything he has at Rubio, and vice versa - as they have been doing. But "Rubio must get out now or Trump wins" is less persuasion than the political equivalent of a bomb threat, with Trump as the bomb. Yes, we need to winnow the field of the candidates at the back of the pack, but there remains plenty of time ahead for a three-man race to play out.
We've seen this movie before, in less dramatic fashion, and it ends badly for the party. In 2012, Mitt Romney succeeded in avoiding a two-man race and picking two of the weaker alternatives (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) to face down the stretch instead of, say, Rick Perry. That guaranteed that voters would resign themselves to Romney rather than choose him over a viable alternative - in contrast to the nomination processes in 1976, 1980, 1988, 2000 and 2008, in all of which Republicans chose from two main contenders and the loser was plausible enough to be the nominee in a later year. Republicans won three of those five races, two of them producing two-term Presidents - because, as Obama did in 2008, they were unafraid to face off against their best Republican opponents.
I noted back in December that the primary calendar would be a challenge for Cruz if he faced Rubio in a two-man race after March 1, but I sounded at the time a hopeful note about our ability to have faith in Cruz going into the general election if he could survive such a fight:
[I]f Ted Cruz is going to be the GOP nominee in 2016, not only does he have to run the gauntlet of Rubio, Trump and Carson, but he will need to break through and win a respectable share of the delegates from places like Florida, Ohio, California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. That means a red-state-only and closed-caucus strategy might well get Cruz a lead by March 1 – but if he hasn’t knocked out the credible alternatives (mainly Rubio) by then, he will inevitably have to prove the very thing that has just-win-baby Republicans most worried: that he can expand his base beyond committed conservatives.
Appeals to preemptively pressure Rubio and all the rest out in January to narrow the field to just Cruz and Trump would short-circuit that process, opening the potential for Cruz to win over a lot of rank-and-file Republican voters solely on the basis of not being Donald Trump. As we saw with Romney, that kind of primary victory is not how you ensure your party a strong nominee. Many of us criticized Romney and McCain for seeming to view the nomination as an end in itself. I'd like to believe Ted Cruz sees it as something more - as a stepping stone to a successful campaign to become President, and a meaningful President at that.
Trump: Vote Me Now, Or I Take My Voters With Me
In Trump's case, of course, the extortion implicit in his campaign has never been far from the surface: from the start, he has deterred other campaigns from attacking him out of fear that Trump will use his fame, wealth and the idiosyncratic loyalty of his fans to launch a Perot-style third party run aimed at handing the election to Hillary Clinton. The fact that Trump has run in a third party's primary before and donated copiously to the Clintons and other Democrats only emphasizes the thin thread of his loyalty to the Republican Party or anything it has ever stood for, giving credibility to the threat. Thus Republicans live in fear that if they don't treat Trump with kid gloves, he will leave in an emotional huff and wreck the party's chances of stopping the Democrats.
Jeb Bush: You Have No Right To Rise Without Me
In context, Jeb's strategy is the worst of all. Jeb is focused laser-like on sinking Marco Rubio in the hopes of rendering himself nominally the only candidate left standing between the GOP establishment and a Trump nomination. What is especially awful about this is both the irony of Jeb using a SuperPAC called "Right to Rise" to try to prevent the rise of a guy Jeb himself had supported and to some extent mentored a decade ago, precisely the sort of next-generation Republican who was supposed to carry the conservative movement to the next level. Now Jeb seeks to burn him down...for what?
The Jeb theory seems to run like this:
1. Help drain Rubio supporters to Cruz so Cruz beats Trump in Iowa, so Trump doesn't run the table early and Cruz KOs Carson, Huckabee and Santorum.
2. Rubio beats Christie, Kasich and Fiorina in New Hampshire, taking everyone but Rubio, Jeb, Cruz and Trump out of the race.
3. Jeb's continued presence and war chest hobbles Rubio through Florida in mid-March, keeping him from consolidating any money and votes on the non-Trump, non-Cruz side behind anyone other than Jeb.
4. Rubio, having (unlike Jeb) a political future to worry about, drops out, turning the Trump-Cruz-Rubio-Jeb race into a Trump-Jeb race.
5. Faced with a choice between Trump and Jeb, the GOP from top to bottom reluctantly rallies behind Jeb.
If you are following along at home, even aside from its many other flaws, the glaring weakness in this plan is obvious: Jeb assumes that at some point in the campaign, Ted Cruz gets hit by a meteor, eaten by a roving pack of hyenas, or swallowed up by the Earth. The problem is, Jeb has no plan for where Cruz's grassroots conservative supporters might go in that scenario. Rubio, at least, has an endgame in this scenario, because his whole theory of the race from the outset is that he can compete with Cruz for conservatives and compete with the likes of Jeb for establishment-minded voters. But Jeb and conservatives parted company at least a decade ago. His potential base is too small, and he's all but stopped even trying to persuade anyone outside it. All that remains is to try to ruin Rubio and hope that eliminates any other viable options for those voters who might prefer Jeb to Trump and Cruz.
Give Us Choices, Not Threats
Many of us have to settle for a candidate other than our first choice, especially in a year with such a crowded field. When this process started, my first choice was Bobby Jindal, my second was undecided between Rubio and Scott Walker. And narrowing the field does mean knowing when to cut bait - it's past time to admit that candidates who can't finish at least third in either Iowa or New Hampshire should fold up their tents, and that the race really should be down to four or ideally three candidates after Nevada. And if the third-place candidate really isn't able to make a charge by mid-March, then we can talk about a two-man race. But that's no reason to start issuing demands for one now.