Friday, November 13, 2015

Dear Conservative Media: Please Destroy Trump and Carson. Love, the Republican Leadership.

This Washington Post article on the state of the Republican race from the "insider" perspective has attracted considerable comment over the past two days. It offers a portrait of nervousness, bordering on panic, among the Republican "establishment" (meaning veteran elected officials, consultants, and fundraisers) about the tenacious polling leads held by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who are seen as potentially disastrous candidates for the party, if not the entire country:

“We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,” [an anonymous] strategist said. “It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”

The now-familiar trial balloon of a "draft Mitt Romney" campaign is floated once again, probably an exercise in wishful thinking by a Romney friend or two. (Paul Ryan would actually have been a much more logical candidate for such a last-minute rescue mission, had he not already performed an identical service for the House Republicans. Due to nettlesome constitutional restrictions, Ryan can only save his party in one branch of government at a time.)

The actual probability of a Trump or Carson nomination remains quite low, and the article reflects the fact that many politicos spend a lot of time obsessing about unlikely worst-case scenarios. But the piece does raise a legitimate question: if Trump and Carson are to lose their current perches atop the Republican presidential field, how will their current supporters be convinced to change their minds? With so many Republicans in the race, a serious collective-action problem exists (since any individual candidate launching attacks is likely to face some backlash for doing so, merely benefiting the other contenders). In addition, the "wise old men" of the Republican Party lack the credibility today among fervent conservatives to successfully make a case against the likes of Trump or Carson, which might only reinforce the claims of the outsider candidates that they are being persecuted by an ideologically co-opted Republican "establishment."

The solution to this problem is clear enough: conservative authorities whom Republican voters trust need to explain to them that Trump and Carson are bad news for the party. Since few Republican elected officials currently attract such trust among a suspicious party base, the obvious answer lies elsewhere, among the ranks of prominent conservative figures in the news media. Because conservative media served as the launchpad for the Trump and Carson candidacies in the first place, this is not a guaranteed outcome—thus explaining the nervousness among the Post's interviewees. But as the primaries draw closer, it is very likely that the coverage of Trump and Carson in the right-of-center media becomes increasingly skeptical, reflecting many conservative elites' aversion to the political risk that either man's actual nomination would create.