Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is It Better to Try and Fail Than Not to Try at All? Not in Politics!

With apologies to my friends and colleagues in the Party Decides camp, you don't need a bunch of political scientists to tell you that most Republican leaders would rather see their party nominate someone other than Donald Trump for president. If the resiliency of a front-running Trump campaign is the shock of the year in American politics, surely the second-biggest surprise is the response of the Republican regulars—or rather, like the dog that didn't bark in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, the non-response. Trump seemingly represents a potentially serious threat to the party's interests in nearly every conceivable fashion, from his idiosyncratic policies to his controversial rhetoric to his debatable qualifications for the office he seeks. Yet Republican senators, governors, and other elected leaders have not collectively mobilized to counter Trump's ascent, even as the first events of the primary season rapidly approach.

The currently trendy interpretation of this apparent indifference to, or even acceptance of, Trump's rise is that it reflects Washington Republicans' white-hot hatred of Ted Cruz. Recent news stories like this one and this one, in which various Republican graybeards like Bob Dole, Trent Lott, and Rudy Giuliani express a preference for Trump over Cruz, have been treated as a remarkable indication of Cruz's unmatched unpopularity among party regulars and the dim view that they take of the Texan's chances in a general election—to the point that they regard the unknown quantity of Trump as worth the risk in comparison. Perhaps these figures view the nomination as already narrowing to a Trump-Cruz race and have reluctantly thrown in their lot with Trump as the lesser of two evils; more likely, they are merely trying to build Trump up temporarily in order to dispose of Cruz in Iowa and New Hampshire, ultimately increasing the odds of a more traditional nominee such as Rubio, Bush, or Christie.

But if Cruz were not in the race, or not a threat to win, would party regulars have already mounted a broad anti-Trump offensive? There are reasons to be skeptical. Veteran Republican officeholders have faced relentless attacks from the Tea Party and other rebellious purists over the past several years, absorbing considerable damage: the Republican speaker was pushed out of office, the House majority leader was defeated for renomination, fully one-third of the Republican senators who sought re-election between 2010 and 2014 were held to 60 percent of the vote or less in their state primaries (with three losing outright), and non-incumbent congressional candidates favored by national party organizations such as Mike Castle and Sue Lowden were upended by Tea Party opponents.

Republicans in Washington may feel as if they have enough trouble convincing GOP voters to support their own campaigns without attempting to influence the outcome of the presidential contest as well. And a failed intervention into presidential politics comes with a serious potential cost, risking future retribution from supporters of disfavored candidates—or even the candidates themselves. Moreover, while in other contexts it is rational to attempt to prevent a potentially disastrous event even if the chance of victory is low, most politicians do not like to risk looking ineffective by throwing their influence around unsuccessfully unless they believe that they will be rewarded for doing so. Regardless of what our parents may have told us, in politics it can be worse to try and fail than not to try at all.

In the roiling, chaotic state of the contemporary Republican Party, officeholders face more than the usual amount of risk in taking sides in internal disputes. Though one might assume that the viability of the Trump and Cruz candidacies would prompt party leaders to act immediately in order to attempt to steer the race to a superior rival, the proportion of top Republicans making formal candidate endorsements is lower this year than in elections past. If the race ultimately comes down to either Trump or Cruz against a more conventional alternative candidate, and if the alternative appears to have a serious chance of prevailing, we might see an coordinated effort at that stage by Republican members of Congress, governors, and other well-known figures to nudge the race in their favored direction. Until then, the risk-averse calculus of politics suggests that personal interests are often better served by staying on the sidelines, even if the result is a battle between Trump and Cruz or an unobstructed Trump march to the nomination.