Up to this point, it has been an article of faith among many conservatives and GOP lawmakers that nominating Donald Trump would be a disaster for the party, and for the country. But with the results of Super Tuesday II, it is becoming more and more obvious that stopping Trump could be more harmful to the GOP than letting him run against Hillary.
The major parties have recovered from nominating unpopular candidates before. The GOP lost with Goldwater in 1964, only to win with Nixon four years later. McGovern’s blowout defeat in 1972 was followed by Carter’s win in 1976. As these examples show, a major party can recover from even a crushing defeat in the presidential election.
It’s not so clear, however, that a party could recover from an Establishment-led coup that would deny the front-runner the nomination. Of course, it’s still possible that Ted Cruz will unite the anti-Trump forces and run off a string of victories showing that he represents most Republicans. But if that does not happen, and the GOP yields to the temptation to bend the rules or pull odd tricks to throw the nomination to a candidate who got fewer votes and delegates than Trump, it is very likely that many Trump voters would give up on the GOP for good.
For a Republican Party that needs Trump’s working-class base to have any hope of national office, losing any significant portion of that bloc could have devastating, long-term consequences.
So as the primaries continue, smart Republicans — including Trump himself —would do well to at least consider the potential benefits of working together. After all, if Hillary wins, all Republicans will be shut out of the executive and judicial branches of government for four more years. On the other hand, a Trump victory would give lots of Republicans a chance to wield levers of power that can only be reached from the White House.
And there would be numerous opportunities for Republicans — even Republicans who currently oppose Trump — if Trump were successful. For example, Trump’s vice president would have a unique opportunity to build his or her own political network — just as Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush did when they were vice president.
People from all wings of the party would have the chance to serve as cabinet members, judges, and White House staffers. But those opportunities will not exist under a Hillary administration.
Similarly, a defeat of Hillary would reflect badly on the legacies of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and would affect how their administrations are remembered. That would be a prize many conservatives would like to win, even if it meant supporting Trump.
But all of these outcomes are possible only if Trump wins, and if a future Trump administration is successful. Of course, the primary responsibility here lies with Trump himself. He has shown himself to be a master of mass politics, with an extraordinary ability to draw and win over enormous crowds.
To unite the GOP behind him, he will have to show that he can also work closely with those who have opposed him — much as Reagan worked with men like Bush and Jim Baker. Trump will also have to show that he can speak to all the constituencies in the GOP, not just his own.
At the same time, Trump’s GOP opponents face some important decisions of their own. Some may feel obliged to oppose Trump as a matter of principle, or even to support a third-party candidate — just as some liberal Republicans supported John Anderson in 1980. But others may realize that by rallying to Trump — by providing support and assistance in what will be a brutal campaign against Team Clinton — they may put themselves in a position to influence the future of this country in ways that will not be possible if Trump’s opponents destroy the GOP or otherwise give the election to Hillary.
In short, all Republicans have some big choices to make. The citizenry will be watching closely.