Imagine you have this incredibly valuable sports car, and when you drive it up to a valet stand there are two guys anxiously vying to take the keys. One of them looks wild-eyed and agitated, like he just drank seven Red Bulls. The other is a guy you remember from high school, except that you hated each other and he’s eyeing the hubcaps with contempt.
Now you have a rough idea of how Republican insiders in Washington are feeling this week. With the season of choosing passing its midpoint, governing Republicans are slowly resigning themselves to what looks like a two-man race between the unpredictable Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, a man so universally disliked that if you Google “hated senator,” every single link that pops up is about him. (Try it yourself.)
It’s an agonizing thing for them to contemplate, but in conversations with a half dozen of the leading Republican strategists and lobbyists this week, it became clear that a solid consensus is forming as to which guy they would rather see get the keys. When it comes to Trump versus Cruz at the top of the ticket, most in the so-called establishment would prefer the devil they know to the daredevil they don’t.
For the moment, of course, Trump looks very hard to stop. And if you’ve been paying attention to his debates and election night speeches lately, you may have noticed that — in between recitations of every poll he’s ever read, and the rambling monologues on genitalia and civil jurisprudence, and the brandishing of his personal steaks and his own print magazine (who knew?) — he’s been consciously trying to reach some kind of rapprochement with party insiders.
On Tuesday night, for instance, after winning in Michigan and Mississippi, Trump used the opening minutes of his victory speech/news conference/traveling revue to call for party unity. He managed to cough up some kind words for Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham and even Mitt Romney, whom he said he didn’t really know, despite having recently called him a “dope” and a “loser” and “one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics.”
(And those insults came before Romney essentially pleaded with all right-minded Republicans to banish any thought of Trump as a nominee and bury the brief flirtation in some dark hole of repressed memory.)
All of which may yet lead to some awkward photo ops and panic-induced endorsements on the Capitol steps should Trump be nominated, but make no mistake: Most Washington Republicans want about as much to do with Trump as he does with them.
They see him as erratic and untrustworthy, an ideological trespasser who would borrow the party but holds dear few of its conservative convictions. And they’re profoundly troubled by an authoritarian streak — on issues like immigration and the military’s treatment of civilians — that would seem to make George W. Bush look like a lawyer for the ACLU.
Vin Weber, the congressman turned superlobbyist, does a pretty tidy job of encapsulating these concerns. “I don’t think he’s a ‘big R’ Republican, and I don’t think he’s a ‘small D’ democrat,” Weber told me, “and both of those are big problems for me.”
Most of the party’s governing class, of course, is still hoping for a kind of triple bank-shot gambit to stop Trump’s march toward the nomination. The latest plan goes like this:
Somehow hope that Marco Rubio — who received exactly zero delegates from the four contests earlier this week — can stage a comeback win in Florida Tuesday, while John Kasich manages to eke out a win in Ohio (where he’s the governor, by the way). Then keep Trump from amassing the 1,237 delegates needed to lock up the nomination before the convention, by which time Republican leaders will have settled on a preferred candidate (probably Kasich) whom they can try to ram through.
Which isn’t a terrible plan, except that it’s a little like me saying I have a brilliant plan to become a billionaire, and all I have to do is start by coming up with some kind of amazing app that everyone in America wants to buy. Hope is not a strategy.