Republican operatives, insiders affiliated with no campaign and donors with whom we spoke last week are not pleased about the state of the GOP race. They will say something like: “Yeah, it’s early. Yeah, Rudy Giuliani never became president. But still.” They will tell you public polling is exaggerated, although internal polling shows him leading. They are angst-ridden over Donald Trump’s staying power, but more than that, the inability of the other candidates to respond effectively and present themselves as an effective alternative.
These Republicans, on one hand, despair that an egocentric bully with no discernible political principles should be leading in polls. They observe that his incoherent mix of authoritarianism, protectionism and cronyism is antithetical to the modern conservative movement, and in tone is 180 degrees from Ronald Reagan. But they also note that he is building an organization and displaying “P.T. Barnum showmanship,” as one veteran of GOP presidential campaigns put it. They shake their heads, unable to fully comprehend Trump’s appeal, but more than that they are disturbed by the rest of the field. They do not believe Trump will be the nominee, but high hopes for a deep, quality field have not been met.
In particular, they are worried that Trump’s embrace of “nativism” will doom the party if mimicked by others.
Everyone would be advised to take a deep breath. Check the calendar (it’s still August). Remember who Trump supporters are. As Ramesh Ponnuru noted: “Take away the celebrity-besotted, the non-voters, and the single-issue opponents of immigration, and you’re left with a group of conservatives who deeply dislike what they see as a spineless Republican establishment. These voters never determine the nominee, because too many of them waste their passion on hopeless candidates, such as Ben Carson, Michele Bachmann . . . Donald Trump.”
Already in the Des Moines Register poll, the most reliable Iowa poll available, Trump lead is down to a mere five points over Carson. Considering how Trump has dominated the airwaves, it’s not an impressive poll for him.
And then re-examine the rest of the field. Now, it is true that many campaigns and candidates have fizzled, or in some cases self-destructed. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has critically damaged himself by trying to ape Trump, some say fatally. In his must-win state of Iowa he is down to 8 percent. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a handful of others have nearly disappeared entirely. Many Republicans think a number of candidates will fail to make subsequent debates as the polling percentage needed to qualify goes up. As these candidates drop off and the field consolidates, the survivors will get more time in the debates and have access to more donors and supporters.
But there are plenty of quality candidates whom one can envision competing for the nomination next year. While the media delight in taking whacks at Jeb Bush, he has only just begun to sharpen his rhetoric. He has the resources to use paid media to tell his own story and change the race’s dynamic, provided he avoids bobbles, steers clear of further staff bickering and focuses attacks on areas where others are weak. His super PAC has gobs of money to begin telling his story. (And truth be told, he’d rather Trump be taking up the oxygen than see a more viable alternatives gain traction.)
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who few saw as a real competitor, looks more impressive than many expected. He’s run a smart race as the compassionate conservative and shown in debates he can be disciplined. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has both the political skill and broad appeal to make a run once the field narrows. So long as no one competitor wins all the early primaries, he will likely have the resources to compete once the race turns to winner-take-all races. And finally, Carly Fiorina gets high marks from most everyone with whom we spoke. Almost sheepishly, some will admit that many of the male, professional pols are floundering while the one woman, a political novice, excels in earned media and interviews and on the debate stage.
Moreover, the shoe has yet to drop: At some point, if he doesn’t blow up on his own, candidates and super PACs will drop negative ads portraying Trump, accurately, they say, as a liberal Democrat on a slew of issues. After all, he is erratic on the issues, a fact that issue-oriented activists will readily concede. Let’s remember, this is only August, when a fraction of primary voters are engaged. A full-blown counterattack against Trump is not likely to get underway for several months.
And there will be plenty of fodder for those attacks. Policy activists sure have figured out Trump is no friend of their causes.
Club for Growth, the fiscal conservative group, put out a White Paper on Trump. They pulled no punches. “Donald Trump is not a pro-growth conservative. He has advocated for universal, government-run health care, for a massive new tax, and for the abuse of eminent domain so the government could forcibly buy up your property for a developer to build a shopping center,” the groups asserts. “While Trump may have claimed new positions since taking those stances, he has yet to renounce them, or explain different plans. . . . In light of Donald Trump’s statements and positions, the Club believes he would not govern as president in accord with the pro-growth principles of limited taxation, free trade, less regulation, and lower taxes.” Soon, one or more candidates will need to make this argument.
On social issues, Christian conservatives are distressed with Trump. In response to his praising his pro-choice sister as a judge and refusal to commit to defunding Planned Parenthood, Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America tells us that “it would and should be difficult for a candidate to earn our votes if he or she doesn’t understand that Planned Parenthood is an anathema to the pro-life community.” She adds, “The issue of abortion is ground zero for us. There is no room for equivocation. We also worry about his ability to choose Supreme Court nominees who are Constitutionalists.”
She is also unsettled by Trump’s views on Iran and Israel (a key issue for her 500,000-person group). “I can’t really tell from day to day, which goes to the issue of trust,” she says. At some point, candidates must forcefully make the case against Trump’s erratic foreign policy and social views.
This should not be so hard, many presidential veterans say. You gather the data on Trump’s problematic views and rhetoric, you use earned media to blast away one issue at a time and you dump rounds of ads to remind voters he’s a Democrat at heart and would be a train wreck for the GOP. But most of all, you need to present an alternative, these voices say. All the GOP needs is one or more candidates to step it up, look like a party leader and sell a conservative reform vision.
Despite all the hand-wringing and many candidates’ belly flops, there are several candidates fully capable of doing so. In a few months, if no one has, anguish will be understandable. For now, savvy campaigns will keep to their game plan, refine their message and work on attracting the overwhelming percentage of Republicans who find Trump a non-starter.
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