The takeaway for the GOP Establishment — and its enablers at places like National Review and RedState — will be that Marco Rubio’s win in Minnesota, combined with Cruz’s victories in Texas and Oklahoma and the close-ish race in Virginia, show that Donald Trump can be stopped. They just have to keep going negative.
Remember that the GOP’s answer to any defeat is to “surge” — losing simply encourages it to try harder with the same basic tactics and strategy. In this case, the way they’re going to think about it is that Rubio almost caught Trump in Virginia by calling him a “con artist” and going relentlessly negative. So, they will reason, if we hit Trump with two weeks’ worth of unlimited negative ads in Florida, we can beat him there on March 15. And once Rubio has the 99 winner-take-all delegates from Florida, we can argue that he has the momentum and the support of the people to continue the fight all the way to the convention.
The calendar slows down a lot after March 15, and they will think that they can use the time between March 15 and the end of the process to rally people against Trump. They believe that if Trump doesn’t wrap it up soon, he will eventually lose. That will be their mantra.
There’s no point in complaining about this. Trump represents a potentially existential threat to the Donor Class, and it makes sense that they would use every trick in their toolbox to beat him. Plus, if he can’t survive the onslaught that’s coming in the next two weeks, I’m not sure he could survive against Hillary. There was always going to be a time where if Trump started to represent a true threat to their power, that they would do everything they could to destroy him. I think he’s understood this from the beginning. And now that time has come.
Everything will be fair game. His businesses. His wives. His temperament. Everything he ever did or said. It will be one of the most brutal two weeks we’ve ever seen. But he is playing for the highest of stakes, and this is the sort of thing you have to survive if you’re going to beat the champs of political scorched earth — the Clintons.
How Trump Can Defeat the Negative Onslaught
At the same time, this primary season has demonstrated that the Establishment has some real problems. It’s clear that Rubio is a deeply flawed candidate. It’s clear he struggles to reach people who aren’t already committed to the Establishment Agenda. It’s clear that the voters are screaming “NO!” to the Establishment’s agenda — they have rejected it in almost every state by almost overwhelming numbers. Even in the Minnesota caucuses, where Rubio benefited from a much smaller turnout than we are seeing in the states with primaries, over 50 percent of the reported vote went to Cruz, Trump, or Carson. The Establishment can be beaten in this campaign — the numbers are there, the issues are there. It can be done.
And Trump can do it. To win the nomination, he needs to do four things, all of which are very much in his power:
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1.) Keep the focus on the big issues — his plan to re-negotiate the terms of globalization so that it will work better for the American people, and to re-focus our foreign policy to better protect American interests. For the most part, he has won the debate on these points — which is why Rubio so rarely talks about them.
2.) Respond to the onslaught of attacks against him in a more balanced manner. Trump’s giving too much oxygen to stupid issues — hand size, sweating, spray-tan quality, tweet misspellings. Better to have a “spitballs off a battleship”-type response. “Poor Marco can’t tell us how he’s going to create job. But he does have a future on ‘The Last Comic Standing.'” The food fights that the media will try to drag Trump into are only designed to scare voters away from him.
3.) Push back on the notion that he’s a closet liberal who won’t do what he says — and remind GOP voters of the many times the preferred candidates of the Establishment (like Rubio) changed their positions once they got into office.
4.) Focus more of his attacks on the failures of the Obama administration — and of Hillary Clinton, who is now trying to pretend that she had nothing to do with the policies that have done so much damage to this economy. The one thing that all Republicans can agree on is that the country can’t take four more years of the Clinton-Obama team —and the vast majority of Republicans will welcome any candidate who can prevent such an outcome.
Cruz Must Help Break the Establishment
Meanwhile, Ted Cruz and his people have their own decisions to make. They are not in a pleasant position — they are trying to be principled conservatives at a time when most of the party is going for either Establishment-style moderation or populism.
Many of us have a strong affinity for Cruz and his people, and after winning three states, he should resist any entreaties from Rubio who will try to buy him off. But as the race goes forward, I would urge them to pay close attention to the example of Jeff Sessions. As Sen. Sessions properly recognizes, unless and until the grip of the bipartisan Establishment is broken, the GOP can never, ever be the party of principled conservatism — it can only be a place where conservative ideas go to die.
Yes, there will be times when the populists disappoint pure conservatives. But populists and pure conservatives each have the same basic goal — a great country where the average person has a chance at a better life. By contrast, the Establishment already has what it wants and will do everything it can to maintain the status quo. Ted Cruz and his supporters have to make their own decision, but in the long run they need a major shakeup in the GOP Establishment to have a chance of seeing their ideas become law. Rubio (and his donors) have no intention of making such a change. In fact, they will support policies — open borders, new trade deals, more government debt — that will make any such change much harder to achieve.