The GOP Establishment Isn’t Resigned to Trump Yet

The recent warmth toward the Republican front-runner is actually a desperate ploy to get Rubio elected.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the 16th annual Outdoor Sportsman Awards at The Venetian hotel and casino during the 2016 National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show on Jan. 21, 2016 in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Over the past week or so, a belief has begun to gain real traction that the Republican Party “establishment” has warmed to the possibility of Donald Trump as its presidential nominee. This is predicated on the scenario that the nomination comes down to Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Republican leaders personally dislike and consider unelectable to boot.

A central figure in the Trump-acceptance movement is former presidential nominee and Senate majority leader Bob Dole, the erstwhile Republican establishment standard-bearer who is now just another elderly person in Kansas. Dole, the New York Times reports, warned of “cataclysmic” and “wholesale losses” if Cruz wins the nomination. Trump, by contrast, could stop Cruz, and if he wins the general election, could “probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.”

Is this really how they feel? Or is it just a means of stopping the immediate problem: an Iowa victory for Cruz, who led the state’s polling just long enough to solidify the conventional wisdom that he needs to win it?

To me, this is very likely a feint from establishment Republicans for one important reason: They don’t directly address Trump’s electability, which, like Cruz’s, remains poor. General-election–matchup polling this early comes with many caveats—the fact that the general-election campaign is still six months away, notably. And we should expect that the instant Trump were to win the nomination, he would move to rebrand himself as a lifelong pro-choice feminist Latino. But those early matchup numbers are still awful—and worse than Cruz’s—because Trump has gone to great lengths to viscerally alienate so many demographic groups and has certain … let’s say, temperament issues.

It may be that members of the Republican establishment, in their trolling of Cruz, don’t address Trump’s own electability because they recognize it for what it is. “Of course, this willingness to accommodate Mr. Trump is driven in part by the fact that few among the Republican professional class believe he would win a general election,” the New York Times reported in a separate piece about the establishment’s supposed détente with the mogul. “In their minds it would be better to effectively rent the party to Mr. Trump for four months this fall, through the general election, than risk turning it over to Mr. Cruz for at least four years, as either the president or the next-in-line leader for the 2020 nomination.”

There’s the tell. Are we really to think that the Republican Party establishment has already come to terms with losing this election? The purpose of the Republican Party establishment is not primarily ideological; it is to win elections for the Republican Party so that the Republican Party will have more ability to do the bidding of the interest groups that prop it up. If the establishment was already prepared to lose the election, they’d be better off going with Cruz to at least scratch the conservative movement’s itch for one of their own as the nominee in order to prove that this path won’t actually work.

In reality, the Republican establishment wants to win this election. I don’t want to give GOP elites too much credit now, given how incompetently they’ve managed the cycle so far, but it looks like they’re making an honest-to-goodness “play” here. Some might even call it a “strategy.” The most appropriate term, though, would be “moonshot.”

Their first objective is to take out Cruz. That means stopping him in Iowa. If he loses Iowa, a narrative sets in about how he blew it, and he might then finish out of the top three in New Hampshire. From there, he would likely not be able to make the dominant sweep through the South over the next month that his delegate strategy requires. If we look at Cruz’s Iowa trend line over the past week as he’s been taking incoming fire from all sides, it seems that this part of the plan is working.

The second objective, and a much longer-term one, is to take out Trump. Trump’s Iowa win would likely ice his New Hampshire victory. But if Cruz’s Iowa loss takes him out of the running for second place in New Hampshire, that silver medal would likely go to Sen. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Gov. John Kasich, or Gov. Chris Christie. Rubio would seem to have the edge following a likely third-place Iowa finish that Bush’s super PAC has been trying so hard to deny him. And if Rubio finished second in New Hampshire, the other three establishment-acceptable candidates who’ve pinned their hopes on New Hampshire would face overwhelming pressure to drop out. Rubio consolidates that voting bloc, holds his water against Trump through the South, scoops up the larger, more moderate winner-take-all states beginning March 15, becomes the nominee, and crushes Hillary Clinton by a trillion electoral votes.

Do you spot the flaw? It is found in the screaming disconnect between these two ideas: We are talking about a strategy that cedes Trump the long sought Iowa–New Hampshire double and a dozen or so additional states over the course of a month … and then bets on Trump losing the nomination. And losing it, at that, to someone like Rubio or Bush. Does the Republican establishment, after seeing all that it’s seen so far this cycle, still operate under the impression that Trump would lose in a head-to-head matchup to either Rubio or Bush, something directly contradicted by recent polling?

It’s a moonshot, all right. But it may be their last available option to salvage a race that they never had control of in the first place. The party’s best bet is still one that’s out of their hands: that masses of people who intend to vote for Trump get into a voting booth, look at the ballot, and think, Jesus Christ, am I really about to vote for Donald Trump to be president? (Of course those votes could be canceled out by the bloc of voters who go into the booth intending to vote for a “serious” candidate like Bush and then think, LOL, whatever, I’m voting Trump because it will be hilarious.)

The strategy will probably not work. But the Republican Party has to try something. And until Trump has the nomination secure, do not treat any reports about how the establishment is hunky-dory with Trump at face value.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.