Maybe the Republican Establishment Can’t Have It All

Given their failure to take down Donald Trump, is it time for GOP elites to let go of some cherished inward-facing policy priorities?

Andrew Harnik / AP

­­Maybe you remember Aesop’s fable of the boy and the nuts?

A boy put his hand into a jar of filberts and grasped as many as his fist could possibly hold. But when he tried to pull it out again, he found he couldn’t do so, for the neck of the jar was too small to allow of the passage of so large a handful. Unwilling to lose his nuts but unable to withdraw his hand, he burst into tears.

A bystander, who saw where the trouble lay, said to him,

“Come, my boy, don’t be so greedy. Be content with half the amount, and you'll be able to get your hand out without difficulty.”

If—as the polls suggest—Donald Trump wins the Republican contests in Iowa and New Hampshire; if, 14 days from now, he’s heading on to contests in Nevada and South Carolina as the overwhelming favorite; then the leaders of the Republican party will have cause to remember Aesop’s fable.

One question has been asked over and over about the 2016 Republican contest: Where is the cavalry? When does the fabled Republican establishment use its vast reserves of cash to fill the airwaves with negative ads against Donald Trump? This was how Mitt Romney overwhelmed Gingrich’s brief surge in 2012. Trump is surely an even more vulnerable target than Gingrich, right?

But Donald Trump has come under repeated attack. Here’s an ad from the Club for Growth’s million-dollar anti-Trump campaign back in September. Here’s Rand Paul in August. Here’s a pair of mocking ads from Jeb Bush’s campaign in September and October. Here’s a savage ad from the Kasich campaign in November. Everybody’s been talking about the National Review special issue in January denouncing Trump. The Miss America contestant from Alabama made many of the same points when she was interviewed in the pageant in the fall of 2015.

The attacks have been fired. They failed.

It’s certainly possible to imagine more ingenious lines of attack. In a January 24 column, Ross Douthat of  The New York Times volunteered a brutal possible ad.

To attack him effectively, you have to go after the things that people like about him. You have to flip his brand.

So don’t tell people that he doesn’t know the difference between Kurds and the Quds Force. (They don’t either!) Tell people that he isn’t the incredible self-made genius that he plays on TV. Tell them about all the money he inherited from his daddy. Tell them about the bailouts that saved him from ruin. Tell them about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos—workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University.

Or just take a camera crew around Atlantic City, and slap Trump’s name on what you find.

Likewise, don’t get mired in philosophical arguments about big government and crony capitalism. Find the people hurt by Trump’s attempts to exploit eminent domain: The widow whose boarding house he wanted to demolish to make room for a limo parking lot, the small businessmen whose livelihoods he wanted to redevelop out of existence.

(One of the Donald’s foredoomed rivals, Ted Cruz, actually just cut an ad along these lines. But of course it’s too late for that to work.)

Finally: Calling Trump out for having “New York values” when you mean “thrice-married, coarse, and libertine” is telling people what they already know. If you want to persuade his voters that his “New York values” are a problem for them, put his alleged dealings with the Mafia on the table.

Whoever emerges as the last man standing among the governors and senators may yet try just this approach.

But maybe Republicans might also consider Aesop’s advice.

For a very long time, the voting base of the Republican Party has been signaling desperate economic and cultural distress.

A poll published on Tuesday in The Washington Post sounds the klaxon again:

The Republican electorate is in a sour mood as its members prepare to begin the process of picking a presidential nominee. Almost 9 in 10 say the country is seriously off on the wrong track, and more than 8 in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the federal government works, including nearly 4 in 10 who say they’re angry about it.

Two-thirds worry about maintaining their current living standard, more than 6 in 10 say people with similar values are losing influence in American life, and about half say the nation’s best days are behind it. Half also say immigrants mainly weaken American society, compared with 55 percent of the overall population who say immigrants strengthen America.

Donald Trump’s response to this dilemma is protectionism, immigration restriction, and a big helping of his own often-claimed superhuman toughness and competence. It’s maybe not a very adequate answer, but it’s an answer. What’s Marco Rubio’s answer? What’s Jeb Bush’s? What’s Chris Christie’s?

Listen to Marco Rubio describe his priorities for his first day in office. They include repealing Environmental Protection Agency rules, repealing the Common Core, and canceling the Iran deal.

Ted Cruz’s first priorities are ordering the Justice Department to investigate Planned Parenthood, ordering the IRS to stop persecuting religious liberty, canceling the Iran deal, and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Jeb Bush’s first priorities include repealing Obamacare, lifting regulatory burdens on businesses, and eliminating gun restrictions. He’ll also end the president’s orders authorizing illegal aliens to remain in the country, insisting that this aim can only be achieved by legislation. Only the last of this series bears very closely on the anxieties discerned in the Post poll—and even that last is only provisional. It remains Jeb Bush’s intention to do by legislation what he objects to President Obama doing by executive order.

For most of their existence, the two political parties have been condemned by reformers as cold-blooded machines for the gaining of power, disdainful of principle and ideals. The Republican Party in 2016 presents a contrasting spectacle: a party so powerfully committed to ideas that it can no longer recognize that those ideas have ceased to resonate beyond its own shrinking coteries of activists and intellectuals. Party elites have been broadcasting for months that Donald Trump is not a consistent conservative—and it has not made any difference at all. Balked and baffled, they’ve convinced themselves that the secret is to say it louder.

And maybe that will work. Maybe if they keep slamming away about ethanol and eminent domain and how Trump described himself as pro-choice in a 2000 interview, maybe at last that will break through.

Or maybe it’s time for the party’s elites to let go of some of their cherished inward-facing policy priorities, as the boy released some of the nuts from his grasp. Instead, they might try actually addressing the fears and anxieties of the American middle class: jobs, wages, retirement security. Negative advertising has been aired without success. Perhaps a positive program would do better? Before it’s too late?